Science takes aim at "learning styles"

Key points Neuroscientists say “learning styles” in students are just another “neuromyth”. But good teachers do use them, and related techniques, as a lead-in to reflective and responsive practice. Take…

Key points

Neuroscientists say “learning styles” in students are just another “neuromyth”.
But good teachers do use them, and related techniques, as a lead-in to reflective and responsive practice.

  • Take a look at the following statements about the brain. Which ones are true, which false?
  • We only use 10 percent of our brain.
  • There are multiple intelligences.
  • There are left- and right-brain learners.
  • Certain types of food can influence brain functioning.
  • Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (for example, auditory, visual, kinesthetic).

They are all false. That is, according to the neuroscientists who listed them. The scientists asked 242 teachers in the UK and Holland to look at 32 statements about the brain, and indicate if they were true or false.

They found the concept of learning styles was the most prevalent “wrong” answer: 82 percent of teachers believed that individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style.
scienceAt the same time, learning styles critics around the world are divided as to whether learning styles actually exist. But they’re unanimous on one thing: there’s no empirical evidence supporting the “meshing” theory, the idea that a student will learn best if taught in a method aligned with their learning style.
An extensive literature review on the subject by a Californian professor of psychology, Harold Pashler et al (2008), found that very few studies used an appropriate experimental methodology; and of those that did, several found results that flatly contradicted the “meshing” hypothesis.

No justification

“At present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice,” Pashler said. New Zealand’s own Professor John Hattie did a meta-analysis in 2009 of which factors influence learning the most. He said that for an innovation to be interesting, it must result in an effect size substantially higher than 0.40. “Matching style of learning” had an effect size of 0.41.
It seems intuitive, though, that we all learn differently, doesn’t it? Yes, say the critics and no.

According to Pashler, and other critics, most of us have preferences about how we like information to be presented to us. And we do differ in our aptitudes for different kinds of thinking. But these differences are more about our own individual abilities, interests and background knowledge than any perceived learning style. As well, he says, some students have specific learning disabilities requiring individual diagnosis and specific strategies.

Pashler says teachers may be attracted to the learning styles theory because we’ve all noticed how one student can achieve enlightenment from an approach that seems useless for another student.
“There is, however, a great gap from such heterogeneous responses to instructional manipulations¦ to the notion that presently available taxonomies of student types offer any valid help in deciding what kind of instruction to offer each individual.”

Still popular

But if learning styles are irrelevant, then why are they still popular in many of our learning institutions, including some primary schools? At one Wanganui primary school, students can snack while they’re studying, lounge on the floor, or choose whether to do their learning as part of a group or alone. The school uses the Dunn and Dunn learning styles model.

At the beginning of the year, students identify their preferences in an extensive questionnaire which covers everything from what physical environment they prefer (dimly lit or bright, warm or cool, noisy or quiet, couches and beanbags or desks and chairs) to whether they prefer authoritative or collegial teachers. They also consider whether they’re “global” or “analytical”, and whether they are visual, auditory, tactile or kinaesthetic learners.
Classrooms are set up to accommodate these preferences, including partitions to allow for multiple study modes. “We do have ground rules,” says the principal. “For example, they all understand that their favoured learning style preference is most important when the work is new or difficult; and we need to be able to see that a student’s work is improving or being maintained. So if they want to lie on the floor to do their work, or be mobile, if their work level drops then the learning style isn’t working.”

Many, many styles

Former teacher Charlotte Humphrey says the model “is a fantastic classroom management tool¦ it’s made me a much better teacher. Parents could always identify with the aspects of learning style we discussed, appreciated the practical ideas they were given for supporting their children at home, and loved experimenting with different ways to learn themselves.˜Wish we’d had the chance to learn like this’ was a common response. “Most of the critics I’ve met, or whose work I’ve read, have misunderstood the intent and parameters of delivering the Dunn and Dunn model in the classroom.”

The research around learning styles is problematic in that there are multiple models “71 at one count” often sharing little in common. Critics often cite the VAK (visual/auditory/kinaesthetic) model when speaking generically of learning styles, but models like the Dunns’ have far more variables and also propose extensive pedagogical changes. Critics may sometimes be comparing apples with oranges.
So are all learning styles approaches being unfairly tarred with the “neuromyth” brush? This question simply leads to another problem. Even if positive results can be proven in an education setting, there’s still no way of knowing the extent to which learning styles alone are responsible.

Like believing in God

That said, New Zealand education consultant Kelvin Smythe believes the teachers who use brain-based theories like learning styles are likely to be successful, “not because of learning styles but because they’re usually very attentive teachers who care. And if they like to think it works for them¦ it’s like believing in God: who am I to cut across their beliefs? “But we can achieve those ideals by thinking about variety in the activities we provide, and referring to our own holistic, child-centered tradition drawn from Beeby, Sylvia Ashton-Warner and Elwyn Richardson.” In that case, maybe at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the model is: learning styles or something else. The important thing is to be a reflective and responsive teacher. Right?

Not entirely, argues Paul Howard-Jones, a Reader in Neuroscience and Education from the University of Bristol,  and a member of the team that surveyed the teachers in the UK and Holland.
He told the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education that there are three problems with this way of thinking. The first is that most “brain-based” classroom ideas have not been properly evaluated. “Secondly, if we understood more about when things worked, we could probably make them work better” without the accompanying mumbo-jumbo, and on the basis of something more scientifically credible. “That leads to the third point, which is that teachers really do care about the science that underlies what they’re trying to do. It’s the vacuum of credible ideas and knowledge”particularly co-constructed ideas that have been put together by educators and neuroscientists” that has allowed the myths to evolve.”

Narrow view of human capability

Perry Rush, Principal at Wellington’s Island Bay School (which doesn’t use learning styles), gets grumpy with science’s data-collecting preoccupation. “The idea that theories shouldn’t be taught without existing empirical support represents an extremely narrow view of human capability. Empirical support has value, but the view that anything that can’t be empirically measured has no legitimacy smacks of˜ivory tower’ thinking. Teachers as practitioners understand that many things that can’t be measured or validated empirically, have value.”

Assistant Professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College, Virginia, US, Cedar Riener sees it slightly differently. “In general, I’m in favour of trusting teachers’ specific knowledge about their classroom and pupils. However, I’m a cognitive psychologist who investigates theories of the mind. When teachers are told to apply a certain theory of the mind, I can make judgments about whether that theory in general conforms to the available experimental evidence. “There have been many attempts to find learning styles, and none have been successful. At some point, I think we should acknowledge that even if we do eventually find some evidence of learning styles, it’s likely to be a fragile and small effect.


“I think a good comparison would be to research the effect of different colour schemes on psychological states.  Does red make people angry, or hungry, or whatever? There’s some limited evidence that colours affect how we think or feel. But should teachers spend their time picking out colour schemes for their classrooms? I’d argue that attention would be much better spent on making the content well-organised, interesting to all students, and assessing their knowledge. “Rather than finding a video for some students, a radio program for others, and a movement for still others, try to find the best video that illustrates that concept and show it to all the students. By all means give students more chances to move around, not because a particular set of movements will help them learn math, but because kids are kids, and they like to move around.”

Paul Howard-Jones made this plea in his presentation to the All-Party Parliamentary Group:
“Where do we go from here? We shall be stuck with neuromyths until there is something better. However, I have a ‘wanted’ poster. It says that for scientific validity and educational relevance we need a common negotiating language and set of concepts. We need interdisciplinary forums and hybrid professionals. The only way we will get those is by collaboration.”