L is for Learning Styles

21 03 2010

When I wrote An A-Z of ELT, I was not entirely persuaded by the argument that learners can be categorized in terms of their preferred learning style, whether visual, aural, kinesthetic etc.:

So far… there is no convincing evidence that any of these dispositions correlates with specific learning behaviours. Nor has it been shown that a preference in one area predicts success in language learning.  In fact, it is very difficult to separate learning style from other potentially influential factors, such as personality, intelligence, and previous learning experience.  Nor is it clear to what extent learning style can be manipulated, e.g. through learner training (p. 116).

However, I was prepared to accept the case for “meshing” learning style and teaching style: “If the learner’s preferred learning style is out of synch with the type of instruction on offer, then success is much less likely than if the two are well matched.”

It seems I was wrong. Alerted by a somewhat sensationalist headline in a recent Guardian Weekly (5th March) to the effect that Learning styles ‘are hogwash’, I hunted out the research study on which this shock-horror claim was based: ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence’, by Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. in Psychological Science in the Public Interest,  9/3, December 2008 , pp. 105-119.

While the authors do not  dismiss the notion of learning style outright,  they cannot find any evidence for the ‘meshing hypothesis’, i.e. the idea that learning is optimsed when instruction is matched to the individual learner’s learning style. Sifting through a host of studies on learning style, they found no study that proved conclusively that a teaching approach that was effective for one style of learner was NOT effective for a different style of learner. They concluded, therefore, that “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice” (p. 105).

Given this lack of evidence, why has the case for matching teaching and learning style  persisted?  The authors of the paper suspect that this belief  “may reflect the fact that people are concerned that they, and their children, be seen and treated by educators as unique individuals” (p. 107).  Moreover, learning styles offer unsuccessful learners (and their parents) a stick to beat their teachers with: “If a person or a person’s child is not succeeding or excelling in school, it may be more comfortable for the person to think that the educational system ..  is responsible [and] that the fault lies with instruction being inadequately tailored to one’s learning style” (p. 107-8).  Learning styles, in other words, are a convenient untruth.

Rather than pigeon-holing learners  into aural, visual, verbal, etc.-types, the authors of this study “think the primary focus should be on identifying and introducing the experiences, activities, and challenges that enhance everybody’s learning” (p.117, emphasis added). “Given the capacity of humans to learn, it seems especially important to keep all avenues, options, and aspirations open” (ibid.).  Besides, an approach that focuses on what learners have in common, rather than on what differentiates them, is ultimately more practicable. The alternative–small groups of like-minded learners getting individualised instruction– is a luxury few educational institutions or systems can afford.

So, is this how I should re-write the last sentence of the entry on Learning Styles in An A-Z?

…Nor is it clear to what extent learning style can be manipulated, e.g. through learner training. Nor are there grounds (apart from wishful thinking) to believe that adapting teaching style to learning style produces any increments in learning.