Another dot in the blogosphere?

Style, preference, choice

Posted on: October 12, 2020

Not a semester goes by when I meet preservice teachers, inservice teachers, or future faculty who swear by learning styles. Every semester, I try to correct such errant thinking.

Someone taught my latest batch of educators the learning styles myth and I felt duty-bound to say otherwise even though my modules were not about that. For me it was like knowing that a bridge ahead was destroyed and I had to warn the travellers blindly heading towards it.
 

I have a time-tested collection of resources that refute the learning styles myth better than I can. But I also offer my perspective.

Learning preferences are not learning styles. A student might prefer to watch a video instead of read a book, but that does not mean you give in to that preference if the learning outcomes are about reading.

Styles are impractical treatments. A teacher who has been taught to apply styles might prepare lessons based on visual, auditory, and psychomotor (VAK) “styles” because this supposedly optimises learning for three categories of students. The matching styles with strategies is called the meshing hypothesis. This is not only impractical over time, it is also insufficient and self-fulfilling.

Why insufficient? It practitioners are to take styles seriously, they need to cater to all learner differences. There is currently between 70 to 80 style inventories now. Even if we take the lower end, there are 70! (70 factorial or 70x69x68…x1) possibilities. Even if a teacher elects to focus only on VAK, such effort is not pragmatic over every lesson.

Why is focusing on styles self-fulfilling? Imagine being identified or labelled as a visual learner. If that is supposed to be your style and it is catered to, there is no incentive to develop the other ways of learning. Such learning is not only incomplete and irresponsible, a learner also becomes what s/he is labelled, just as easily as s/he grows to accept being called the class clown or teacher’s pet.

Learning styles ignore context. If a task is necessarily psychomotor, e.g., swimming a particular stroke or riding a bike, are visual and auditory learners supposed to rely on imagery and sounds of the same? No, the task necessitates the strategy, not the supposed optimal style.

Now consider an argument from the special needs angle. A visually impaired person cannot help but rely on auditory and tactile learning. But this does not mean that the learner has a style. The circumstances necessitate the reliance on non-visual forms of learning, but no reasonable person would call those forms learning styles.

If the logic against learning styles is not enough, consider what research says about this stubborn myth. Drawing from some resources I have shared before:

The American Psychological Association has come out against learning styles. The APA went so far at to say that “many parents and educators may be wasting time and money on products, services and teaching methods that are geared toward learning styles.”

Video source

The TEDx video above was of Dr. Tesia Marshik, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who highlighted how learning styles:

  • had no research evidence that show that they improve learning
  • wasted the time and effort of teachers who tried to cater to different styles
  • labelled and limited people into believing they learn best in certain ways

Video source

In the SciShow video above, Hank Green highlighted how:

  • the only study that seemed to support learning styles had severe flaws in its design
  • students with perceptions that they had one style over others actually benefitted from visual information regardless of their preference

This SciShow video and educators Dylan Wiliam and Donald H Taylor cited the work of Pashlar et al (2008) who declared this:

… we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. 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.

I share the thoughts of Willingham et al (2015) when they concluded: “Learning styles theories have not panned out, and it is our responsibility to ensure that students know that.”

Catering to a supposed inherent style does not necessarily optimise learning. Sadly, learning styles are a myth perpetuated by teacher educators and workplace trainers who do not keep up with critical research and reflective practice. They are easy to latch on to because the pseudo science is a low-hanging fruit that preys on our innate perception of individual differences.

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