Why don’t educators listen to us?

Professor Rita Jordan writes.

A letter to The Guardian on 12 March, signed by eminent psychologists and neuroscientists, claimed to expose the ‘myth’ of ‘learning style’ as an important variable in effective teaching and learning. Subsequent replies helped to establish a more balanced picture, but the whole controversy raised issues of wider concern about the influence, or lack of influence, of psychologists on policy and practice.

No one seems to be arguing against the idea that individuals vary in preferred modes of learning and that allowing individual choice of mode can improve learning, providing the chosen mode is appropriate for the content. What the psychologists and neuroscientists are asserting is that, when individuals are grouped into sets, defined by a poor and context-free assessment of preferred learning style (with labels such as ‘visual thinker’), then there is no evidence that presenting content (again, ill-defined) in that mode improves performance.

Although I advocate that educators take account of learning style, at least when it comes to teaching students on the autism spectrum, I would accept that statement, but it needs some unpicking. For a start, learning styles are, by definition, individual and context-dependent so it makes no sense to make generalised groupings and label the group, rather than the individuals, especially outside of the context of what is to be learnt and in what environments. Even more importantly, one needs to consider the concept of ‘evidence’.

The actual ‘evidence’ for the judgements made in the original letter was not given but, given the background of many of those who signed, I would guess that the ‘scientific’ base for the judgement came from much-favoured models of group designs and, in particular, ‘randomised controlled trials’ (RCTs). The basis of this research design is that large numbers are used to minimise individual variables and that statistics complete the process of eliminating individual differences from the analysis. In actuality, that might be an appropriate way of testing the research question of, for example, ‘Is learning style an important variable in predicting effectiveness of teaching?’. I imagine that research resulting from such a question might underlie the ‘evidence’ quoted.

Is this then sufficient evidence to ‘debunk the myth’ of learning styles? I think not. Difficulties with the RCT research design, have been enumerated by Mesibov and Shea (2011), particularly in relation to autism,. They suggest RCTs may be valuable in identifying ‘evidence-supported treatment (EST)’ but not necessarily ‘evidence-based practice’. EST arises from testing an already-decided-upon treatment or intervention (a model devised in analogy to drug trials) and testing its efficacy over a large group for the reasons already described. That might be useful (as here) when one’s concern is whether or not a particular intervention should be supported over a whole (or at least, large) population. The psychologists and neuroscientists then are puzzled, and perhaps a little upset, that educators are ignoring this ‘evidence’ and see the answer as being to give them more lectures on how, and what, to think.

Psychologists might do better to consider the possibility that most educators (and therapists, and parents) are not concerned with testing interventions, but rather with answering the question ‘What is the best approach for this individual, at this time, in this context, for this purpose?’. Of course they should pay attention to the results of EST but they naturally and professionally put the individual first and recognise that, while EST evidence might give an idea of what is worth trying, it cannot tell us very much about individual and situational learning. A much more appropriate guide is true evidence-based practice that uses individual (yet still scientifically valid) research designs to work out what would be the most appropriate approach for the person with whom they are concerned and what, if any, individual adjustments need to be made. One approach is not ‘better’ or more scientifically valid that the other – they just serve different purposes.

So, rather than trying to turn educators into something they are not, perhaps psychologists could help educators learn how to conduct (and publish) the high-quality individual designs that are needed to establish more effective individual approaches to teaching and learning. They could perhaps also save their ‘lectures’ for the educational administrators, helping them to understand the right questions they need to be asking and what they need to do to support teachers to collect meaningful data, based on the individuals they teach. Even medicine is moving towards personalised treatment; it would be a great pity if we tried to move education in the opposite direction.

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

Mesibov, G.B. & Shea, V. (2011) Evidence-based practices and autism. Autism, 15(1), 114–133.

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