Learning styles and their place in the classroom

There is widespread interest among teachers in the use of neuroscientific research findings in educational practice. However, there are also misconceptions and myths that are supposedly based on sound neuroscience that are prevalent in our schools. We wish to draw attention to this problem by focusing on an educational practice supposedly based on neuroscience that lacks sufficient evidence and so we believe should not be promoted or supported.

Generally known as “learning styles”, it is the belief that individuals can benefit from receiving information in their preferred format, based on a self-report questionnaire. This belief has much intuitive appeal because individuals are better at some things than others and ultimately there may be a brain basis for these differences. Learning styles promises to optimise education by tailoring materials to match the individual’s preferred mode of sensory information processing.

There are, however, a number of problems with the learning styles approach. First, there is no coherent framework of preferred learning styles. Usually, individuals are categorised into one of three preferred styles of auditory, visual or kinesthetic learners based on self-reports. One study found that there were more than 70 different models of learning styles including among others, “left v right brain,” “holistic v serialists,” “verbalisers v visualisers” and so on. The second problem is that categorising individuals can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt.

Finally, and most damning, is that there have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment. Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style. The Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK has concluded that learning styles is “Low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence”.

These neuromyths may be ineffectual, but they are not low cost. We would submit that any activity that draws upon resources of time and money that could be better directed to evidence-based practices is costly and should be exposed and rejected. Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term.

One way forward is to draw attention to practices that are not evidence-based and to encourage neuroscientists and educationalists to promote the need for critical thinking when evaluating the claims for educational benefits supposedly based on neuroscience. As part of Brain Awareness Week that begins 13 March, we support neuroscientists going into schools to talk about their research but also to raise awareness of neuromyths.
Professor Bruce Hood
Chair of developmental psychology in society, University of Bristol, founder of Speakezee
Professor Paul Howard-Jones
Chair of neuroscience and education, University of Bristol
Professor Diana Laurillard
Professor of learning with digital technology, UCL Knowledge Lab, University College London
Professor Dorothy Bishop
Professor of developmental neuropsychology, University of Oxford
Professor Frank Coffield
Emeritus professor of education, University College Institute of Education, University of London
Professor Dame Uta Frith
Emeritus Professor, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London
Professor Steven Pinker
Johnstone family professor of psychology, Harvard University
Sir Colin Blakemore
Professor of neuroscience and philosophy, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses, University College London
Professor Hal Pashler
Distinguished professor of psychology, UC San Diego
Dr Peter Etchells
Senior lecturer in biological psychology, Bath Spa University
Dr Nathalia Gjersoe
Senior lecturer in developmental psychology, University of Bath
Professor Gaia Scerif
Professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience, University of Oxford
Dr Sara Baker
Lecturer in psychology and education, University of Cambridge
Dr Matthew Wall
Division of brain sciences, Imperial College London
Dr Jon Simons
Reader in cognitive neuroscience, University of Cambridge
Dr Michelle Ellefson
Senior lecturer in psychology and education, University of Cambridge
Dr Ashok Jansari
Lecturer in cognitive neuropsychology, Goldsmiths, University of London
Dr Molly Crockett
Associate professor of experimental psychology, University of Oxford
Professor Kate Nation
Professor of experimental psychology, University of Oxford
Professor Michael Thomas
Director, University of London Centre for Educational Neuroscience, professor of cognitive neuroscience, Birkbeck, University of London
Dr Nikhil Sharma
Honorary consultant neurologist and senior clinical researcher (MRC),
the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery
Dr David Whitebread
PEDAL research centre, University of Cambridge
Professor Mark Sabbagh
Professor of psychology and neuroscience, Queen’s University, Canada
Dr Cristine Legare
Associate professor of psychology, University of Texas at Austin
Dr Joseph T Devlin
Head of experimental psychology, University College London
Professor Peter Gordon
Program director, neuroscience and education, Teachers College, Columbia University
Professor David Poeppel
Director, department of neuroscience, Max-Planck-Institute, Frankfurt
Professor Brian Butterworth
Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, Centre for Educational Neuroscience,
University College London
Professor Anil Seth
Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, School of Engineering and Informatics, University of Sussex
Dr Tom Foulsham
Reader in psychology, University of Essex

Response Letters:

It is good that neuroscientists are taking seriously their responsibility to improve education (No evidence to back idea of learning styles, Letters, 13 March). However, debunking can oversimplify matters.

