Things you could do instead of learning styles 

I understand. I do. You did all that training and all that reading and you heard all about how everyone has an individual learning style, and maybe you have since heard that learning styles is a bunch of old scheisse. Perhaps, however, you are reluctant to let go because you think that even if the miniscule amount of evidence is decidedly shaky, it is important to think about the individual needs of the students, and it is still important to get learners to think about the ways that they learn. And perhaps you use incense, homeopathy and students’ zodiac signs to help support and inform your students’ learning.

This was, I have to admit, the thought process going through my head the other day when two colleagues were discussing whether to use a learning styles assessment and that non-justification was exactly the argument that one of them used to justify it. I was very good, and kept my sneering to a jokey minimum, but actually it does highlight two of the main three justifications used by people hanging onto the learning styles myth. These justifications are:

  1. we need to meet individual learning needs
  2. students benefit from thinking about effective ways to learn
  3. classroom activities should mix a range of different types – visual, kinaesthetic and auditory

They are all fairly reasonable points that are hard to disagree with, and indeed, those who are more rabidly hanging onto learning styles are likely to accuse you of being opposed to all three of them, as if somehow using a stupid learning styles assessment is going to make all of these things happen.

However, my intention wasn’t to have yet another dig at LS, because I could literally do this all day given a willing audience. Instead, I want to suggest some things you could be doing with your students that meet all of these points and which might actually benefit your students.

1. Meeting Individual Needs

The real problem with LS here is that they provide a teacher with a quick and not too challenging way of pretending to meet individual learning needs. It doesn’t take too much in a lesson context form to say “I’ve used different types of activity, therefore I’ve met individual needs and done me some differentiation.” Unfortunately this is tosh, and lazy tosh at that, because meeting individual needs involves actually thinking about your students. There may, for example, be students with special educational needs which need to be taken into consideration. This is, I’d argue, less likely to apply to all classes, and is, I’m afraid, something I’m not familiar with. What I am more familiar with,, however, is meeting needs through differentiation. You can call it stretch and challenge if you prefer, but basically adapting your planning so that everyone is challenged at just the right level for them to maximise the opportunities for learning. It might be altering your expectations of the different students at different stages of the lesson, or thinking about how you could make sure that those high flying students are not knocking out their work then twiddling their thumbs, while at the same time making sure that those students who are struggling with the more basic elements are given the structured activities and support they need to make sure they achieve that much. It doesn’t have to be complicated, as I’ve written before, but it does involve effort, unlike, say, doing a sorting activity using cards and saying you’re meeting the needs of the kinaesthetic learners. 

2. Students benefit from thinking about how they learn

Well, yes. Particularly for those of us teaching part time students, enabling students to develop learning skills in and out of the classroom is valuable. The most consistently successful students I’ve taught are the ones who make a concentrated effort to study outside the classroom, and those who have the opportunity to focus on language learning outside the classroom, for example through consciously having to use it at work. But pretending they are visual reflectors (I’ve got some of those on my bike…) or whatever is useless. What would that mean, even if it did actually link to how brains work and how learning happens? That they don’t bother working if the work is non-reflective, auditory work? No, what we need is to equip learners with techniques and strategies to help them make the most of their learning. Things like vocabulary or spelling learning strategies, or habits they might want to develop as learners (even, yes, target setting, for vocabulary learning). You could also get students to explore notions like interleaving, retrieval practice and spaced practice. There are a lot of things you can do with students to help them to become better learners, but giving them a dumb learning styles questionnaire is not one of them.

3. Classroom activities should be a range of different types

I’ve left this til last because it’s the most ludicrous, idiotic, lazy justification for doing a learning styles evaluation that I think I’ve heard. Classroom activities should be different not because they are meeting learning styles needs, but because it is interesting for students. Especially in an ESOL class where students need to practice the language as well as be exposed to and make a conscious effort to learn it. So do activities with manipulatives and flash cards, and move students round the room. Use discussions, word games, visual presentations and displays. Use audio, give short talks and spoken explanations. Use technology, don’t use technology. Allow time for reflection and action. In short, mix it up. It’s more interesting, more engaging, because it changes pace and focus, and while it’s no guarantee, the chances are that an interested, engaged student is more likely to learn than one who isn’t.  

***

So please, as you start your new academic year, ditch the learning styles assessment. You have literally no excuse, no excuse at all, to be perpetuating such idle, badly evidenced, pointless codswallop with your students. Get rid of that lesson on learning styles that you’ve been rolling out for the last million years, and do something useful instead. 

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