In our series, Better Teachers, we’ll explore how to improve teacher education in Australia. We’ll look at what the evidence says on a range of themes including how to raise the status of the profession and measure and improve teacher quality.
In health there are well-established protocols that govern the introduction of any new drug or treatment. Of major consideration is the notion of doing no harm. In education there are no such controls and plenty of vested interests keen to see the adoption of new strategies and resources for a variety of ideological and financial reasons.
Teachers need to be critical consumers of research – as with medicine, lives are also at stake – yet with the best will in the world and without the knowledge and time to do so, decisions may be made to adopt new approaches that are not only ineffectual, but can actually do harm. A case in point is learning styles.
The notion of the existence of learning styles - that people are “hard-wired” to learn best in a certain way - has been around since the 1970s. There are now more than 70 extant models ranging from early childhood to higher education to business.
The theory is that if a teacher can provide learning activities and experiences that match a student’s supposed learning style, learning will be more effective.
Probably the best known are the “auditory” (learning best by hearing), “visual” (learning best through images), and “kinesthetic” (learning best through touch and movement) typologies of learners.
Learning styles has become a vast, lucrative industry with inventories, manuals, video resources, in-service packages, websites, publications and workshops. Some schools have spent many thousands of dollars assessing students using the various inventories.
Lack of evidence
Psychologists and neuroscientists agree there is little efficacy for these models, which are based on dubious evidence.
If learning styles exist at all, these are not “hard wired” and are at most simply preferences. What we prefer is neither fixed for all time nor always what is best for us.
Education professor John Hattie has noted that:
It is hard not to be sceptical about these learning preference claims.
Professor of reading education Stephen Stahl has commented:
I work with a lot of different schools and listen to a lot of teachers talk. Nowhere have I seen a greater conflict between “craft knowledge” or what teachers know (or at least think they know) and “academic knowledge” or what researchers know (or at least think they know) than in the area of learning styles. … The whole notion seems fairly intuitive. People are different. Certainly different people might learn differently from each other. It makes sense.
However, there is a distinct lack of empirical support for the existence of learning styles. Stahl has noted:
The reason researchers roll their eyes at learning styles is the utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning.
The authors of an extensive review of the research evidence for learning styles concluded:
Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.
We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.
Yet as educational psychologist Catherine Scott has observed:
Failure to find evidence for the utility of tailoring instruction to individuals’ learning styles has not prevented this term from being a perennial inclusion in discussions about and recommendations on pedagogy.
References to learning styles still abound in many curriculum documents at system and school level, despite the lack of evidence for their efficacy.
When I have pointed this out to educators, the usual response is that “it doesn’t matter”. But it does matter because of the problems and harm that can be caused by the categorisation and labelling. These can lead to negative mindsets in students and limited learning experiences through the continued belief in and application of so-called learning styles, not to mention the time and money wasted. We might as well teach students according to their horoscopes.
By all means, let’s cater for individual differences in student learning. This is best achieved through knowing our students as learners and people, thorough on-going assessment, constructive feedback and targeted, evidence-based teaching strategies.
In the world of manufacturing, a product found to be dangerous is generally recalled. The time has come for a general recall on the use of learning styles in teaching.
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