“For a difference to be a difference, it must make a difference.” William James
We’re all different. Obviously. Just like snowflakes, human beings are all special, unique and entirely individual. But like snowflakes, maybe those differences aren’t as important as we might sometimes like to think. When it snows the difference between individual flakes is irrelevant. For all we have our very own permutations of DNA, the fact our physiognomies are broadly similar means we behave in broadly similar ways. Of course we have an infinite variety of differences in ability, but the way we learn is surprisingly similar.
You doubt me? Well, you’re not alone. Apparently 90% of teachers continue to believe that children conform to particular learning styles and that teaching must account for these different styles if it is to be effective. The idea that we’re all either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners and we can only really be expected to learn when instruction is tailored to these specific needs is codswallop. We might well have a preference for seeing, listening or doing, but if we believe that the best way to learn the shape of a map of Australia is to listen to a description of it, that the best way to learn how the piano is just to bash away at the keys, or that we should learn to play tennis by watching Wimbledon, then we’re very clearly and sadly wrong.
Despite our beguilingly different abilities everyone will best learn the shape of a map by being shown a picture of it just as everyone best understands data by being shown visual representations of it. No one will best pick a musical instrument through unguided experimentation; it helps everyone to be taught the principles of musical notation and then to practice performing set pieces. There may be some gifted individuals who pick up the basics of a sport by watching others perform, but everyone benefits from having movements and techniques deconstructed and modelled. And, perhaps more controversially, there may be several methods for teaching children to read but systematic synthetic phonics is most effective in the overwhelming majority of cases.
Although there’s a mass of research thoroughly debunking the idea that pandering to pupils’ preferred learning style is in any way useful, the theory endures. But why? Because our brains work in very similar ways, we all have the tendency to fall victim to the same cognitive biases. Possibly part of the appeal is that we want to believe our failure to learn is due to teachers failing to teach us effectively: if only they could be bothered to understand the way in which we learn, all would be well. But I also think we cling to ideas like Learning Styles because we want to believe our differences matter more than our similarities. This tendency also makes the need to differentiate for the needs of all pupils seductive, but maybe we’d be better off accepting that despite their differences, pupils learn and forget in fairly predictable ways.
Consider the differences in the way the atoms of different elements behave; despite these differences all conform predictably. Atoms of different elements might take on energy at different temperatures, but they’ll all change state from gas to liquid to solid at a particular temperature. Physicist Carl Weiman argues that rigorous eduction research is not so very different to ‘hard’ science as some might want to suggest. Good science has the power to make useful predictions; if research can be used to inform our actions then it is useful. It’s unnecessary to accurately control and predict how every student in every context will behave or learn, just as a physicist has no need to control or predict how every single atom will behave in a physics experiment.
Similarly, although children are all unique, they are predictable. Children may respond in an infinite variety of complex ways to teachers, but all children respond better to high expectations, attention, respect and routine. There may be differences in our capacity to hold information in working memory, but anything that occupies anyone’s working memory reduces their capacity to think. We may all learn at different rates and in subtly different ways, but the spacing effect and the testing effect seem to apply to everyone.
Our differences are a delightful distraction. As the cliché goes, how dull it would be were we all the same. But our similarities have predictive power and allow us to anticipate how most, if not every child will respond in the vast majority of cases.