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Learning Styles: What's Being Debunked

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In her recent article “The Bunk of Debunking Learning Styles,” Heather Wolpert-Gawron makes a plea for common sense in the face of research findings that contradict her direct observations of learning styles in the classroom. She cites a recent article (“Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” by Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork, in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest) which claimed that there is no scientific evidence that learning styles exist, and argues that the knowledge she’s gained during her 11-year career in the classroom prove that they do.

As a psychological scientist and a son and husband of classroom teachers, I feel the need to respond. First, it is necessary to clarify the definition of learning styles and the predictions of learning styles theory. Second, I want to pinpoint what the “debunkers” in question are claiming, which I think is more specific than what Ms. Gawron-Wolpert describes. Finally, since she seems to believe that basic science is useless when it comes to the practice of teaching, I want to describe how basic cognitive science can apply to teaching.

Learning Styles Defined

We must begin with how learning styles have been defined, both in the research literature as well as in educational practice. Learning-styles theory does not propose generic differences between how students learn, but asserts a specific kind of difference. A learning style, by the prevailing account, is a preferred mode of learning, distinct from ability and independent of content area. For example, a visual learner is not necessarily better at learning math or geography than other students, but in a better learner when material is presented visually, compared to other modes of presentation. This may not be Ms. Wolpert-Gawron’s definition of learning style, but it is the definition used by researchers for over 50 years, as well as the educational policymakers who are currently implementing learning styles theory. For example, although multiple intelligences may seem similar to learning styles, Howard Gardner has made it quite clear that multiple intelligences is a theory of abilities, not of styles. The current learning styles theory defines “mode of learning” as a preferred sensory channel, either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic, but there have been many ways of defining “mode” in the past.

Why is it critical that a learning style be distinct from content and ability? Because one important claim of learning-styles theory is that no one learning style is superior to another. If visual learners learned math faster, and kinesthetic learners learned basketball faster, we wouldn’t need to label them with learning styles at all: We could say that one group has mathematical aptitude and the other athletic aptitude. Unlike decisions about what works in any given classroom, which are for individual teachers to make, learning styles is a theory of how the mind works, and it is framed in a way that makes it suited to controlled scientific testing. The key scientific claim for learning-styles theory is that we could teach two classrooms of randomly assigned students the same content, but one would be taught “visually” and one “auditorially.” The visual learners should do better than the auditory learners in the visual classroom and vice versa in the auditory classroom. If everyone does better in the visual classroom, then we would conclude that the content is more suitable for visual presentation. If the “visual learners” do better in both classrooms, then you have identified an ability, not a style. This “matching styles to instruction” pattern of relative differences in learning is the evidence that the authors of the paper Wolpert-Gawron cites searched for in the scientific literature. Several studies claim to support learning styles, but did not perform this critical test. Those few that did satisfy this design failed to find evidence for learning styles.

What the Debunkers Do, and Why

These researchers have identified the central claim of learning styles theory and failed to find any scientific evidence for this particular claim, despite many relevant studies. Ms. Wolpert-Gawron accuses them of invalidating the practice of differentiating learners. She suggests that they don’t mention the “alternative—that of teaching all students the same way.” This is not the alternative that the scientists have in mind. One representative quote from the article is, “it is undeniable that the instruction that is optimal for a given student will often need to be guided by the aptitude, prior knowledge, and cultural assumptions that student brings to a learning task.” In other words, obviously students differ, just not by learning style.

If scientists agree that learners are different, why should they bother debunking the learning-styles theory at all, since many people define it as generally as Ms. Wolpert-Gawron? Those scientists who debunk learning styles do so in order to remove the obstacles to teachers’ focusing their attention on dimensions of learners that both science and practice have identified as critical. In their words: “Assuming that people are enormously heterogeneous in their instructional needs may draw attention away from the body of basic and applied research on learning that provides a foundation of principles and practices that can upgrade everybody’s learning.” Learning-styles theory distracts teachers from principles and practices that we all agree are successful.

Ms. Wolpert-Gawron clearly agrees, stating that the engagement of all students is crucial to learning, but she maintains that a learning-styles approach fosters attention to student engagement. Perhaps this is true for the way that she has defined learning styles, but it is not true for learning-styles theory as a scientific theory of mind, as it is applied to many teacher evaluations, or state standards. Enforcing attention to learning styles directs teachers to a particular method of student engagement, and necessarily away from another. For example, to illustrate a certain concept, one could tell a very engaging story, related to the lives of the students themselves. But if one were a teacher with intense time pressure, meetings galore, and multiple classes to prepare (which is to say, any teacher), learning-styles theory would encourage attention to the sensory modality of the story (visual, auditory, or kinesthetic), rather than to the meaning of its content, its intrinsic interest, and its appropriateness for the particular lesson of the day. This doesn’t seem to trouble many teachers, who like Ms Wolpert-Gawron have been happily ignoring the central claims of learning-styles theorists. However, this may not be the case with beginning teachers, or teachers who are stringently evaluated by arbitrary criteria based on the myth of learning styles.

