Let’s take our thinking beyond learning ‘styles’

As long as we accept that our knowledge and understanding is in constant beta and that there is no simple answer, we’ll be just fine. This week the argument against learning styles has gone mainstream.

The Guardian ran an article this week on how teachers must ditch learning styles. This gets a massive hurrah from me. My only criticism is that the letter should not just be aimed at teachers and schools but everyone who ever tried to learn anything, ever. The article is based on a letter to the Guardian signed by 30 academics from a variety of institutions. The Guardian also follow this up with some interesting letters on the subject as part of brain awareness week.

“We wish to draw attention to this problem by focusing on an educational practice supposedly based on neuroscience that lacks sufficient evidence and so we believe should not be promoted or supported.”

The academics from the fields of education, psychology and neuroscience talk particularly about the VAK ‘learning styles’ – visual, auditory and kinesthetic. This is just one of many models. Another popular go-to model is that by Honey and Mumford which divides learners into activists, reflectors, pragmatists and theorists. At the time of writing (March, 2017) Wikipedia offers an excellent overview of learning styles. The Teaching of Psychology journal also gives a good overview.

If educators believed in these theories so much then why not divide up learners into groups and provide learning material specifically for them?

  • Road signs being read out to auditory motorists?
  • Visual film goers preferring silent Charlie Chaplin movies?
  • Kinesthetic learners insisting upon any instruction having a detailed story with a plot and emotional ending

The widespread adoption of learning styles is worrying in that they have been taken on face value and so widely used. But why? We do like things to be nice and simple and it seems to be that a nice simple formulae to explain things makes us comfortable. I believe the widespread adoption of the ideas are down to commercial learning products and cognitive dissonance. We seem to have gone too far down the road of implementing and using these models to inform many areas of education that we cannot go back. And there appears to be a lot of money in selling these ideas to unsuspecting believers. Cognitive dissonance says that we make decisions based on long held values and beliefs. Once we have decided that we believe something it can take a lot to disregard this belief and change our minds. Many theories such as learning styles were devised in the mid 20th century when psychology and other social sciences were in their infancy. These initial ideas hadn’t been challenged despite often being made with good intentions. Research and insight is an ongoing building of human knowledge – we know a lot more now than we did in the 1950s. Ultimately the field of education, neuroscience, psychology and other social sciences cannot provide simple answers. We must employ critical thinking to any research or new ideas that we are presented with.

So, if not learning styles then what? Again, learning is complicated and every situation is different, every individual is different with a wide range of variables taking place at any one time as we formally or informally learn.

The basics of cognitive psychology can help us – attention, perception and memory have a big part to play. The VAK model it seems, focuses on our senses when the real learning goes on in the brain and the senses are collectors of information. The real processing takes place cognitively.

Examples of using comic books as ‘dual coding’ can increase memory and learning. This is just one model that can form our education practices. There is no simple answer out there but there is constant questioning, testing, reading and reviewing. I’ve written a few posts on learning more generally.



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