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Learning Styles: the debate

 

Despite widespread acceptance and application of Learning Styles, there is nevertheless still some debate about the validity of the concept.  Proponents of Learning Styles maintain that adapting classroom teaching methods to suit students’ preferred style of learning improves the educative process.  However, opponents of Learning Styles theories maintain that there is little empirical evidence to support this proposition.

 

A report on the scientific validity of Learning Styles practices (Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D.; Bjork, R. (2009). "Learning styles: Concepts and evidence". Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9: 105–119) concluded that an adequate evaluation of the Learning Styles hypothesis requires a particular kind of study.  The report suggested that students, having been identified (for example) as “visual learners” or “auditory learners”, should then be randomly assigned to teaching groups focusing on either “visual” or “auditory” learning strategies – so that some students are “matched” to their preferred style, whereas others are “mismatched.”  Students’ test scores (for the same test) at the end of the experiment would show whether “matched” students scored better than “unmatched” students – thus indicating whether or not the Learning Styles hypothesis is correct.  To date, however, no such rigorous study has been carried out and the evidence for Learning Styles theory is largely anecdotal.

 

Nevertheless, large numbers of teachers and trainers are persuaded that Learning Styles are a factor in the effectiveness of their students’ learning.

 

 
 

Although the VAK Learning Styles model is perhaps the most widely used, largely because of its simplicity, Susan Greenfield (Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford) argues that adopting such an approach is “nonsense” from a neuro-scientific point of view.  She argues that human beings make sense of the world through our senses working in unison.  It is connectivity within the brain that enables us to make sense of the world – and therefore any attempt to separate the senses would be detrimental (if indeed it were possible.)

 

However, proponents of VAK are usually holistic rather than separatist and rarely propose separation of sensory input.  They tend to campaign for a broadening of input - away from the tendency within many (traditional) classrooms to focus primarily on auditory input.

 

Whilst acknowledging that learning is a complex process that depends upon interconnectivity between many different parts of the brain, Gardner’s work on Multiple Intelligences would suggest that certain functions are located within generalised regions of the brain and that these modules might be inherently better/worse or developed to different degrees within individuals.  This argument could be used to substantiate the claim that individual learners exhibit a preference for particular types of input.

 

It could be argued that, in the same way that some people are better physically coordinated by contrast with the clumsiness of others, there are those who are more capable than others of extracting meaning from verbal sources.  Similarly, others might be more adept at interpreting visual signals.  To maintain that all individuals are equally adept at the panoply of skills and abilities exhibited by the brain would be foolish.  Nor would it be wise to maintain that everybody is equally capable of development to the same levels of ability.  (Interestingly, one of the starting points for Gardner’s thinking was the extraordinary capabilities of savants.)

 

 
 

Despite reference here to Multiple Intelligence Theory, it is worth noting that Gardner’s work is considerably more far reaching than merely being another Learning Styles model.

 

 
 

Less popular than the VAK model, largely because of the terminology employed, is Kolb’s learning styles model, which was developed from his work on Experiential Learning.  Kolb proposed a 4-stage experiential learning cycle that applies to all learners. He suggested that immediate or concrete experiences provide a basis for observation and reflection. These are assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts which can be actively tested, in turn creating new learning experiences.  Individual learners will demonstrate differences in the way they think about things and the way they do things.  These differences can be plotted on a Perception continuum (along a spectrum that ranges from a preference for thinking about things in a Concrete or Abstract way) and along a Processing continuum (along a spectrum that ranges from Active to Reflective).  This results in identification of 4 broad Learning Styles, which Kolb refers to as: Accommodating, Diverging, Assimilating and Converging.

 

Apart from the extra effort required to get to grips with the terminology, a further disincentive for many from using Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory is the cost.

 

 
 

Although there is still a cost attached to use of their Learning Styles Questionnaire, Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles theory is more widely used in the UK.  Peter Honey acknowledges that “there are more similarities than differences” between their work and that of Kolb.

 

Whereas some of us prefer to study in depth before we tackle a task; others prefer to "get stuck into the job" and learn as we go along. Some of us are satisfied when the methods we use get the job done; others are more concerned with why a particular approach proved successful. Yet others spend time thinking through how the task could be tackled more effectively next time. Peter Honey and Alan Mumford suggest that we might usefully consider 4 basic learning styles: Activist - Pragmatist - Theorist - Reflector.

 

 
 

Anthony Gregorc's Mind Styles model is purported to be based on how the mind works and also proposes 4 learning styles.  Gregorc proposes that we perceive the world in both concrete and abstract ways and subsequently order those perceptions in either a sequential or random fashion.  The combination of these perceptual qualities and ordering abilities generates four combinations: Concrete Sequential; Abstract Random; Abstract Sequential; Concrete Random.  Although both of the perceptual qualities and both of the ordering abilities are present in each individual, some will be more dominant.  It is this combination that determines our preferred “Mind Style” and provides the foundation for our specific learning strengths, or learning styles.

