Thirty prominent academics in neuroscience, education, and psychology have come out against the focus on learning styles in the classroom. In a letter to the Guardian, the group of experts said, first and foremost, "there is no coherent framework of preferred learning styles," with more than 70 different models of learning styles in existence.
Calling learning styles a "neuromyth" the group asserts, "...there have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or 'meshing' material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment." A primary concern is that learning styles education takes time and money away from evidence-based pedagogies.
So, should we throw learning styles out the window? Undoubtedly, this is an impressive group of academics, and we would do well to listen to them. At the same time, the group is composed mainly of neuroscientists and psychologists, and their direct education experience relates to teaching elite university students.
A related Guardian article reports, "...research in 2012 among teachers in the UK and Netherlands found that 80% believed individuals learned better when they received information in their preferred learning style. In 2013, research by the Wellcome Trust found that 76% of teachers had used learning styles in their teaching." So are these professional educators all wrong?
It is worth noting that the academic group, while using the word "neuromyth," avoid denying the existence of learning styles altogether. Instead, they focus on the mushy definition of the term, and the fact that no learning styles approach has yet been validated by science.
Meanwhile, interactive, multimedia, and adaptive educational technologies implicitly acknowledge the benefits of multi sensory learning. Adaptive educational technologies, particularly the data-driven components, are still in a very early stage. Perhaps better evidence for learning styles will emerge when data naturally drives edtech to develop particular types of products.
Certainly, even if we recognize that learning styles exist, there are drawbacks to relying too heavily on them during instruction. In the Moodle forum, Matt Bury notes that "learning styles encourage learners to use the same study strategies regardless of context, as personal rules of thumb, and that this encourages learners to ossify their study habits rather than to allow them to develop and grow."
Here Bury is mirroring one of the concerns voiced by the academic group: learning styles can have a tendency to pigeon-hole students. He goes on to discuss the difference between a fixed vs growth mindset when it comes to learning styles, proposing "that learning styles are actually strategic, adaptive strategies that are developmental and modifiable."
In the following TED talk, Tesia Marshik comes down firmly against learning styles, saying that research clearly indicates that they do not exist. In this compelling lecture, Dr Marshik states that ..."in order to retain information, we have to organize it in a way that's meaningful, right? We need to make connections to it, through our experiences, or coming up with our own examples.... There's a lot of research to support this idea that most of what we learn is stored in terms of meaning, and not according to images or auditory sounds."
Dr. Marshik makes a strong case. At the same time, even she acknowledges the idea of learning styles has a strong intuitive appeal. Our group of academics made the same point: "This belief has much intuitive appeal because individuals are better at some things than others and ultimately there may be a brain basis for these differences."
So while the broader academic community seems to increasingly regard learning styles as a myth, it may be premature to jettison learning styles completely.
My take is that many people who talk about learning styles are not instructionists and are working toward more than simple recall -- they are, for example, constructivists seeking to foster understanding, creativity, and value assessment. It's true, as Moore says, that "the best way to honor people's individuality isn't to shove them into simplistic categories." But it isn't to treat them as identical robots either, and this requires beginning with the person, and not with the content.
It may be that neuroscientists are hearing us narrowly because we've envisioned and explained the concept of learning style more narrowly than we should have. There is something in the idea of learning style to which so many people relate, that it's worth continuing to study what goes on in learning that is "something like" a learning style.
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