Learning Styles

Here’s the theory, in a nutshell of nutshells. Each of us has a unique and individual approach to learning, and instruction that caters to that approach will help us to be more successful learners.

Let’s take a simple example. Visual Auditory & Kineasetheic learning styles are very much as they say on the tin. The principle here is that you assess to what extent a learner prefers input and practice in any of the three modes, then you include more activities in that vein to help them. It’s simple, practical and, and this is important, can be quickly and easily linked to classroom practice, without too much effort (visual learners like to see pictures and displays, auditory like to listen, kinaesthetic learners need to do stuff physically.) So far so sexy. It’s an appealing idea and one which has taken root quite impressively in the general defintions of “good practice”.

Except, and this is a big except. It’s hogwash. Lets do a little slightly unethical experiment together. You start a course and you identify certain learners in your group as being primarily visual, but the rest are more kinaesthetic. You change your teaching for one week to match the visual learners, which ought to disadvantage the non-visual learners. You then test said group on the things covered. If learning styles theory is correct, then the visually dominant learners will get higher scores on the test. Does this sound likely? Is this really as intuitive to you as a teacher as the simplistic theory would suggest? For me, this sounds highly unlikely, nigh on impossible.

And if you are thinking “but what about Honey & Mumford  / Dunn and Dunn, etc.”then just try the same thought experiemnt but change the labelling. Does it still feel right? Here’s the report. https://crm.lsnlearning.org.uk/user/order.aspx?code=041543 Work it out for yourself from this summarising comment: “unreliable, invalid, and have a negligible impact on pedagogy”.

Aha, say the pro-LSers, but you are being too simplistic with your analysis. Learning is complex and varied process, with an enormous number of variables that such a simple analysis cannot possibly consider. Well, say I, absolutely right, and you have just put the brick wall in front of your own theoretical grounding. Of course learning is a massively complex and difficult subject to make sweeping conclusions about, and this is exactly what learning styles theories, in any form, do – they make sweeping statements that a learner will automatically fit one narrow bracket, and that is the end of it. We learn lots of things in lots of different ways – while there are parallels, I learned to drive in a different way to how I learned to use a computer, and to how I learned to speak as a child, and to how I learned to look after my children, and to how I learned to teach. You, as my educator, cannot make a sweeping assumption about how I learned based on anything – if anything, you are doing me a disservice by calling me a theorist-pragmatist visual reflector or whatever. I am not quantifiable so simply!

It goes on, of course. People in SMTs and inspectorates are reluctant to let go, having championed such an approach for so long. So they say, when confronted with bald facts and open, but supported defiance, “well, it’s all about teaching styles, and using a variety of techniques and methods in the classroom.” Well, du-uh. That is teaching – making lessons as varied, interesting, motivating as we possibly can. That’s nothing to do with learning styles. This is like the argument that homeopaths usually use when confronted with the fact they are also talking hogwash: “we consider the whole person, and anyway mainstream medicine is rubbish” The two things are entirely separate issues and can’t be confused as parts of the same arguments. Yes there are aspects of mainstream medicine that are ruibbish, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that homeopathy is bunkum. Ditto creative and motivating teaching that just happens to use three of our senses, or different ways of explaining or approaching the learning from different angles to make a lesson varied, not because we learn in neat categories of learning style.

Here’s a quote that also says a lot about learning styles, Peter Honey of Honey & Mumford fame: “I’ve been amazed. When we first launched our materials I expected a limited take-up from a niche market, but it sold very well right from the off, and the market has been buoyant ever since.” TES Online http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=2153773 The market. These have been designed by businessmen to make money, not hard working educational researchers. Which says a lot.

Anyone for Brain Gym?



  1. Honey & Honey left me feeling dumber than dumber!
    However your article has really made alot more sense and cleard the clouds over my head!

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