The Role of Basic Cognitive Science in the Classroom

The misunderstanding of the scientific claims does undermine Ms. Wolpert-Gawron’s article, but as a cognitive scientist who often reports research findings to my family of teachers, I feel it is important to address and confront the gaps that she mentions (and doesn’t mention) between research and practice, as well as her clear disdain for the scientists in question and their unwelcome incursion into her classroom. She is not unique in this attitude, nor is it limited to learning styles. This gap between basic research in cognitive psychology and the practice of teaching has negative consequences for each side. In their distrust of basic science, teachers miss an opportunity to improve their students’ learning by applying their expertise on relevant dimensions of learning. In allowing this distrust to exist, scientists undermine the public’s trust in the value of the basic science to understanding human behavior. Just as the science of medicine need not undermine the expertise of a doctor, the science of psychology need not invalidate practice-based knowledge, but rather supplement it with general information about theories of the mind and learning, without direct prescriptions for what to do in a certain classroom situation. In order to repair this distrust, scientists must first summarize our findings for audiences outside of our community, with an eye toward informing educational practice. In doing so, we need to describe our basic science findings as theories of how the mind works, not straightforward recipes for educational reform.

Daniel Willingham’s recent book Why Don’t Students Like School? may not do a great job answering the question in the title, but it serves as an excellent summary of consensus views in cognitive science as they apply to education (the learning styles and multiple intelligences chapter is particularly cogent and insightful). But we can’t stop there. We must also dispel myths, and we in psychology have a larger set of myths to dispel than others. When these myths exist, they are corrosive to science, because while seeming to represent science (“Well, it says it’s a theory”) they do not provide the measurable, reliable results that science demands. These myths are perpetuating identity theft of science, calling themselves science and wrecking havoc on our credit scores, yet many scientists don’t connect the bankruptcy of public trust in science with the myths that we let roam freely. In the case of learning styles, minimal evidence has been exaggerated and marketed to educators and administrators, outside of the checks of the scientific process. As scientists we must take greater efforts to reign in this misapplication of science. The recent article on learning styles that Ms. Wolpert-Gawron refers to is an example of this, as is another excellent book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, by Scott Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry Beyestein (learning styles is number 18).

In addition to summarizing the scientific consensus, and dispelling myths, the basic science of learning should clearly state the questions that we do not know the answer to, and get out of the way of expert teachers. Experienced teachers certainly have knowledge that science does not. Given that practice-based knowledge is practical knowledge, gained by classroom experience, it can sometimes be specific to the population a teacher serves, rather than a general knowledge of how people learn (just like baseball players are not necessarily experts in the general rules of projectile motion). It is not basic scientists but political reformers who are turning scientific theories into coarse criteria for evaluating teachers based on test scores, or a simple checklist. Basic psychological scientists are in general cautious, as well as skeptical of attempts to directly apply general theories to particular classroom situations. What Ms. Wolpert-Gawron is interpreting as science telling her what she sees in her classroom is in fact a summary statement of scientists telling her what they don’t see, despite having looked in the best ways they know how. The authors of the study, in my mind, are attempting to empower teachers to use the principles of learning that they know work, while encouraging them to steer clear of myths, which may have had a scientific-seeming provenance (if it’s from Harvard…), but have not received rigorous scientific support for critical claims.

I argue that basic science can concern itself with general mechanisms, and teachers can practice applied science in their own classrooms, but what happens when there seems to be a direct confrontation? How do we decide between the scientist in his sterile lab vs. the expert teacher with 11 years experience and 2500 students? In other words, why should experienced teachers let scientists tell them what is and isn’t a myth when common sense dictates otherwise? Because despite the fact that personal experience is very compelling and convincing, human beings are notoriously bad at direct observation of complex relationships. Our stone-aged brains notice patterns that aren’t there, seek out evidence that confirms our preconceived notions (called the confirmation bias), and ignore evidence that might prove us wrong. This is just as true for surgeons and scientists as it is for teachers, and the controlled observation, whether in a scientific lab, or through a double-blind study, or using randomized assignment to experimental groups, is absolutely critical element to the success of science in explaining and predicting complex human phenomena. This holds equally true whether it be the spread of disease or the process of learning. The history of common sense has been remarkably wrong, even in those experts who have seen thousands of cases. Scientists are people too, and so we don’t trust our own observations any more than anyone else’s, but rather use them to inform what should be tested in a controlled study. If controlled study after controlled study fails to observe, or offers contrary evidence to our most cherished beliefs, we have no choice but to give them up.

The goal, then, is a collaboration to arrive at the most relevant dimensions in learning, and the most effective way of teaching: respecting the expertise of the teacher, but accepting that in some cases, science can point out where myths exist. For example, the science of cognitive psychology can point to the necessity of practice (for example, through drilling) and background knowledge for deeper learning as well as the ways in which motivation and engagement are critical to learning, but cannot offer an ideal way to balance these two in a American History lesson for English Language Learners. The science can note that there is considerable evidence for the organization and meaning of a lesson having a large effect on learning, and little evidence that the color of the ink, or whether the words are on a page or on a blackboard have any effect. This does not mean that it doesn’t matter in any classroom, just that teachers should be cautious in choosing to spend time on choosing the color of the ink and err towards thinking about the structure and meaning of their lessons. However, only the teacher can apply these considerations to their subject and the particular students in front of them. As Ms. Wolpert-Gawron notes, teaching learning styles is far more difficult than not, but science here is trying to offer a way to make things easier. Just as science in medicine can call a doctor’s attention to a set of manageable indexes of health, science in education should aim to suggest to our teachers a set of relevant dimensions of learning, with the understanding that teaching is immensely complex. While basic science can offer theories and insight into how learning works, no one knows the particular students in front of her better than the experienced teacher.

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