The value of variety…

I’ve just browsed a report from the Association for Psychological Science titled Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence which reinforces for me yet again the need (a) for educators to be critically reflective practitioners, and (b) for us as educators to ensure that our learners are exposed to a variety of learning experiences rather than pigeon-hole them into a particular methodology.

The APS paper (now 18 months old) provides research evidence that challenges many of the current, popular ideas we have as educators – specifically relating to the notion of ‘learning styles’. The authors of the  review were charged with determining whether these practices are supported by scientific evidence.

Taking the notion that children have specific learning styles (i.e. that some are “visual learners” and others are “auditory”, while others are “kinesthetic” etc.) the team of APS psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.

This idea is explored further in an article in the Tech Online (from MIT) titled new study advice a surprise, which  refers to a 1978 experiment in which psychologists found that college students who studied a list of 40 vocabulary words in two different rooms — one windowless and cluttered, the other modern, with a view on a courtyard — did far better on a test than students who studied the words twice, in the same room. Later studies have confirmed the finding, for a variety of topics.

On the surface, this research is likely to offend, even upset, some teachers who have devoted a lot of time and energy to adopting practices aligned with learning styles “theory” – assuming that this is an ‘attack’ on what they believe, an attempt to discredit their honest endeavours. But this isn’t the point at all. The report acknowledges that there is ample evidence supporting the notion of learner preference for particular ways of learning.

Understanding this there are two possible responses. The first is to design programmes so that individuals are provided with learning activities aligned to their particular ‘style’, the second is to ensure that, in planning our teaching approach, there is a mix of activities which will include both those that align with their preference as well as those that will require them to exert a little more effort and concentration. I’d suggest that there are still a number of educators that interpret things either one way or the other, but who haven’t critically thought about what the difference is, and what the implications might be for learning outcomes, not simply the impact on engagement or enjoyment.

My take is that this comes as a timely reminder that we must maintain an emphasis on developing critically reflective teachers in our profession, where we are free to challenge some of the ‘sacred cows’ in our midst, and avoid the temptation to simply jump, uncritically, on bandwagons as they pass by, including such things as the adoption of Web2.0 technologies, e-portfolios, standards, approaches to literacy, ‘constructivist’ pedagogy etc. But don’t feel that this is saying we ought to give up and not embrace these things – the same challenge applies to those who resist such intrusions into our established ways of doing things – the defenders of the ‘status quo’. We all need to be able and prepared to rigorously defend and reflect on our actions as teachers for what happens in our classrooms.

4 thoughts on “The value of variety…

  1. I agree Derek. I think we are very fortunate in our profession to be allowed to be critically reflective in our job and not jump on the latest bandwagons.We should make the most of this! It is easy to slip into a mode where others do the thinking for you. I think Action Research is a great way to reflect on ones practice. I find myself always asking the question “How will this make a difference to teaching and learning in my classroom?”

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  2. The report also highlights the difficulty in educational research associated with comparing interventions; the same cohort cant repeat a learning experence as school marches on, a cohort split into groups for comparison brings different teacher-student relationships and learning environments into the mix, and most significantly it’s extremely difficult to attribute one intervention (such as learning styles) to an improvement in student outcomes.

    But as you say Derek, “there is ample evidence supporting the notion of learner preference for particular ways of learning” – it’s the accurate measuring of the effect that is problematic.

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  3. I always thought that it was just too simplistic. By labeling the aptitudes of learners we can limit the experiences they are expose to. If anything education should be about broadening horizons and expectations and for me that includes how we learn, as well as what we learn and our disposition toward it. Far better to concentrate on designing engaging activities and choice IMHO. I recall with sadness learners claiming not to be able to do some activities because they had been labeled as a particular type of learner.

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