Call to join crusade against learning styles

7th October 2005 at 01:00
Su Clark reports from the annual conference of educational psychologists in Scotland.

Dogged adherence to learning styles has been slammed by a leading authority on education.

Frank Coffield of the Institute of Learning in London told delegates that the majority of tools used to measure learning styles were invalid and unreliable, and had negligible input into pedagogy. Used indiscriminately, they could undermine teaching.

Controversy over learning styles has grown in importance as teachers grapple with the Government's determination to make personal learning planning (PLP) a key part of its strategy for schools.

But Professor Coffield warned: "They should not be used in developing individual learning planning for Scottish pupils. The dogmatic claims of learning styles, which have little or no basis in evidence, could be doing harm to students of all ages by labelling them inappropriately."

He cited a school where pupils had labels on their desks indicating their learning styles. Others have criticised the "new labelling" which seeks to portray pupils as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic - VAK (TESS, last week).

Professor Coffield's criticisms follow an 18-month investigation of learning styles and their implications for methods of teaching, which he and his team carried out for the Learning and Skills Development Council in England.

The findings relate to post-school learning, but Professor Coffield argued his research had wider relevance. "We should be challenging any labelling within learning from pre-school to lifelong learning," he said. "Yet we see learning styles used in all forms of education."

In his investigation, 13 out of 70 of the most influential models were reviewed to consider what evidence they had for their claims, including the effects on teaching and learning. Only three came near to meeting the minimal criteria laid down, such as internal consistency and predictive validity.

Since publishing his findings, Professor Coffield has been on a crusade for a more critical approach to learning styles. He claims to have built up a groundswell of support within psychological circles, but says there is less willingness to question them in education. He admits he faces an uphill struggle persuading some teachers to let go of learning styles, especially when the Government has so fully embraced them.

"There is a bandwagon rolling along, regardless of what my colleagues and I are saying," he told delegates. "The Department for Education and Skills in England has recently published a guidance pamphlet for teachers which is woefully under-researched, simplistic and downright dangerous. This pamphlet should be withdrawn immediately."

Some teachers have welcomed the report, but many have complained that inspectors and senior managers continue to insist they differentiate classes by means of learning styles.

Professor Coffield is publishing a shorter eight-page pamphlet of his findings for teachers next month. Learning Styles: help or hindrance? will be available from the National School Improvement Network at the Institute of Education, price pound;1.50 (www.nsin.org).

His criticism centres on the unscientific basis of most of the instruments surveyed. He claims that little evidence is presented to support each approach, while the failure to provide a common conceptual framework or language means the research field is "theoretically incoherent and conceptually confused".

Professor Coffield called on teachers to be more circumspect when using learning styles. Instead of assigning a particular learning style to a pupil, he believes it would be more beneficial for them to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of a range of styles.

Schools should not only study how students learn but show them how to enhance their learning by developing flexible .

"Teachers need to be inoculated against learning styles with a strong dose of healthy scepticism," Professor Coffield said.

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