Fervor over learning styles a waste of time and money?

The science behind learning styles

According to Learning Styles, Concepts and Evicence, a study [pdf] published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, that whole learning styles thing may not be all we think it is.  Sure, it seems to form the basis for many a text both for public school teachers and homeschoolers, but what is the basis for it?

Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education.  Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.  Learning Styles, Concepts and Evidence

Rather than hard science, the movement has its origins in the more touchy-feely self-esteem movement of the 70s. And while their study in no way disproves that learning styles exist nor even that teaching in a child’s preferred modality may be beneficial, they argue rather strongly that we are spending a lot of time and money on something with very little scientific evidence behind it.

If education is to be transformed into an evidence-based field, it is important not only to identify teaching techniques that have experimental support but also to identify widely held beliefs that affect the choices made by educational practitioners but that lack empirical support.  Ibid.

Transforming education into an evidence-based field

And that’s where the researchers begin to lose me.  I am all for effective classrooms, but I’m not so sure we want education to become an evidence-based field.  I’m not sure we want to view teaching as data delivery, learning as data acquisition and testing as the measurable difference between the two.

I’m not sure we want education reduced to what can be tested in a multiple-choice format.

There is so much more to education.  It is about the whole child and how he is to be brought up.  It is about “enlightening the understanding, correcting the temper, forming the manners and habits of youth and fitting him for usefulness in his future station.”  Direct instruction and other behavior based programs may be empirically proven to improve math scores, but do they improve children?

How a child is taught is important, and not just for its ability to transfer the largest amount of data for the least amount of resources.  I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m guessing JJRoss’ decision to unschool, the Headmistress’ decision to use Charlotte Mason, Renae’s decision to use the Principle Approach, and The Mama’s decision to use a classical approach had little to do with which methodology would most efficiently lead to proficiency in any given subject.  Their decisions were based in what they believe about the nature of teaching and learning, and the role of the teacher and student.  As such, how we teach our children invariably communicates our beliefs about teaching and learning and the roles of teachers and students to our children.

How we learn affects how we think.  It affects our attitudes and beliefs about the very nature of human learning and the role we play in the construction of our own knowledge.

And this is why we must be careful of the so-called research-based classroom.  It carries with it its own definition of education that has been somewhat narrowly interpreted as high test scores.  I am all for assessing what we are doing in our classrooms and in our homes, but before we do this, we need to carefully define what we are looking for.  As The Core Knowledge Blog points out,

If we begin instead with a definition of education, then a curious thing may happen. The results will likely be better, yet they will not rule what we do. We will recognize that learning is for the long term as well as for the next day. We will recognize that some of the most difficult concepts and works last the longest in the mind. They may not translate immediately into results, yet they are unlikely to vanish. We will expect short-term results but teach beyond them.  There’s No Such Thing As Teaching

Discussing education as an evidence-based field restricts it to what is observable, measurable and testable.  It tells us what teaching methodologies produce good results on standardized tests such as the CAT or I-STEP.  It does not, however, tell us which methodologies produce thinkers, problem-solvers, artists, book-lovers, and teachers.  It does not tell us which methodologies support the child in setting and achieving their own goals, nor which help them to take responsibility for their own learning.

Are we really willing to let go of all that in the name of higher test scores?  Or do we want to hold on to the belief that education means just a little bit more than that?

Still, children need to learn to read, but I will continue with that thought in a future posting.

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9 Responses

  1. Good thoughts, to which I’d add that even when we emphasize observable evidence, we don’t look at the most important results.

    Education is vital to the society and culture, not only to the individual. I see ample evidence of educational failing throughout our present society, in the foolish, unreasoned pathologies we’ve collectively created and carelessly allowed to become entrenched, and now irrationally continue to defend.

    And it connects with !@#$%^&*.wordpress (dot) com/2010/01/16/who-cares-about-haiti/#comment-31331/ our Haiti conversation, about educating the whole populace as key to progress, overcoming poverty and government corruption, saving children and families. Why are we Americans so sure we know how to teach others to self-govern in peace and prosperity, when all the recent evidence suggests our society needs a lot of remediation!

  2. Another interesting and related perspective related to school gardens: (05/26/17: Dead link, theorganicsister (dot) com/2010/01/blame-the-school-not-the-gardens/. I’m pretty sure there is no scientific evidence to support that a little garden in the school yard will positively benefit test scores. But [theatlantic (dot) com/doc/201001/school-yard-garden] Cultivating Failure?

    Obama is promising billions to head this direction, and I see few who ideolgically oppose it.

  3. Personally, I think the reason learning style is so important has nothing to do with result, and everything to do with method. When you look at a child closely enough to determine their learning style, or even attempt to find a learning style, you are learning more about the child. In turn, you are creating a bond with the child that is necessary to teaching, leading, and helping that child learn.

    In other words, it should never be about the end result, but about the process. It should not be about the destination, which can change; rather it should be about the journey, which is ongoing.

    As a result, it can never be about evidence based education. After all, the evidence frequently changes. We must be able to adapt quickly. Looking for evidence of education is a tricky prospect. For me, evidence of education is the need to always seek more education (IE curiosity), but that would not be a good definition for government.

  4. Education as an evidenced-based field… by what criteria would one gather information for a definitive analysis, so that it can be determined that all kids should be doing ___ by the time they are ___ with ___ amount of proficiency using ___ method? Sounds like fun if you have a clipboard instead of a brain and a calculator for a heart.

    The DoE is starting to sound like the FDA.
    .-= Susan R´s last blog .. (05/26/17: Proctected blog access denied, sunniemomsblog (dot) wordpress.com/2009/11/30/the-necessity-of-nurturing-parents).

  5. I agree, Kristina. It is about the relationship with the student, and holding them as individuals. That may not be easily testable, and there may be no real way to prove empirically that it makes any difference in the end. But that doesn’t mean that strictly sticking with the test scores is superior.

  6. I think this highlights the difficulties of bringing the schoolroom into the homeschool. It may be beneficial (even a relief) for a teacher of 30 plus kids not to worry about 30 plus different learning styles. For me, I have found it useful to “play to their strengths.” Fortunately, I don’t have to prove the efficacy of my methods to a committee.
    .-= April´s last blog .. (05/26/17: Dead link, questiontheculture (dot) blogspot.com/2010/01/freedom-is-messy.html).

  7. I’ve always thought “learning styles” was a bunch of educational mumbo jumbo. We all learn by using all of our senses. This is just a distraction and a way to put everyone into a group. This type of thing results in people thinking, “This child is a tactile learner, and, therefore, is not proficient at grammar – but that’s okay.” or “My child keeps missing most of the questions on the tests, so I’m switching curricula for the fourth time.” It’s harmful.

  8. I’d love to see those who dismiss learning styles as bunk try to spend five minutes with my severely-autistic, nearly-nonverbal son to teach him the next unit in his class’s math curriculum the same way it gets taught to the rest of the class. Sure, people take it too far, and it’s important to try to get kids who have a harder time learning in certain ways to build their skills in their weak areas, but to dismiss the whole thing just because it doesn’t show results with a method of testing that happens to fit better with certain learning styles is downright circular.

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