Why Learning Styles are important

Don’t worry, I haven’t cracked. Not yet, anyway. But learning styles serve as a nice object lesson in why evidence is important and should be important.

In the last few weeks, the issue of evidence based practice has been floating around my mind, mainly after Ben Goldacre published, on behalf of DfES, and at the request of the delightful Minister for Education, a short and accessible paper on how randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in particular, but research and evidence in general can benefit teachers, and teaching and learning.

The main paper is published “here” with a summary as a Guardian article here and a response, of sorts, published by those fine folks at the Institute of Education can be found here. There have been a number of other responses as well, all of them interesting: from the Guardian Blog an evaluation from a scientist: which includes a link to a response from the British Educational Research Association, a response so charmingly sniffy and redolent of old-fashioned academia you can practically see the tweed and the half-moon glasses perched partway down the writer’s nose as they type it out on an old manual typewriter in an oak panelled study.

But what came out of it for me was the importance for teachers to be able to draw on solid evidence and research to support their points of view, and to empower them to have a more even and fair debate when discussing their own practice, rather than relying on “vegetable cures cancer!” type of science you find in articles from the Daily Mail  or “psychology” articles in that particularly aspirational class of magazine aimed at women* (“Live life more fully! Revitalise your neurones with daily mushroom meditation!”).This kind of pop psychology seems to inform a lot of what teachers do, and it’s often sold as such to us, using the same kind of chatty journalistic writing, snazzy graphics, and so on. But so rarely do teachers turn around and say “yes, but…” And for me, research and study, of any sort, gives weight to your arguments, especially when you are being presented with some smug trainer type in Converse trainers and a goatee beard saying things like “research says…” Hey trainer, we should be saying, tell me what your evidence is, give me the chuffing reference!

Anyway, all this set me to wondering, and discussing online (again) about not just learning styles, but also their spiritual cousin, the wonderful cobblers which is Neuro-Linguistic Programming (I had an awkward moment the other week when a teacher told me she was interested in how NLP could help her teaching. I’m a nice person so I nodded and smiled, and absolutely resisted the urge to say “and while you’re at it, you could also look at using fairies, aliens and the One Ring.)

You would think that by now the message finally would seem to be sinking in about learning styles, but as this sort of not-even-pseudo-scientific tosh demonstrates, the idea still clings on, temptingly, sexily wooing people with phrases like “optimal learning styles…customize the perfect opportunity for children to grow… strategizing lesson plans…”.

Even when people admit there is no evidence base for VAK, they still somehow want to use it as a justification for using different modes of delivery – sometimes using visuals, sometimes using audio, sometimes doing physical activity, etc. It’s as if they want the justification, the pop-science support for their own ideas. Rather than drawing, as teachers do, on their own experiences and the experiences of others, it’s as if we need the comfort of something science-y sounding to justify what is common sense: it’s more interesting to do stuff in different ways. That, basically, is the appeal of learning styles as a theory, it’s nothing more complex than that. No matter the evidence base, if you get learners to spend two hours faffing about with cards or posters, or listening to a lecture, it is going to be boring as hell. We don’t need to pretend that it’s about meeting individual needs, yadda yadda (it’s not, anyway): we do stuff in different ways because it’s interesting to change approach.

The learning styles/NLP discussion is important because it shows us that teachers do need to engage with evidence, read it critically, and do need to be able to say “this works because…” when discussing practice. When we don’t, no matter how well meaning we are, we spend twenty years peddling lies to learners. So can we stop. Now. Please. I may pop otherwise.

***

*you know these, they usually have inspirational stories of how wealthy, middle class women in their 30s gave up their 9-5 job as senior partner in a law firm to set up a boutique candle making company in the Cotswolds, who struggled with the changes but luckily was supported by her whose husband, an astonishingly well paid company director.

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