Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Learning Styles - When a myth becomes a legend

When a myth becomes a legend.
Like, many others, I love this prose.
I like the tone, the sense of pathos, the sense of learning something too late - or perhaps in the nick of time. I like the imagery of it all.  The prose is inscribed on the tomb of an unnamed Anglican Bishop buried in Westminster Abbey and dates to around 1100 A.D.
When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits, I dreamed of changing the world. As I grew older, and wiser, I discovered the world would not change, so I shortened my sights somewhat and decided to change only my country.
But it, too, seemed immovable.
As I grew into my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt, I settled for changing only my family, those closest to me, but alas, they would have none of it.
And now, as I lie on my deathbed, I suddenly realize: If I had only changed myself first, then by example I would have changed my family.
From their inspiration and encouragement, I would then have been able to better my country, and who knows, I may have even changed the world.

What a pity it isn’t true. 
No such tomb exists.  
This will no doubt come as a surprise to many - the legend of the prose features heavily on poetry and self help sites across the Internet,  is featured in books such as “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and is regularly emailed around the globe.  However, as appealing and entrenched as belief in the poem is, the fact that many people believe something doesn’t make it true. The legend is a myth.
Education is not immune from widely held and deeply cherished ideas that are also based on belief rather than fact. One of these is the notion of “learning styles”.
Consider the following from Professor Daniel Willingham,  Department of Psychology, University of Virginia.
For some this challenge to the notion of learning styles is akin to heresy.  And perhaps heresy is exactly what is  since - heresy is the term usually used to describe those who oppose the teachings of a church.  I  don’t wish to get into the field of religion here - but religion is based upon faith - not logic. Religion neither relies upon nor requires logic.  But education should.
For those who might require further convincing I recommend reading this.   

And this.

Or this.
Or even this.

How did this unsupported belief become so wide spread? Possibly because it appears to work. Certainly teachers who subscribe to the belief and accommodate it in their practice appear to reap the benefits.  However, with a moments thought we can see why - catering for “different learning styles” means providing variety, it means designing lessons that are more than “chalk and talk” or lecture style, or worksheet based instruction. It may mean that material is presented from more than one perspective - which of course takes time - and we know that time on task is associated with learning. In short, it means putting effort into pedagogy - it results in improved teaching.  So, the misguided belief in learning styles actually produces better teaching,  which leads to engagement - which leads to concentration - which leads to learning.  
Thus, this flawed theory leads to improved teaching.   So, if this is the result, what’s the problem?
The belief in “learning styles” has no more scientific support  than the study of phrenology once  claimed, or the notion that ability is fixed (as in the belief of a static I.Q.). Surely our professionalism should dictate that we only advocate those practices that can be supported with evidence?  After all, it is evidence that separates informed practice  from mere opinion or entrenched habit.   It is evidence based practice that will enable us to improve our instructional techniques.
If we, as a profession, begin to insist on evidence based practice in this matter we may start questioning other aspects of our practice - the notion of assessment techniques could bear close scrutiny for example, or how computers can be used to  teach effectively, or the benefits of delaying the introduction of algorithms until at least grade 4, or the benefits of Project Based Learning, or the benefits of a “growth mindset” approach... the list is endless.  Evidence based practice can lead to innovation and improved education.
If we are to improve education we need to ensure that we as educators know why we do what we do - and can demonstrate that it is more effective than other approaches.  If there is a truth in the “learning style” myth it is that teaching style matters.  
And that is something we can all learn from...
All links go to external sources.
(I stress this is NOT the tomb of an Anglican Bishop in Westminster Cathedral.)

ADDENDUM. A post on the same theme by Steve Wheeler can be accessed here.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post.

    While I am familiar with the critique of learning styles and can see a considerable degree of validity in it, I am not sure that I could be as black and white as you are. I would be as apprehensive about a wholesale rejection of the concept as I am about the what I see as the inadequately critical adoption of the concept to which you have so rightly drawn attention.

    I receive the notion of "learning styles" as valuable if only for heuristic reasons. I can see value in the concept even if it only arises from preferential, cultural and other life-world issues as distinct from notions arising from brain-research (I see some applications of this as dreadful pseudo-science).

    I am also intrigued by your aside relating to faith and logic in the middle of your post. I would like to know more of what you are saying here. Over recent years I have thought long and hard on this issue and have come to suspect that many of our problems in this area arise from a significant drift in what we mean when we say "faith" and what the ancients intended when they spoke of "emunah" (Heb) and "pistis" (Greek).

  2. Hi Peter,
    Thanks for your response.
    You make two points – the first about my rejection of the learning style approach. My concern here is that there is no evidence to support it and I am a firm believer in evidence based practice. If people can provide evidence that it does in fact exist then I’d be happy to adopt the approach. However, I can’t knowingly advocate an approach that “sounds” scientific – when in fact it isn’t. I thought long and hard about writing the piece as I think, ironically, that the belief has improved education – but it has done so by making people add extra strategies to their lessons and to cater for the needs of a wider range of students. However, I believe that teaching is so important that we must continually strive to make it the best experience we can. And that requires informed practice. We won’t challenge our own practice if we honestly believe that we have a “scientifically” proven approach. However, as I said, if people can conduct research to prove the belief I would then be happy to support the approach.
    Your second point was about my religious aside. Your knowledge of Greek is better than mine so I can’t comment on the meanings of the terms you cite. What I meant by the comment was that religion does not stand or fall on the basis of scientific knowledge, or of repeatable experiments, nor is it measured by the same yardsticks by which we measure the “ordinary” world. I think that practically all revealed religions have aspects that challenge logic – but in some ways that doesn’t matter. The purpose of religion is for the individual to have some form of relationship with their God (however they visualize that). That relationship does not rely on logic but on faith and belief. It would be meaningless to rank methods of prayer in a league table for example or to try to measure the effectiveness of prayer so people can improve their prayer performance. But this is not necessary – religious people believe without the need for scientific support.
    Education is not religion. We can test our beliefs. And when the evidence is lacking – or even counter to our established beliefs – we need to have the strength to respond to it.
    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Interesting. I gather that your point is that we should only follow trends if they are supported by fact, meaning proven results, in which case I agree. You're also saying that variety of activity and approach is the guts of learning styles ideas applied to the classromm and that variety is just part of a good teaching style. All good. However the original quote is not entirely a myth. You can change things, but you may not be able to, whereas you can change yourself. It also depends on what kind of change you're talking about eg if it's someone else's behaviour, then you best change your own behaviour first because one is likely a reaction to the other.

  4. Hi,
    The "myth" of the early section of the post was not the poem / prose or even the sentiment it expresses - to be honest I've always felt there is significant insight in these words. For me the “myth” is not the sentiment but the “packaging” of the prose, the notion that it is found on the tomb of a long forgotten Archbishop at the Cathedral – this aspect (which makes the prose so poignant) it the myth to which I refer.
    Thanks for your response.