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.

One thought on “Why are we still talking about learning styles?

  1. Pingback: Learning Styles are nonsense | MrReid.org

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