Why does the idea of learning styles keep getting resurrected?

4th December 2015 at 15:42

Just when you thought you were out, they drag you back in. Tom Bennett investigates the perennial appeal of the Bad Science Bogeyman

In the horror genre, there’s one thing that you can be sure of: monsters never die. Carrie’s hand springs up from the grave; Freddy Krueger’s shadow curls round a corner before the credits roll and we all go home laughing nervously. This weekend saw another outbreak of the learning styles zombie virus. Which was unexpected, but if you knew the monster was going to jump out at you, it wouldn’t be so scary.

Learning styles? Really? Do we have to dig up the coffin and douse it in holy water again? Cut off the head and stuff it with garlic bulbs and consecrated hosts? It seems we do. Van Helsing, to the horses!

Learning styles (LS) are the now-discredited proposal that children have different modalities of learning, which, when accessed, could promote and improve the learning experience. Important note: this isn’t the same as saying that we all have different preferences for what and how we learn. That’s not in dispute, and it’s for this reason that many find LS theory so appealing: it just seems so intuitively true, and generates most of its traction. But LS makes specific claims about how we learn and how we can utilise this. 

Another big problem in this debate is that LS theory doesn’t mean one thing; it has dozens of variations, so when we talk about them, we’re referring to a whole bestiary of fabulous animals. For example, it can mean visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning (VAK), which was by far the most commonly used in schools, but it can also refer to a whole host of styles. David Kolb’s model refers to accommodators, convergers, divergers and assimilators; Peter Honey and Alan Mumford focus on activist, reflector, theorist, pragmatist, and so on. It’s not just a slippery fish, it’s a whole school of them. As a result, discussing LS is like trying to lasso gas. I think UFOlogists also have this problem: the flying saucers get mixed up with the weather balloons. 

This becomes a problem, because they're all so different. Some are terrible. Vanilla VAK is easy to dismiss: pupils show no evidenced benefit from being taught according to their imagined affinity for visual, auditory or kinaesthetic methods. There simply isn’t a predictive or explanatory mechanism we can discern. And if you can’t find any trace of evidence of something, however treasured, that’s going to be a problem for claims that it exists. Other LS theories talk about aptitudes or discernible personality traits; others intelligences and so on. But as teacher Nick Rose ably points out, even the best ones fall far short of utility:

"…merely identifying some differences in people isn’t sufficient for the label of a ‘learning style’ to be applied. As well as being able to measure some sort of psychometrically reliable differences, a learning style also needs to show what mode of instruction would be most effective for an individual. They [Pashler et al (2008) ] also note that very few studies have actually tested whether proposed learning styles actually improve learning when instruction is tailored to them. Where these studies have been conducted, several found results which contradicted their claims. The data so far do not support the idea of learning styles."

Nick Rose, 'Perpetual Motion Machines don't exist'

People who still cling to LS theory desperately point to tiny scraps of evidence for some forms, most of which are barely used in schools, if at all. This flies in the face of the enormous tsunami of negative findings that surround it. Sure, one day we might find some kind of mode which, when accessed for each child individually, results in some kind of learning gain. Maybe one day. But not today. We can say that there are no such thing as learning styles in the same sense as we can reasonably say that there is no such thing as Father Christmas. If you want to persist in saying Father Christmas might exist in some as-yet undiscovered Nordic Elven warehouse, then you can certainly do so safe in the knowledge that you haven’t committed a logical fallacy. But don’t mention it on Match.com, unless you enjoy microwave meals for one and dying alone.  

Keeping it real like FC

Mr Christmas might exist, along with the Easter Bunny, the snow that fell last Christmas and the Ark of the Covenant. It’s possible. But do we get cross at people who deny they exist and insist they admit that we don’t have exhaustive proof of non-existence? Descartes teaches us that 100 per cent certainty is infrequently encountered in everyday life. We make do with varying degrees of probability. If you want certainty, stick to mathematics, but real life runs on odds. And children deserve better than fairy tales. 

It matters because in education we have frequently fallen prey to fads and fashions that have no evidence to support them at all, for example, Brain Gym. When something as precious as a child’s education is at stake, I suggest we don’t waste too much of it. Crazy, right? So: learning styles, I’m happy to say, don’t exist. Or if it makes you happier: learning styles are a load of bollocks. People can research it as much as they want, but it’s almost irresponsible to platform its use in schools, because all it leads to is children and teachers wasting their time. Workload, remember? 

And it’s really very strange to see people rush to defend learning styles, as if criticism of it implied we would end up treating all children identically or ignore SEND issues. This is unnecessary fretting. It’s perfectly possible to care for children as unique little sunbeams of joy and possibility and still bin LS. I've heard people say that we're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But who actually throws out bathwater like this? We’re draining the bath to fish out the turds. The baby can stay; she just deserves cleaner water.