The safest road to hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
C. S. Lewis
If you’re not sure which way to go, a sign post is very useful. A quick glance confirms either you’re headed in the right direction or you’re not.If you are facing in the right direction, all you have to do is keep on walking. Obviously you wouldn’t expect a signpost to contain much information about your destination; that’s not what they’re for.
This post makes the point that teachers rely on signposts to decide whether they’re teaching is informed by research but issues a warning:
Teachers don’t have much time to plough through complex research findings. What they want are summaries, signposts to point them in the right direction. But research is a work in progress. Findings are often not clear-cut but contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous.
The post then examines some of the complexity buried in the research on learning styles. It makes the point that although most teachers have only heard about VAK, there are lots of other models out there and that on some measures some of them seem to perform better than others.
So maybe we should be a bit cautious about tarring all learning styles research with the same brush? Maybe there are some nuggets of purest gold buried amid the muck and filth? Maybe the signposts are a bit misleading?
Well, there are two points to consider here. First is the fact that as the author states, teachers’ exposure to learning styles is, in the main, limited to VAK. Certainly, I’d never come across any other style of learning style until a few years ago and I’ve never encountered anything other than VAK in schools. VAK, on the other hand, is pretty widespread. So any signpost which points away from VAK as being worthy of teachers’ time is helpful. What would be unhelpful is teachers being told, Hey! Some of the learning styles research which has nothing to do with anything you’ve ever been asked to do in school might actually suggest that some types of learning style aren’t all that bad. This would, I think, result in confusion and, inevitably, some people trudging off in the wrong direction.
The second problem is that while all learning styles might not be equally pointless, there’s enough evidence to suggest that they are not a profitable way for teachers to invest their time. Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork is my go to paper on this. It begins with a clear definition:
The term ‘‘learning styles’’ refers to the concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them. Proponents of learning-style assessment contend that optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals’ learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly.
If you’re advocating something other than what’s encapsulated by this definition then you’re a lot better off calling it something else.
They then set out the criteria for determining whether any learning styles approach could be considered effective:
First, students must be divided into groups on the basis of their learning styles, and then students from each group must be randomly assigned to receive one of multiple instructional methods. Next, students must then sit for a final test that is the same for all students. Finally, in order to demonstrate that optimal learning requires that students receive instruction tailored to their putative learning style, the experiment must reveal a specific type of interaction between learning style and instructional method: Students with one learning style achieve the best educational outcome when given an instructional method that differs from the instructional method producing the best outcome for students with a different learning style. In other words, the instructional method that proves most effective for students with one learning style is not the most effective method for students with a different learning style.
This is clear, testable and, most importantly of all, falsifiable.
After combing through the research base, Pashler et al conclude:
… at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. [my emphasis]
So, does that mean learning styles are dead in the water? Well, no. Because the authors are scientists they admit “given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all.” But, the main finding is unambiguous:
The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.
Of course it’s true that “research is a work in progress” and beyond doubt that many findings are “contradictory, inconclusive or ambiguous”. As Pashler acknowledges, “Further research on the use of learning styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately.”
As things stand if there was evidence supporting the use of learning styles I’m confident Pashler would have acknowledged and discussed it. The fact that they didn’t is all the support we need to continue warning teachers away from a seductive but ineffective approach to teaching and learning.
If you do think you’ve developed, or know of, an approach to learning styles which meets the conditions laid down by Pashler, you should get in touch with Will Thalheimer who is offering $5,000 to anyone who creates “a real-world learning intervention that takes learning styles into account – and proves that such an intervention produces better learning results than a non-learning-styles intervention.” Go for it!