 

It is notable that there are a number of "loose similarities" between each of the preceding models, insofar as they each constuct a matrix predicated on two intersecting continua (one concerned with the way we perceive, the other with how we process those perceptions.)

 

 
 

The model advocated by Dunn and Dunn is a more complex and comprehensive one that takes account of various environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological and psychological factors.  These include such things as the learner’s need for mobility, optimal time of day for learning, and the learner’s need to chew, smoke or drink, all of which may influence a learner’s capacity to learn.  Similar to the VAK model, it acknowledges that learners differ in their preferred perception processes, but also takes account of their levels of motivation and sense of responsibility. 

 

The model is not widely known in the UK but Professors Ken and Rita Dunn (St John’s University, New York) maintain that it is the result of extensive field work and painstaking research.  They are at pains to point out that peer-reviewed research papers and doctoral dissertations based on their model have been published at more than 120 universities and that the model has been validated in a wide range of geographic, socioeconomic and ethnic settings.

 

The model might more properly be said to ascertain learning preferences (rather than styles) and the usefulness of the instrument may reside as much in the self knowledge gained through its completion as in any tabulation of results.

 

Some have questioned whether the various questionnaires and instruments really indicate “Learning Style” or whether they are more of a personality test.  Rather than get hung up about how to categorise or “label” Learning styles theories, it would be more appropriate to consider how the results are used – and whether that usage contributes to more effective learning.

 

 
 

THE CASE AGAINST USING LEARNING STYLES

 

Those who oppose the use of Learning Styles put forward a number of objections.  Many of these are in fact criticisms of the way that Learning Styles are misused rather than a criticism of the concept itself.

 

It is argued that using Learning Styles could be detrimental because:

  • Learning Styles categories will be used as simplistic “labels” to be applied to learners – rather than develop an appreciation of the full range of factors that influence their capacity to learn.  (However, see Dunn and Dunn, whose model is more far-ranging.)

  • Teachers who attempt to deliver learning opportunities that focus exclusively on one “style” will disadvantage their students because learning, as previously mentioned (by Greenfield, above), is an holistic activity of the brain that depends on interconnectivity between the different modules of perception.  Over-emphasis by teachers on a particular Learning Style might actually reduce rather than increase the potential for absorption of learning

  • “Learning Styles” could be used as an excuse by some learners (in much the same way that self-diagnosed dyslexia is used by some) who will blame their failure to learn on their teachers’ failure to adopt teaching methods that do not match their Learning Style.  (It may be that teachers who adopt a more “traditional” approach may feel more threatened by this.)

  • Teachers and learners may focus exclusively on “playing to strengths” rather than seek to develop areas of identified weakness – and thus miss out on the opportunity to develop “fully rounded” learners who are capable of calling upon a number of learning strategies.  (Promoting the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory, HayGroup emphasise that it “recognises individual learning preferences, while encouraging individuals to expand their learning strengths.”  Little mention is made of how teachers and trainers might apply knowledge of students’ learning styles to developing more holistic learners.)

  • Teachers and learners may focus exclusively on “developing areas of weakness” – and similarly miss out on the opportunity to develop fully rounded learners.

 

 
 

SO WHAT IS THE POINT OF LEARNING STYLES?

 

In the light of the various criticisms levelled at misuse of Learning Styles, those who engage with the concept may query whether the various theories and models serve any purpose at all.  Although the following proposals will not escape criticism, they may provide a basis for future development of Learning Styles usage.

  • An understanding of Learning Styles theory may encourage teachers to utilise a broader range of teaching strategies – thus providing for all learners a more diverse learning experience – which will increase the potential for brain interconnectivity.

  • Use of Learning Styles questionnaires may increase students’ self awareness – and hence make a contribution to their effectiveness as learners through raising their levels of motivation and self esteem.

  • A basic level of understanding of Learning Styles by students could be part of an empowering process that encourages learners to take ownership of their own development.

  • Learners who have previously written themselves off as failures may be encouraged to make a fresh start if they believe that they can now exercise some control over their own learning.

 
 

Perhaps the most useful aspect of Learning Styles theory is that it provides a vocabulary for learners, teachers and educators to discuss how best to assist learners to acquire the knowledge, understanding and skills that they aspire to.

 

We might usefully conclude by reminding ourselves of the basic tenet that underlies the thinking of those schools and educators who subscribe to the Sudbury Model.  Proponents of the Sudbury Model advocate that learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you, and that every child is an individual exhibiting a learning style that is unique to them.