Monthly Archives: May 2013

Why are we still talking about learning styles?

“It’s kinaesthetic so it’s good.”

Whilst dipping one of McVities’ finest chocolate digestives into a cup of tea during an after school CPD session the other week, a senior member of staff dropped this comment into the discussion. I paused, looked around the room for another sane being, and let out a “sigh” as half of my biscuit tumbled into the teacup with a splash. At this point, ten minutes into an hour-long training session, my ever diminishing will to live was languishing, alongside the remains of my biscuit, at the bottom of a murky-looking cup of tepid tea.

This was made worse when the leader of the session jumped in with “I’m really glad you raised that. The best lessons I see are absolutely stuffed with VAK! How can we replicate this across the school?”

I looked back at my teacup, more seriously this time. Had it been spiked with some kind of hallucinogen? Surely my ears were deceiving me. Learning styles? As in ‘VAK’ theory? The one about the things that don’t exist? I had a momentary lapse of concentration and imagined hitting them all over the head with Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning’, but then snapped myself back out of it, willing myself to add something to the conversation. I could not sit back and allow this to go on. “Have you heard about the research regarding learning styles? Apparently they don’t exist. Well, no. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to show that learning styles exist!” I exclaimed, the sound of panic in my voice discrediting me somewhat. I was abruptly fobbed off with a less than robust counter argument: “that may be the case, but I learn best when things are presented to me visually”- a statement met with far more approval than the nonsense I had spouted just moments before.

In that moment I realised how Alice must have felt at the mad hatters tea party. There was no way of reasoning with them at all. The party continued, tea sloshing all over the place and the jubilant cries of auditory learners echoing around the room.

As the conversation descended deeper into madness, I sat back and wondered just how this situation was even possible. How on Earth could nobody in the room have heard that learning styles are no longer a ‘thing’ in teaching? How could a group of well-educated, highly respected professionals continue to promulgate these bad ideas? Moreover, what are the implications of this attitude for the profession? Is the Galaxy High CPD programme unique? Or are too many schools out there still talking about something that doesn’t exist? All these questions raced around my mind as the ramblings of the session leader went over my head.

The Universe is full of Galaxies

I went home that day feeling deflated. I wondered if I was going mad, if I had dreamt that learning styles weren’t real, and that in fact they were the cornerstones of good teaching. I wanted to know if Galaxy was alone in the universe, or if there were other schools out there that still believed in this stuff, too. Sadly, it seems that quite a few institutions are still talking about learning styles, most worryingly this outstanding school, which was endorsed by OFSTED in their ‘best practice videos’. Their webpage states that “lessons are differentiated to match different learning styles”. Furthermore, many people on Twitter have been sharing awful VAK related stories or blogs, each one as frightful as the next.

Learning styles don’t exist

The enigma of learning styles is best explained by American cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham. This video explains the problems with the theory so clearly that even dopey old me can get my head around it. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence suggesting that learning styles do not exist, and that therefore we should not be instructing students according to these false preferences.

So, I come back to my original question: why are so many people still talking about learning styles? Perhaps it’s because the theory seems to make a lot of sense. As Willingham states, some people have better visual memories than others, in that they have clearer, more distinct mental images than some. This may be where the confusion lies. Maybe, we are mistaking this to mean that we should therefore be teaching according to these cognitive strengths. But, as made clear in the research, this is incorrect. It is the case that some content is better presented visually, instead of auditorily or kinaesthetically, but this does not differ between learners. As Willingham makes very clear in his video, if asked to think of a person’s voice, you will hear it in your head. Whereas, if asked to think of a dog’s ear, you will likely picture it in your mind. The content is what makes the difference here: not the individual learner. Therefore, any suggestion that we should be catering to different learning styles when teaching is straight up, purely and simply, incorrect.

Perhaps it is this misconception that has caused so much confusion at schools such as Galaxy, and is the reason why people are still banging on about it. I thought about this carefully, and decided that I would address this next time. Next CPD session, I shall be fully prepared to make this point, and everyone will understand and balance will have been restored to the universe.

Why is it never as easy as that?

Changing mindsets

So, the following week, I returned to the CPD group ready to impart Willingham’s wisdom. I even took my laptop with me, just in case anyone wanted to see the video. I was feeling pretty apprehensive, but reassured myself that nothing could go wrong. I even decided to opt for a Hobnob this time; perhaps a more robust biscuit would help to bolster my confidence.

I always get pretty nervous when speaking in front of colleagues; this occasion was no exception, despite the biscuit boost. I shared the reading I had found, and explained as eloquently as I could the findings of the research into learning styles. I was expecting one of two reactions: obstinate refusal to listen, or absolute acceptance. Instead, I got apathy and OFSTED.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s not a viable theory, it’s what OFSTED want to see.”

