Learning styles and research

Letters from our July edition.

I was not a signatory to the letter to The Guardian outlining the issues with learning styles, but would like to respond to Professor Rita Jordan’s letter to The Psychologist (May issue), in which she argued in favour of learning styles and against lectures for educators.

Rejecting the notion of learning styles does not necessitate a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and learning. The specific problem with teaching according to learning styles is that students practise learning in a domain in which they are already comfortable, not getting the chance to improve in the domains with which they struggle. The alternative to learning styles is not to move away from personalised approaches, but surely to help students develop skills across all domains so that they can access all varieties of educational material.

Further, giving lectures to educators does not preclude fruitful collaborations between researchers and teachers. There are now many examples of teachers and researchers working collaboratively to establish which research questions interest teachers, ensuring findings will be relevant to the classroom (see for example the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation education and neuroscience projects). As Jordan advocates, psychologists are increasingly communicating with educators to determine the most effective approaches to teaching and learning. Raising awareness of myths within the teaching profession is just one way in which researchers can support educators as part of a wider dialogue.

Annie Brookman-Byrne
Birkbeck, University of London

I am delighted that my letter ‘Why don’t educators listen to us?’ (May 2017) has provoked some discussion of the nature of evidence and, in particular, evidence-based practice (letter by Professor Hood, June 2017). However, I would like the discussion to be fruitful and not hampered by misconceptions about my position. I do not advocate meshing, or ignoring the results of RCTs, as Professor Hood acknowledges. The use of quotation marks around the terms ‘scientific’ and ‘evidence’ is not a mark of disrespect for these concepts (any more than Professor Hood’s quotation marks around ‘neuromyth’ implies he is now disowning that term). I strongly identify as a scientist and, working as I do in the field of autism, I am acutely aware of pseudo-scientific claims for interventions and the harm they can do. What I am drawing attention to is the way that both ‘scientific’ and ‘evidence’ have developed very narrow meanings, often restricted to the use of certain research procedures such as RCTs. Stephen Jay Gould, in his 1989 book Wonderful Life has detailed the dangers of these narrow conceptualisations in a far more erudite and engaging way than I can manage, and I would urge all psychologists to read this seminal work.

Professor Hood says that he teaches critical thinking and I am delighted to hear it. But I read and review a large number of academic papers, and I am weary of the number in education that identify apparent ‘failures’ of practitioners to use practices appearing on approved lists and then suggest ways in which they should be ‘encouraged’ to do so. The researchers do not attempt to measure the success of the interventions being used by the parents or teachers, but instead assume their inappropriateness simply because they are not on that list.

I do not want to do away with RCTs or ignore their findings, but they can only address certain questions and are of only partial use in deciding on interventions for individuals. A significant advance in child leukaemia treatment was made when a French physician examined in detail the results of a large RCT, testing a particular drug. The overall finding of the trial was that the drug was no more effective (overall) than a placebo. The physician noted, as is often the case, that these overall results obscured the individual variation in the data; for the majority it was indeed the case that the drug was ineffective but there was a small group for whom it appeared to work very well. By examining in detail and comparing the good and the no-responders, an entirely new form of childhood leukaemia was identified for whom that drug was very effective. Improvements in the treatment of childhood leukaemia over a long period have largely been based on the identification and targeted treatment of subtypes.

We need to develop scientific skills of observation and critical analysis in all educators so they can take account of RCT research but, through individualisation, develop that into genuine ‘evidence-based’ practice, and for everyone, not just those with special needs.

Professor Rita Jordan OBE
Emeritus Professor in Autism Studies
University of Birmingham

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