kitchen table math, the sequel: The deathless meme of learning styles

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The deathless meme of learning styles

to Michael Weiss's question re: the death of learning styles, palisadesk has this to say:
No, it's far from done. The critique in Psychology Today may mean that some people are wising up, but the meme is deeply entrenched (along with a lot of other mystical ideas about teaching and learning) in K-8 certainly, and perhaps far beyond.

We continue to have workshops and mandatory PD on how to teach to different "learning styles" (fits in well with "differentiation," you see). And since most of the curriculum people seem unaware of research in psychology or cognitive science, even though the whole idea of learning styles and "aptitude-treatment interaction" has been debunked for decades, articles in jounals are not going to affect prevailing opinion.

My district, and others that I know of, requires teachers to identify students' "learning styles" when developing lesson plans, unit plans, intervention plans, or referring student for assessment. Of course there is no real data to support this stereotyping of students -- typically, a student is labeled a "kinesthetic learner" because s/he is out of seat a lot, or likes to play with Lego. "Interpersonal learners" are so identified because they enjoy chatting with their friends, but not on the basis that this socializing actually improves their learning outcomes (in fact the opposite is more usually the case).

I notice that our psychologists, most of whom have Ph.D.'s and know their stuff, are very careful to avoid falling into the "learning styles trap, and will pointedly say that they do not measure this because it is not scientific and has no reliably quantifiable metric. However, their lack of enthusiasm fails to slow down the train. Our IEP forms have a section for "learning style." Needless to say there is no data-based information to enter there.

The absence of evidence is nothing new. Steven Stahl wrote a good article on the topic for American Educator almost 15 years ago, and it made no difference.

The meme has a life of its own, like a virus, and will be hard to dislodge.
Hegemony in action.


Catherine Johnson said...

I have to find the article that actually went through the history of discovery-based learning .... every generation the theory gets killed off by empirical research, then it comes back to life with a new name and under new management, so to speak.

Barry Garelick said...

As The Who once sang: "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss."

Anonymous said...

Underlying the "learning styles" fad is something that is true, but far less encouraging than its proponents will admit. There are some things that have to be learned "kinesthetically," like swimming. Other things have to be learned "visuall," like recognizing the letters of the alphabet. We all have to use the faculty in question in order to learn those specific things. But, for some people the faculty is more well-developed than for others. I will never be a ballet dancer because I don't have the kinesthetic skills. Some people have extreme difficulty learning to recognize letters. That doesn't mean they should try to learn letter-recognition some other way than visuallly (although sand-paper letters were an attempt to bolster visual with kinesthetic learning). It just means it will take longer.

Bostonian said...

IQ is measurable and scientific -- read Arthur Jensen's books -- but IQ tests reveal large race and class differences in average intelligence. You are called a racist for noticing that, so instead it better career-wise to talk about learning styles and say that poorly-performing kids are not less intelligent that the higher achieving ones but simply have different "learning styles".

Howard Gardner, creator of the "multiple intelligences" theory, deliberately invented things such as "bodily-kinesthetic" intelligence because he knew that intelligence as traditionally defined is not evenly distributed among groups. "Learning styles" seek to exploit multiple intelligences, but bodily-kinesthetic intelligence does not help you learn algebra or read Tolstoy in the absence of sufficient IQ.

AmyP said...

"Underlying the "learning styles" fad is something that is true, but far less encouraging than its proponents will admit. There are some things that have to be learned "kinesthetically," like swimming. Other things have to be learned "visuall," like recognizing the letters of the alphabet."

Right. Also, some kids have short attention spans and may need to alternate lots of physical activity with their academics. I also remember reading about a mother who had good results by having her son do math facts while bouncing on a trampoline. It wasn't that the kid was a "kinesthetic" learner, it was just that his body needed to be doing something while his mind was doing math facts. Less dramatically, psychologists often encourage fidget items for special needs children, for instance a squishy ball. There is research that chewing gum (!!!) helps with concentration. This totally goes against the old conventional wisdom, which said that a still body was necessary for a focused mind. What people have started realizing is that fidgets can actually be a sign of a person who is struggling to pay attention, and they should actually be encouraged.

"Learning styles" as usually understood are garbage, but it is true that individuals are different, just not quite in the ways envisioned by conventional "learning style" theory.

Jen said...

If Jensen is all you're reading, you need to read a little bit more.

Miss Friday said...

The best refutation of learning styles theory I have ever read is Chapter 7 of Daniel Willingham's book Why Don't Students Like School. Regretfully, Google Books does not provide it as a sample chapter.

Mr. Willingham's central argument is that while each of us has perceptual strengths and weaknesses, learning is NOT perception. Learning is making meaning of perception, which occurs entirely in the mind. Some knowledge is easiest to make meaningful through a specific type of perception. For instance: learning geography is much easier when done via looking at maps rather than listening to a description of each country's borders.

I highly recommend not only this chapter, but Mr. Willingham's whole book. Tons of common sense backed up by real, skeptical science.

Daniel Ethier said...

Catherine, you are probably remembering one of the following articles:

The first one is a great overall summary.

Catherine Johnson said...

Daniel - I bet it's the Clark piece! Gotta find the passage and post it for posterity!

Also: Brain Rules

Jen said...

Thanks for the links -- the Kirschner one is excellent. Maybe even worth...paper!