research based classroom

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.