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Classroom fad or fix? Taking a closer look at learning styles

Classroom fad or fix? Taking a closer look at learning styles

Confession time: when I was a new teacher, I got my year 11 form group to do a learning styles test to help with their revision. While they answered the questionnaire, I did it too and discovered that I am, apparently, an auditory learner.

Yes, I thought, that makes sense; I like listening to people talk, and I have the radio on a lot. But, my (auditory) brain continued, I actually find diagrams really helpful and I like using my hands and, oh well, that's the bell. I didn't give it much more thought – as an adult who wasn't studying, it didn't make much difference to my life.

To my pupils: I'm sorry. I may have led you down a path of nonsense. Or, at least, that's what a group of 30 academics who wrote to The Guardian earlier this month would say. They assert that there is very little basis for the theory of learning styles – and that the education world's decades-long devotion to it has been a waste of time at best, and potentially damaging to students at worst.

What is it?

It's a simple idea that students learn better when they are taught according to their preferred learning style. The most common split of styles is between visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK), although there are scores of others – from left-brain/right-brain dominant to the truly mind-boggling "olfactory". One study [pdf] found that more than 71 different models of learning styles have been presented over the years.

Some researchers have traced the roots of the idea learning styles to Carl Jung's work on extroverts and introverts in the 1940s, and the still hugely popular Myers-Briggs test that it spawned. Others point to the 1960s work of Roger Sperry, Joseph Bogen and Michael Gazzaniga who explored the idea of the "split brain" – where different areas of the the brain control different aspects of cognition. Gazzaniga has since said that the idea has been "overly simplified and overstated".

The concept has certainly snowballed. The same study that found 71 different categories looked at the timeline of the theory and found three works exploring it before the 1950s, four in the 1950s, seven in the 1960s, 21 in the 1970s, 22 in the 1980s and 17 in the 1990s. It's big business these days too, spawning resources, training programmes and conferences.

What do supporters say?

Supporters of learning styles believe that understanding how children learn is the best way to help them do it, which, to be fair, does sound quite sensible.

Popular books on the topic say that "by understanding [a child's] basic learning style and intelligence gifts, you can craft and tailor a learning environment to specially suit her needs". The benefits include "bringing out children's greatest strengths... helping them grasp and remember what's being taught… and increasing their success at school".

The Teaching English website, created for teachers by the British Council, claims: "Your students will be more successful if you match your teaching style to their learning styles".

What do critics say?

In short, that the concept simply isn't backed up by science. A 2006 study of the visual-verbal split found that there was "not strong support" for the idea that verbal learners and visual learners should be taught differently.

In a mammoth 2008 review of learning styles, researchers concluded that: "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."

The academics who penned the letter to The Guardian contend that the idea is not only a waste of time, but a waste of precious resources and energy that could be far better directed elsewhere. 

What now?

Psychologists at the University of Portsmouth are currently researching growth mindset in a new study involving 6,000 pupils at 100 schools across England. Year 5 and 6 teachers from each of the schools were trained in growth mindset interventions, and pupils were shown inspirational films about overcoming challenges. The key stage 2 test results of the year 6 intervention group will be compared with those from a control group. Sherria Hoskins, head of psychology at the University of Portsmouth, says she hopes the study will "provide a clearer picture about the process and its impact".

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