Cognitive conundrum

20th May 2005 at 01:00
Ministers are encouraging teachers to take account of children's various learning styles, but where is the evidence that they work? Fran Abrams reports

Hello. My name is Jack. I am a kinaesthetic learner." The sign on the little boy's desk came only as a mild surprise to the teacher-trainer who encountered it recently in a Kent primary school. After all, learning styles are very much in vogue.

The idea that children have various types of ability - visual, auditory and kinaesthetic, to name a few of the better-known ones - has swept the country in recent years.

With its roots in the California of the 1970s, this theory - Jor group of theories - has become increasingly respectable. In the 1980s, it was given weight by Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at Harvard university, who identified eight "intelligences" and suggested that they were located in different regions of the brain.

Someone who is "left-brained" is often thought to be logical and structured, while someone who is "right-brained" is more creative and spontaneous. The theory goes that by identifying these various "intelligences" and teaching to them, teachers can make their lessons far more effective.

Visual learners might be helped by the use of drawings or diagrams while kinaesthetic learners might like to move around. One leading practitioner has suggested that physiological learners might wish to eat while studying.

Raw vegetables would be acceptable, although they might be cooked for two minutes to avoid distracting the auditory learners in the class.

The Government has given the movement a clear stamp of approval. The Office for Standards in Education recently praised Braunstone Frith junior school, Leicester, for aiding the concentration of its pupils - Jpresumably mainly auditory learners - through the use of quiet background music.

David Miliband, the former schools minister, has talked about "personalised learning" and has pointed to Professor Gardner's work as a way forward.

"The multiple intelligences of pupils require a repertoire of teaching strategies," he said.

The Department for Education and Skills has promoted the idea through a series of guidance notes for key stage 3 teachers which explain:

"Understanding of the brain and how it works has been growing over the past 20 years. The role of the senses in learning, long appreciated as 'see it, hear it, do it' is now more formalised as 'visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles'."

Yet academics who have gone in search of a scientific base for these theories have concluded that the evidence on which they are founded is shaky at best. A team of researchers from the Learning and Skills Development Centre at London university's institute of education set out recently to review the research on the subject.

They found a baffling array of theories about learning styles, of which Professor Gardner's was just one. The team, led by Professor Frank Coffield, uncovered some 3,800 research reports, reviewed more than 800, and identified 71 models of learning style. They then boiled these down to 13 major theoretical areas, each of which they examined in detail in a report that stretched to more than 170 pages.

The researchers set out some basic criteria against which a theory should be able to be tested - internal consistency and re-test reliability, for example. They found that only one of those 13 models met all of them. That theory - a "cognitive style index" devised by academics at Leeds university business school - was meant to be used with managers in industry rather than students.

Indeed, the only UK study to look at the type of model now so widely used in classrooms - a report on its effect on 250 students in further education - reached a negative conclusion. Its control group actually achieved better results than the group of students whose lessons were based on these learning styles.

Professor Coffield said that the idea that various types of "intelligence" are located in diverse parts of the brain is not confirmed by neuroscience.

Certain parts of the brain do seem to control particular activities, although the organ is far more flexible and more robust than some theorists had assumed.

His team went on to examine research about the usefulness of "personalised learning" in the classroom. It reported that the effect of "individualisation" on children's learning was insignificant. Other types of intervention, such as reinforcement of lesson content, improved teaching and peer tutoring were at least three times more effective.

So how much does all this matter? After all, individual teachers might argue that allowing their kinaesthetic learners to walk around, or giving diagrams and pictures to their visual learners, does make a difference in their classrooms.

Professor Coffield believes it matters a great deal. He argues that the teaching profession should think hard about the evidence and review its practice.

He says: "I am getting emails daily from teachers saying, 'I'm being told by my senior management to use these learning styles, which you are telling me are invalid. What am I to do?'

"If you are part of a profession, you go where the evidence is. If you were in medicine and you were told a particular drug didn't work, you would expect your doctor to stop using it."

Others have gone further and argued that the labelling of pupils in this way is retrograde, and even dangerous. John White, emeritus professor at London's institute of education, has written a book on Howard Gardner's work. He argues that while such theories should be liberating and help to free the educational world from the idea that there is only one type of intelligence and that children either have it or do not, they have become just as deterministic and restrictive as the old IQ test. That, it is argued, could lead to children restricting their own possibilities from an early age.

"If a child comes to think of himself as a bodily person rather than a linguistic person, how helpful is that going to be?" he asks.

"It perpetuates the idea that these things are predetermined, and puts too much emphasis on innate factors.

"Politically, I have a suspicion that this all chimes in very well with the idea that it's a good idea to develop specialisms."

The DfES, though, defends its stance. Sue Hackman, the director of its key stage 3 national strategy, which has relied heavily on learning styles, insists it does refer teachers to a range of authors.

"We are committed to developing in pupils a range of learning styles so that they are not trapped or dependent on just one," she says. "And, to be fair, Mr Miliband has also insisted that learning styles should not be seen as 'a crude reductionism to specific learner types'."

Yet that is not how they have always been seen in schools At a recent conference attended by one of Frank Coffield's research team, a student reflected on how he discovered his "style".

"I learned that I was a low auditory, kinaesthetic learner," he said. "So there's no point in me reading a book or listening to anyone for more than a few minutes."

The researcher could only speculate on whether or not the student was being ironic.

"Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning" by Frank Coffield et al (Learning and Skills Research Centre, 2004); Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences add up? by John White (London university: institute of education,1998) Howard Gardner: Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences (Heineman, 1983)

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