This made me very sad indeed. When did teaching become about pandering to the whims of a bunch of miserable old coots in suits instead of doing our best to help students learn?

Until these recommendations come from the top, many teachers won’t listen. It doesn’t matter if theories have been debunked by science, or even (in many cases) if experience dictates the opposite of what the theory proposes, schools are bound in OFSTED-shaped handcuffs. ‘Learning styles’ is just one of many theories that is simply a part of the fabric of our education system, and until schools and teachers start questioning them, they will stay put.

I know very few teachers who regularly read education blogs, or keep up to date with the latest research and journal articles. This isn’t because they are lazy or don’t care, it’s because often they aren’t aware that this stuff is out there, and frankly, are often too busy to go away and read about it all. Teachers can’t be blamed for that. The only way this information can be disseminated to all teachers effectively is through CPD.

Although we can’t expect all teachers to keep on top of every single new piece of educational research, we should at least expect that those who deliver and orchestrate CPD sessions are only promoting accurate and current ideas, instead of snake oil. The Teacher Development Trust is working to improve CPD nationally, and projects such as Tom Bennett’s ResearchED are raising awareness of the need to question what we think we know about pedagogy, through rigorous research.  Ben Goldacre’s report on RCTs in education is also a step forward; perhaps encouraging more teachers to question what they think they know will create a more rigorous approach.

With so many developments in this area recently, perhaps the scenario I faced will soon become a thing of the past. The momentum is rising; all we need to do now is get the rest of the teaching profession on board. Easier said than done, but that won’t stop those who are dedicating themselves to improving the profession through science and research.

It’s an exciting time to be in education; let’s hope that snake oil becomes a thing of the past and improved CPD, RCTs and events such as ResearchED are what drive the profession into the future. There may then be more to look forward to in a Galaxy High CPD session that biscuits, tea and nonsense.

What can science tell us about how pupils learn best?

“The mind is at last yielding its secrets to persistent scientific investigation. We have learned more in the last 25 years about how the mind works than we did in the preceding 2500”.

Daniel Willingham, 2009.

The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn how much knowledge and memory matters.

Last post, thanks to Ben Goldacre, Tom Bennett and Andrew Old, I explored the difficulty of distinguishing between scientific research and neuro-myths. Things moved since. The Monday after, Tom Bennett launched with astonishing energy into organising the first ever teacher-led wiki-conference on education and research for September. Everything from format, venue, speakers, helpers, sponsors, web design and even its name is being crowd-sourced through social networks. Answering Ben Goldacre’s call to arms, championed by both teaching and research communities, the barricades of evidence-based practice are well and truly manned. Within 24 hours Tom had amassed a mailing list of over 100 people; 24 hours after ResearchED went live it had over 300 followers. Sam Freedman, David Weston and Ben Goldacre were quickly confirmed as speakers. The appetite for this is out there.


This post, I want to set out how scientific enquiry and research evidence is discovering how the mind learns, and might guide us towards ‘working out what works best’- theResearchED tagline.

All sorts of things strike us as important in learning, given basic physical, physiological and emotional security: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, expectations, mindset, prior knowledge, intrinsic interest in the topic, perceived relevance, challenge, curiosity, attention, focus, effort, comparing examples, practice, feedback, memory, revision, summarising, choice, self-discipline, responsibility, ownership, parental support, role models, the emotional connection with the teacher and the organisation of the material, hard work … the list could go on and on. Understanding what matters most in learning is crucial if we are to focus our teaching.

Is Cognitive Science good or bad science?

Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field of academic researchers from psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and anthropology who seek to understand the mind and apply the findings to education. So, is cognitive science just as much pseudo-science as brain gym, or does it practise what it preaches? In this blog post I want to strip cognitive science down to its essence, and apply two litmus tests:

  1. To what extent is the scientific research robust, peer-reviewed and rewarding when re-read?
  2. To what extent does the scientific evidence have practical classroom applications that reward re-using?

Litmus Test One: Just how robust is the research?

Decades of scientific research (from 1968) have explored what’s vital for learning. In a nutshell, here are three core principles, and their intuitive and empirical grounding.

  1. Working memory load should be minimised.
  2. Long-term memory retention should be maximised.
  3. Knowledge schema should be accumulated and automated.

1. Working memory load

In a nutshell, working memory is used for thinking, and because it is like a small bottleneck, it is easily overloaded. If working memory is overloaded, it makes new things much harder to learn and remember.

