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Beware fashion for learning styles

William Stewart reports on problems with 'personalised' education

Research has cast doubt on the validity of work on different learning styles that forms one of the main planks of the Government's drive towards "personalised learning".

Increasing numbers of schools and local education authorities are adopting programmes which recognise that students learn in a variety of ways and that teaching methods must vary accordingly.

But a study commissioned by the Learning and Skills Development Agency has found that many of the methods, or instruments, used to identify pupils'

individual learning styles were unreliable, and had a negligible impact on teaching and learning.

Professor Frank Coffield of London university's Institute of Education, who led the agency's research, said: "Some learning styles instruments - many of them well-known commercial products - make extravagant claims of success which are not upheld when subjected to scrutiny.

"People who use these instruments may come to think in stereotypes - for instance, by tending to label vocational students as if they are all 'non-reflective', 'activity-based' learners."

The findings undermine the credence given to these already fashionable programmes by the Department for Education and Skills as part of its commitment to personalised learning.

Ministers want to use the concept, encompassing a broad range of existing policy, to make education more responsive to individual pupils.

David Miliband, school standards minister, has identified the use of variable teaching and learning styles as one of five key areas in which schools can personalise learning.

On Tuesday, at a personalised learning conference organised by the think tank Demos, he qualified this, saying it was not about a "crude reductionism to specific learner types".

But that appears to be happening in some parts of the country. Knowsley council, in Merseyside, has carried out an audit of learning styles and found that the bulk of its pupils are kinaesthetic learners who learn best through physical activity.

The minister also expanded his vision of personalised learning, talking of students being given a "voice" to help shape and create their education.

The LSDA study revealed a "proliferation of concepts, instruments and strategies" and a "bedlam of contradictory claims".

This variation is significant as the Government is making a point of not imposing personalised learning from above. It says the idea must be developed school by school and that there is no prescribed system for identifying learning styles. In this case, schools and local authorities should be free to develop personalised learning in their own way.

The LSDA paper identifies three main approaches. The first is based on theories which suggest that learning can be related to particular areas of the brain.

The second is based on psychological theories which presuppose that people have fixed traits which give them a bias towards particular learning styles. This notion, says Professor Coffield, leads to an assumption that people are restricted in their learning potential and cannot develop a wide repertoire of learning styles.

The third approach is described by Professor Coffield as a "pedagogic sheep dip" approach in which teaching strategies deliberately engage with a variety of learning styles.

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