They live: what happened when I asked if anyone still used Learning Styles

6th December 2015 at 19:45

Tom Bennett turns over a rock- and finds Learning Styles alive and well



When I trained as a teacher Learning Styles were referenced uncritically everywhere I looked. After the great wars of the last ten years, you could be forgiven for thinking at last that great serpent of quack science had been slain; but like Sauron, it only slept. 

One Thinking Hat to rule them all

Something interesting happened; on social media at least, a critical mass of scepticism has been achieved. Debunkings have existed since it was conceived, but lies famously get half way around the world before the truth can put its boots on, and the less groovy reality didn’t find traction; the theory was too attractive, too novel and intuitively cosy to wither before mere facts. It lurched on like Nosferatu, unaware its heart stopped years before. Slowly however media like Twitter spread the research far enough that people could no longer openly claim its efficacy without dispute. A tipping point was reached, and you heard less of it, at least online. So much so in fact that some people worried a new bandwagon had begun- an anti-LS league. 

Some bandwagon; online is not everywhere. Offline, in the murk and the shadows of education, it blossomed, quietly. It didn’t go away; it bred, like a bacteria banished to some distant organ, waiting for the patient to miss a tablet. 

Even when I saw Styles being used repeatedly in schools I visited, I was told, ‘Well, I don’t see it.’ Depends on what you’re looking for, I suppose. Or I was told, repeatedly, ‘There are more important things in education.’ This kind of whataboutery is pointless. (When I worked for an animal charity people would say ‘what about sick kids?’ When I spoke to friends who worked in children charities, they were berated for ‘ignoring old people.’) But Learning Styles are undead and well, I assure you.

Tracing The Beast to its lair


I threw out a simple line (this tweet: click here to see the responses) on Twitter: ‘Who here was trained in, or is asked to use LS theory?’ The response was a cold bath to anyone who claimed Dracula was a myth. Literally hundreds of responses, on a Saturday night no less. Unrepresentative, obviously, but clearly indicative of existence. And what were they saying?

1. Peak Learning Styles appears to have been achieved in around 2007 as far as ITT providers are concerned. Healthily, many HE ITT providers contacted me to say that LS no longer featured on their course, or did so with health warnings. Some even used it as an example of junk science now. It is clearly no longer the case that LS are taught uncritically in many parts of HE ITT
But it still unbelievably finds a place on some ITT courses in HE. Reports came to me of providers in South England who still taught it as a strategy with utility. This is not a drill, repeat, this is not a drill. People with responsibility to train new teachers, still teaching this spoon bending.
2. The real Typhoid Marys in this equation, however, aren’t Universities, but schools themselves. A stream of tweets confirmed something I suspected from my own experience- the worst petri dishes of re-infection were school INSETS. I suspect the pattern goes like this: teacher trained prior to 2007/ in a dodgy ITT institution. Teacher joins school. Teacher coughs it all over new staff/ forces staff to do it. 
3. Consultants also walk the dog dirt of LS in; oh the irony of a school paying someone to make their staff less effective than before. Consultancy is a roulette wheel. You buy the expert, but who watches the watchmen?
4. FE and Primary sectors seemed particularly prey to Learning Styles. 
5. Non mainstream education seemed to suffer a lot from this: coaching/ adult education/ TEFL courses (where it featured on the syllabus)
6. SEND schools and units/ SENCOs were reported several times as being carriers of ze wampire
7. On two occasions, people reported anonymously that a very well known tutor organisation still insisted on using Learning Styles in its programs. 
8. Parents. Teachers were reportedly insisting that their children's learning styles weren’t being met, and that ‘Billy couldn’t be expected to behave in Geography because ‘he’s a kinaesthetic snowflake’ or some rubbish. 

Phil Newton of Swansea University has done research into the state of current research into Leanring Styles, and his conclusions are terrifying. He says:

The overwhelming majority (89%) of recent research papers, listed in the ERIC and PubMed research databases, implicitly or directly endorse the use of Learning Styles in Higher Education. These papers are dominated by the VAK and Kolb Learning Styles inventories. These presence of these papers in the pedagogical literature demonstrates that an educator, attempting to take an evidence-based approach to education, would be presented with a strong yet misleading message that the use of Learning Styles is endorsed by the current research literature. This has potentially negative consequences for students and for the field of education research.

 Newton P (2015). The Learning Styles myth is thriving in higher education. Front. Psychol. 6:1908. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01908


Overall, it’s obvious that LS are still very much part of the educational discourse- perhaps reduced, but in many places it's going nowhere.

This matters because: 

  • It’s a colossal waste of time. Time, like land, is the one thing they aren’t making any more of. Waste a minute of a child’s life with mumbo jumbo and you’ve stolen a minute of their learning. And the kids it affects the most are the ones who can least afford it- the poor, the unlearned, the child in need.
  • Bad science is never harmless. If a teacher embraces LS voodoo, then expect to see some odd activities and lessons designed purely to cater for the demands of different modalities. That’s bound to pervert lesson design away from true north.
  • It deprofessionalises us; if we fall for any unproven fad or gimmick, then it’s no wonder we battle to be called a profession. For a start we would need some kind of agreed body of knowledge, and if we went by practice alone, LS theory would figure at the moment.  
  • Every time someone uncritically recommends LS, or signal boosts someone who supports it, it just propagates junk science. This really matters, because uprooting the weed is hard enough. It's like trying to keep homeopathy put of the NHS, but people keep rubbing their chins and saying 'well, maybe there's something to it...' Being against LS in edcuation isn't a band wagon- it's a niche movement right now, and pretending to be counter culture by endorsing it merely replicates the existing culture and problem. 

No matter how many bullets you put in this, it gets up and keeps staggering towards classrooms. ‘Moooore braiiiinnns’ it says. Or less. It’s like when Jenny McCarthy goes on Oprah and tells parents to avoid the MMR vaccine; whenever someone gives this credence, someone else will think, hey that VAK makes sense. And then download the questionnaires, and plan lessons, and get their department to do it. Then someone starts selling it again with a new name, and the cycle continues, as a new generation stumble into witchcraft and pseudo science, thinking themselves perfect harbingers of modernity and the future. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled off was making the dark ages seem like the future. 

Kids deserve better. We deserve better.