Friday, November 22, 2013

Learning Styles DNE

Learning Styles do not exist (or DNE for you mathematicians). There I said it. I know many of those in the education community and industry have presupposed this conjecture as the basis for many long careers. I understand that many of you at this moment are saying "But I know I'm an auditory learner." I get that it seems like a simple, logical explanation for why some methods work and others don't. But under even a little scrutiny, it doesn't work.

The reason for this post: I recently went to a workshop that I thought was going to be about teaching techniques focused on using applications, but turned into "How to Teach with Learning Styles". For the first 45 minutes I squirmed in my chair as kinaesthetic, visual, and audible were bandied about and how a 5-minute survey would help students determine their preferred method of learning. There was a glimmer of hope when the facilitator said "Now even if a student has one of these learning styles, that doesn't mean the others are neglected." and everyone nodded in agreement, but the discussion quickly turned to the deterministic ways these styles should be used. I kept quiet during the workshop, but thought this would be a good venue to air this out.

I see Learning Styles, and in fact any method of quantizing personality traits, in the same way as the Theory of Forms. These Learning Styles are the deciphering of the proverbial shadows on the cave wall, when what they really want to study is the flickering of the light, the cognition of the brain. The styles are so far removed from the process of how the brain actually works, that they simplify this dynamic process (learning) into three easily understood classifications (or however many finite number of personalities). Cognition, epistemology, psychology, neurology, etc. are the ways we study and learn about how we learn and should be the prime motivators for finding methods of how to teaching.

While reasonable, we haven't mapped the human brain just yet, and therefore most of these disciplines can't help us with the day-to-day "What do I do in the classroom?" questions. There is a large body of work on research based methods for teaching, my favorite of which is How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. The book does an excellent job of summarizing current research, and providing real implementations that produce results.

The comparison of these research based methods and Learning Styles point to a larger issue, the lack of scientific principles used in supporting Learning Styles. Many, many studies show that Learning Styles do not predict anything, are a myth, and have been classified as such for 25 years.

Unfortunately people are going to keep on believing in Learning Styles because they 'believe' they fall into one of the three/finite cases. Their belief will trump any evidence because it is about 'them' and their identity. This is probably the biggest reason why Learning Styles will continue, the narrative of the individual is a powerful force, and a series of scientific papers will not dissuade that narrative. The only way to combat this myth is the slow steady work of changing curriculum, talking to people, and developing materials and products that use research based methods of instruction.

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