Intuitively, we know this to be true from learning to drive and learning to teach. When starting to drive, there’s too much to keep in mind: pedals, gears, indicators, mirrors, steering and instructions overwhelms us. Not dissimilarly, when starting to teach in your first school, your working memory feels bottlenecked: new systems, policies, rules, 200+ names, locations and sanctions all overload your brain.  Similarly, new Year 7s feel overwhelmed by so many new classmates, teachers, subjects, concepts, older students, rules, locations and playground interactions, and many tears are shed.

Empirically, the past half-century of international research has provided overwhelming and unambiguous evidence on this issue, with Atkinson & Shiffrin (1968) as the first exploration into working- and long-term memory. Meta-syntheses from Sweller (1998), Kirschner et al (2006) and Willingham (2009) are conclusive.

2. Long-term memory retention

The insight here is that long-term memory is a vast storehouse that helps us overcome bottleneck limitations in our working memory. So learning is actually remembering in disguise: ‘if nothing has been changed in the long-term memory, nothing has been learned.’ (Kirschner et al 2006, p77)

Intuitively, we know this is true from learning to read. Before we could read, letters on the page meant very little. We didn’t have the stores in our long-term memory to decode the symbols, and struggled with what is now automatic. Try memorising the ten symbols‘%^&$£@&*!@’ as compared to ‘the boys ran’ for an example of the powerful chunking of your long-term memory. Or try 7×8 as opposed to 18×7: one is stored and retained automatically, one requires working memory capacity to add up 10×7 + 8×7 to 126. Similarly, all of us have in the past crammed for exams that if we took now, we’d probably fail. That’s because our long-term memories require usage for retention. The more work is done in retrieving the memory, the stronger it becomes.

Empirically, the critical importance of long-term memory has been established beyond all reasonable doubt:

‘Our understanding of the role of long-term memory in human cognition has altered dramatically over the last few decades. It is no longer seen as a passive repository of discrete, isolated fragments of information that permit us to repeat what we have learned. Nor is it seen only as a component of human cognitive architecture that has merely peripheral influence on complex cognitive processes such as thinking and problem solving. Rather, long-term memory is now viewed as the central, dominant structure of human cognition. Everything we see, hear, and think about is critically dependent on and influenced by our long-term memory’. (Kirschner et al 2006, p76)

3. Knowledge schema

The more knowledge you have, and the more automatically you can access it, the easier you find it to remember new knowledge, and the faster your skills develop.

Intuitively, many teachers know this from teaching mixed-ability classes: those pupils who know more to start with, learn faster.  You also know this from reading an article in The Economist on education compared to finance: your existing knowledge helps you get to grips with what it’s all about. It’d be easier for us to debate from memory the education system in England than the system of head-hunting in Borneo, because we know so much more about one than the other.

Empirically, in studies since 1988 a vast research base has been built up that shows the powerful, beneficial effects of knowledge on memory (Recht et al 1988; Alexander et al 1994; Cummings et al 1999; Van Overschelde 2001, Willingham 2007, 2009 etc).

Given that learning is inhibited by working memory overload, accelerated by long-term memory retrieval, and automated by knowledge accumulation, the imperative for teachers within and across lessons is clear: minimise overload, maximise retrieval and automate and accumulate knowledge. The research is robustly peer-reviewed, and passes my litmus test of rewarding re-reading: the more I look into the cognitive psychology of how the mind learns, the more I get out of it in terms of how to teach. It’s like reading the cheat codes to intelligence. 

Litmus Test Two: Just how practical is the evidence?

My litmus test here is simple: the more you apply it in the classroom, the more useful it should become. Apart from the five core practices of instruction, including examples, questions, practice, feedback and misconceptions, which I have blogged about here, there are three specific teaching tools suggested by cognitive scientists applicable to learning work across subjects and age groups (Sweller et al 1998), (Kirschner et al 2006), (Dunlosky et al).

  1. Worked Examples
  2. Completion Problems
  3. Process Worksheets

Some of the best teachers I know use these without the labels. If you don’t use them, try them out, and see for yourself if they pass the litmus test. Certainly, the more I use them in lessons, the more my pupils get out of them.

1. Worked Examples

The worked example effect, replicated a number of times (1985, 1987, 1992, 1993, 1994 1996 & 1999), shows that learners required to solve problems perform worse on subsequent test problems than learners who study the equivalent worked examples. Studying and comparing lots of worked examples reduces cognitive overload. Working memory is freed entirely for the study of the problem and solution steps. In English, and other subjects with a heavy writing load, this means getting students to compare worked examples of model paragraphs, either to criticise and improve, or to annotate and aspire to. If they haven’t seen an example of what they’re aiming for, how can they work towards achieving it? The best teachers write lots and lots and lots of example paragraphs, introductions, conclusions and essays. In Maths, worked examples are step-by-step model solutions to the problem.

