Professor Frank Coffield casts a doubting eye over the vogue for pigeonholing students by 'learning style'
Teachers are being told to identify and take account of pupils' individual "learning styles". Yet our research suggests labelling a pupil as, say, a "visual" learner may do them more harm than good. Moreover, as the tools used to split learners into different categories are so unreliable, most such labels seem to be of dubious value.
Since I and three colleagues published our critical reviews of the use of learning styles, we have received a stream of emails from teachers complaining that inspectors and senior managers continue to recommend (ie insist) that they "differentiate" classes by means of learning styles.
Staff are pressured into using instruments to discriminate between pupils that we concluded are unreliable, invalid and have negligible impact on pedagogy. We rigorously examined 13 different learning styles instruments, but only one met the minimal criteria for a proper psychological test.
One danger of an unthinking use of learning styles is that teachers view a student as being a certain type of learner incapable of learning via another mode; worse still, learners may end up with a limited view of themselves: so-called visual learners could refuse to read books; "auditory" learners be unwilling to watch films or look at paintings; "tactile" learners might insist on an object to touch before they can differentiate between "scepticism" and "cynicism", while "kinaesthetic" learners plead to be allowed to roll on the carpet so the penny drops.
All learners need a wide repertoire of learning strategies and need to know when to use each. We also need to talk about deep and surface learning rather than deep and surface learners.
It's a similar story with Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which was recently criticised by John White (TES, November 12). As he has argued, we must not "escape the shackles of IQ intelligence only to find ourselves imprisoned within another dubious theory".
The move to evidence-based teaching practice is significant but calls for deep knowledge and healthy scepticism. For example, why just eight types of intelligence and why this particular eight?
The field of learning styles suffers from almost fatal flaws of theoretical incoherence and conceptual confusion; for example, you can read about left-brainers versus right-brainers, pragmatists versus theorists, and globalists versus analysts. We collected 30 such pairings - the logo for the learning styles movement should be Dichotomies R Us. There is no agreed technical vocabulary and after 30 years of research, there is no consensus.
What can be done? First, teachers cannot create the conditions for students to become better, lifelong learners if those conditions do not exist for teachers. Second, it's no longer sufficient for leadership teams to know how students learn; they need to know how to promote their own learning and that of colleagues. There must be dedicated time and training for teachers to learn. Perhaps one senior manager could be responsible for keeping their institution up to date with the latest evidence.
Leadership teams and inspectors need a critical understanding of:
* the strengths and weaknesses of the most popular learning style instruments, before recommending their widespread use; it matters fundamentally which learning style model is chosen and how it is used;
* the competing evidence about whether teachers should match their learning style to that of their students. Some researchers even advocate mismatching;
* the relative impact of different interventions eg providing frequent, rich dollops of feedback to students has much greater impact than labelling them convergers or divergers;
* the advantages of getting students and staff to reflect on, and so enhance, their own learning and that of others. Instead of using the off-putting term "metacognition", it would be better to teach learners how to set explicit, challenging goals; to identify strategies to reach them; and to monitor their progress;
* how dialogue about deep or surface approaches to learning between teachers and students can lead to wider institutional change, by leading to questioning of assessment, curriculum, school practices and policies.
Senior managers' first concern should be to make students, staff, leaders and schools better at learning. If they find out staff are using a learning style instrument which is not worth the expensive paper it is written on, then they should advise them to bin it.
Frank Coffield is professor of education at London's institute of education. Reports are available at www.LSRC.ac.uk