My favourite example showing that learning styles do exist, but that focusing on them does not improve learning, comes from football. We easily agree that most players have a preferred foot (typically the right one). However, unfortunately for them, the pitch has two sides to play on. Hence, though laterality does exist, it is a great advantage if you also learn to kick the ball with your non-preferred left foot.

Similar examples can easily be provided at school. Imagine you are a so-called auditory learner. You will miss a lot in your learning curve if you ignore the visual information available. Thus you had better become an all-round, multi-leg player. However, if you do not grasp the visually presented information, auditory instructions can be very beneficial.

A possible negative side effect of this “learning style debunking” is that teachers neglect individual differences, rather than contemplating how to exploit them to improve learning at the individual level in an optimal manner.
Professor Harold Bekkering
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands

Professor Bruce Hood and his fellow signatories claim to have evidence that “Students will improve if they think about how they learn but not because material is matched to their supposed learning style”. In 2006 an approach called activity-based learning (ABL) was introduced in all primary schools in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu in a huge experiment, eventually involving 37,000 schools and 40 million children. The immediate success of this change demonstrated that giving children the chance to work through the curriculum with their friends at their own pace and in their own style was hugely more effective than obliging all of them to follow a teacher’s instructions. This suggests that Professor Hood’s negative conclusion relates only to imposed learning styles, not to individual choices.
David Gribble
Former coordinator, International Democratic Education Network (Iden)

When I was head of design and technology at a London comprehensive in the 1990s, our training session on learning styles involved a pathetic self-diagnosis, rather like a “What sort of lover are you?” test in a women’s magazine of the day. Totally arbitrary. At the end we had to fill in an evaluation, on which I wrote: “A very friendly tutor but the topic was bollocks, as no real evidence was presented.” (I had to see the head and get a slap down for not accepting the message of the training, which the school had paid for).

At my next school, the local inspector did the training. She explained that some people had physical learning styles and, perhaps because I was the most practical person in the group, she tried to teach me the Welsh national anthem by dance! A hilarious failure.

I suspect it’s all to do with the promotion of education academics; just like education department politicians, they get no credit if they haven’t innovated. So what happens to the students doesn’t matter, if it gets them their advancement.
Martin Cooper
Bromley, Kent

Education is far too important to be constantly at the mercy of the half-baked notions of politicians and the latest money-spinner for consultancies. We urgently need a strong, politically independent and evidence-based system of pedagogy.
Chris Stephens

In recent years other fantasies and fallacies have found their way into schools and colleges, not least in the UK: fixed mindset v growth mindset, often crudely and rudely taken from the ideas of the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, whereby mindset growth has led to claims by some educational managers that the brain is a muscle capable of changing shape, especially when tied into a fitness regime which binds in “emotional intelligence”. Talk of “neuroplasticity and mindfulness” whizzes around mindlessly at a time when (in the UK) educational budgets are going through the floor, with a further trend that heralds the ascent of (cheaper) electronic education supplemented by occasional neuroplasticity and mindfulness sessions delivered by “coaches” to students stuffed into overcrowded classrooms. Descent will certainly follow.

Whether during this Brain Awareness Week neuroscientists will find the time to go into schools “to talk about their research but also to raise awareness of neuromyths” must be doubtful, especially if such visits incur a fee or two. Good luck, though.
Bruce Ross-Smith
Headington, Oxford

Join the debate – email [email protected]

Source: The Guardian

Related posts: