Don’t dismiss learning styles

Sue Gerrard with a letter from our September edition.

I’ve followed with interest the discussion about learning styles in the The Psychologist (Letters, May–July 2017). The signatories of the original Guardian letter that sparked the discussion claim that the term learning style ‘usually’ refers to the popular visual/auditory/kinaesthetic preferences model, and that the evidence supporting its ‘meshing’ hypothesis is weak. They conclude there’s no justification for teachers to use learning styles, and that they are a ‘neuromyth’.

Professor Jordan (May) takes issue with the signatories’ position on the grounds that teachers and therapists have to work with individuals rather than populations. Professor Hood (June) responds that ‘it is simply not practical to provide tailored education for every child’. Much of the contention appears to originate with conceptualisation.

First, there’s what we mean by learning styles. Learning style is an umbrella term that encompasses many different models and a wide range of variables – from preferring a particular sensory modality, to approaches used in decision-making. The lack of robust methodology (and the absence of any evidence at all in some cases) certainly justifies advising teachers not to waste resources on learning styles (see e.g. tinyurl.com/h7hve2d). But learning styles are a mixed bag. In a review published in 2004 by the Learning and Skills Research Centre, Coffield et al. found that 13 of the 71 models they evaluated met at least one criterion for validity or reliability; one model met all the criteria. This suggests that lumping all learning styles models together and dismissing them en masse as ‘neuromyths’ isn’t warranted.

Second, there’s what we mean by preferences, a characteristic of many learning styles models. Preference implies that individuals simply make a choice about what sensory modality they like best, how they make decisions, etc. However, many children have a preferred sensory modality, not because they’ve made a free choice, but because it might be the only reliable sensory modality they have. Children with autism, specific language impairment or Down’s syndrome, for example, often present with impaired auditory functioning, so rely heavily on the visual modality for communication and learning. Also, sensory anomalies that tend to resolve spontaneously over time (e.g. glue ear, strabismus, amblyopia, astigmatism) are not uncommon in young children – although they often go undetected. Teachers could easily interpret a child’s difficulty with one sensory domain as a preference for another. This might be one reason why teachers seem so reluctant to give up the idea of learning styles.

Parents in the UK have a legal duty to ensure their children receive an education suitable to them as individuals, and teachers are obliged to teach each and every child in their class. Caution against wasting resources on poorly evidenced interventions is justified. But lumping together a wide range of models of varying validity and reliability and dismissing them all as ‘neuromyths’ doesn’t appear to be warranted by the evidence and could be misleading.

Sue Gerrard
Shropshire

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