We have scotch’d the snake, not kill’d it:
She’ll close and be herself, whilst our poor malice
Remains in danger of her former tooth.

Shakespeare, Macbeth

Just when you think you’ve found a way to put the tortured soul of Learning Styles out of its pitiful misery, it lurches horribly back to life. For a moment I almost believed my last post, The Learning Styles myth debunked on the back of an envelope might have done the trick. Sadly not. If anything, all I succeeded in doing was opening up a new front for misunderstanding.

Here was the 4-step debunking:

  1. People have preferences for how they learn.
  2. All people learn better when more senses are engaged.
  3. Some people need additional modalities more than other people.
  4. No one suffers from the addition of a modality that’s not their favourite.

The main criticism seems to have taken the shape of saying, Yeah, but isn’t modality just another way of saying preference? Is this just perpetuating teachers doing silly things in order to pander to students’ preferences?

No. No it isn’t.

To fully understand this we need to make sure we understand what is meant by modalities. The ‘modality effect’ is a term used in experimental psychology, most often in the fields dealing with memory and learning, to refer to how learners’ performance depends on the presentation mode of studied items. Although modality can refer to many different ways of expressing or experiencing information, psychologists most often use it to refer to information expressed either verbally or visually. It should not be taken to mean that teachers should express information through the modes of interpretative dance (unless in dance lessons) or ping-pong (unless in PE lessons.)

‘Pairing graphics with words’ is one of the ‘Big Six’ strategies from the field of psychology for which there is really excellent evidence. As this report says, “Young or old, all of us receive information through two primary pathways — auditory (for the spoken word) and visual (for the written word and graphic or pictorial representation). Student learning increases when teachers convey new material through both.”

Our working memory is made up of several interacting ‘modules’, two of which the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad process information differently. The phonological loop handles speech and sometimes other kinds of auditory information and acts sort of like an echo and temporarily stores about 2 seconds worth of verbal information before it decays or is over-written. The visuo-spatial sketchpad holds on to visual information about objects and the spatial relationships between them.

Although performing two tasks which require the same component of working memory can quickly overload our capacity, we are able to use different components of working memory at the same time without difficulty. The phonological loop and the visuo-spatial sketchpad can be utilised at the same time by providing ‘anchor images’ to support a complex verbal explanation. Everybody benefits from experiencing information through more than one modality.

There’s one other caveat to add: What we are learning has an important effect on the mode in which the information is best presented. The best way to learn the shape of a country is to look at a map; the best way to learn to play the piano is by listening and doing; the best way to learn to read is to combine listening, looking and doing.

Once again, the myth is that our preferences for experiencing information presented in a particular mode, or style, leads to improved outcomes. It doesn’t.

If you want to understand more, please explore the extensive reviews of the research conducted into the myth by PashlerCoffield and Kavale.