2. Completion Problems

Completion problems are worked examples with partial solutions, where students complete the rest of the solution. Writing frames in English help by preventing cognitive overload and forcing students to make lots of strong analytical points in concise paragraphs. Acronym mnemonics such as PEEL in English and SOHCAHTOA in Maths help students’ retention of the underpinning process in the long-term memory.

3. Process Worksheets

Process worksheets guide students through a sequential series of steps required to solve a complex problem like completing the square in maths or comparing poems in English. They minimise overload whilst maximising retrieval.

So, what can science tell us about how pupils learn? And how can we teach so that pupils learn best? Overall, the scientific evidence is conclusive that pupils learn best by effort and hard work: thinking, concentrating, practising, memorising and recalling subject content. Teachers can accelerate pupils’ learning by minimising cognitive overload, then specifying, sequencing, testing and revisiting subject knowledge until it becomes automated in their long-term memory.

Whether this is pseudo-science or the real deal, Ben Goldacre’s Randomised Controlled Trials and Tom Bennett’s ResearchED conference may yet find out. Let the trials begin!

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RCTs: a Twitter discussion between Dylan William and Lord Lucas

I didn’t mean to start an argument.

I simply retweeted Dylan William:

and followed it up with my own comment:

After Wiliam responded @LordLucasCD (as I found out a little later, a Conservative Backbench peer with an interest in education) chipped in:

And the discussion rumbled on. I wasn’t particularly involved, although I tried to follow the debate. If my explanations are faulty, then I apologise in advance.

  1. Many studies that we rely on in neuroscience were dsample sizes. (from original link)
  2. We need large samples to be confident that what we think we changed is really responsible for the differences between the .e. signal > noise
  3. If we want to use RCTs in education, then we need particularly large samples because the effects of individual teachers are so large.

The big issue here, as I understand it, is about the randomising part of doing research. The reason for assigning groups at random to either the intervention or control (or, more often, is so that all the other differences between the groups can be assumed to cancel out. If we chose who got which treatment – or teaching resource, or metacognitive strategy, etc – then we might end up with a biased sample. If schools volunteered for something specific it might be because they already used it, or because they were enthusiastic for some reason, and so on. Science teachers will already be familiar with a lot of these ideas, but if not then I recommend @bengoldacre‘s writing on the subject, although this is mainly in medical settings. Put simply: the more variation there is between participants, the larger the sample needs to be.

A brief digression; I’m not a journalist. I’m neither a researcher nor a politician. I don’t make policy in the UK education sector (or even in my department, come to that). I don’t have influential friends and I’ve no way to decide where funding in education research goes. But I started this discussion and hopefully, like many other teachers active online, I can make a difference from the classroom up rather than from the Department for Education down.

Twitter is cool: I, a classroom teacher, can be tangentially involved in discussions between top academics and politicians.

Dylan is very clear, in this discussion and in his work elsewhere, about the importance of teacher quality. Presumably this accumulates lots of other effects which we could measure individually, but taken together they swamp many other subtle factors like a specific intervention. To me this just reinforced the need for a large sample size, so that teacher quality can be averaged out. The real question is how big a sample is needed for reliable data and whether this is realistic in the UK school system. I accept that I can’t compare my class doing intervention A with Ms Smith’s class down the corridor following intervention B. But I didn’t realise how many classes we’d need – hundreds of schools, according to William – to see a real difference between the interventions over the effect of teachers. The bigger the number, the harder it will be to organise and fund.

I like to think of myself as a fairly evidence-based practitioner. I’m for the Science Teaching Journal Club (on twitter as #SciTeachJC) and have writ about the difficulties for classroom teachers in accessing research. I think it’s important we engage with research, starting by reading and reflecting on it and hopefully getting involved in directing it. But there’s no point running more action research projects and assuming that gives us everything we need. Let’s not kid ourselves; as a profession we need to get involved and enthusiastic, but I can’t make this kind of project happen in my lab. That needs political will, researcher involvement and plenty of funding. Otherwise teachers are going to be caught in the middle, expected to follow what politicians claim the evidence says but without the time or resource to check for themselves. Ideas like ResearchED2013 are great steps, but academics in education research need to be talking to politicians. Maybe social media can be the beginning but making it happen requires a sustained drive, not momentary enthusiasm. Teachers like me look forward to seeing if there’s going to be action as well as discussion.