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Learning Styles, ha, ha, ha
Thursday, December 08, 2005
Normally, I would not expect to get many chuckles from a 186-page report entitled Learning styles and pedagogy post-16 learning A systematic and critical review, 2004, by Frank Coffield, Institute of Education, University of London; David Moseley, University of Newcastle; Elaine Hall, University of Newcastle; Kathryn Ecclestone, University of Exeter. This is an exception.

This marvelously tongue-in-cheek report looks at 800 studies of learning styles and concludes that there are better uses for educational funding. “Learning style awareness is only a ‘cog in the wheel of the learning process’ and ‘it is not very likely that the self-concept of a student, once he or she has reached a certain age, will drastically develop by learning about his or her personal style’.”

The authors at the Learning and Skills Research Centre doubtless had a rollicking good time coming up with conclusions like “Research into learning styles can, in the main, be characterised as small-scale, non-cumulative, uncritical and inward-looking. It has been carried out largely by cognitive and educational psychologists, and by researchers in business schools and has not benefited from much interdisciplinary research.”

And how about this? "The sheer number of dichotomies in the literature conveys something of the current conceptual confusion. We have, in this review, for instance, referred to:
  • convergers versus divergers
  • verbalisers versus imagers
  • holists versus serialists
  • deep versus surface learning
  • activists versus reflectors
  • pragmatists versus theorists
  • adaptors versus innovators
  • assimilators versus explorers
  • field dependent versus field independent
  • globalists versus analysts
  • assimilators versus accommodators
  • imaginative versus analytic learners
  • non-committers versus plungers
  • common-sense versus dynamic learners
  • concrete versus abstract learners
  • random versus sequential learners
  • initiators versus reasoners
  • intuitionists versus analysts
  • extroverts versus introverts
  • sensing versus intuition
  • thinking versus feeling
  • judging versus perceiving
  • left brainers versus right brainers
  • meaning-directed versus undirected
  • theorists versus humanitarians
  • activists versus theorists
  • pragmatists versus reflectors
  • organisers versus innovators
  • lefts/analytics/inductives/successive processors
  • versus rights/globals/deductives/
  • simultaneous processors
  • executive, hierarchic, conservative versus legislative,
  • anarchic, liberal.
"The sheer number of dichotomies betokens a serious failure of accumulated theoretical coherence and an absence of well-grounded findings, tested through replication. Or to put the point differently: there is some overlap among the concepts used, but no direct or easy comparability between approaches; there is no agreed ‘core’ technical vocabulary. The outcome – the constant generation of new approaches, each with its own language – is both bewildering and off-putting to practitioners and to other academics who do not specialise in this field."

The question at the end of the 186-page report asks whether government doesn’t have better things to do with its money, “Finally, we want to ask: why should politicians, policy-makers, senior managers and practitioners in post-16 learning concern themselves with learning styles, when the really big issues concern the large percentages of students within the sector who either drop out or end up without any qualifications?”


Blogger Harold Jarche said...

The emporer has no clothes! But many people will still make much money off of these schemes. I guess PT Barnum was right ;-)

5:56 PM  
Blogger Downes said...

I share the author's scepticism regarding what passes for research in the field these days.

Nonetheless, I think that what has been shown is only that the verdict concerning learning styles has not been established.

Certainly a statement like this is far too strong: "inally, we want to ask: why should politicians, policy-makers, senior managers and practitioners in post-16 learning concern themselves with learning styles, when the really big issues concern the large percentages of students within the sector who either drop out or end up without any qualifications?"

After all, we see high school drop-outs happily working away, and learning rapidly, at the local garage (I've seen it myself). Therefore, some difference between the learning at school and the learning in the garage accounts for the difference.

My own intuition is that learning styles are important, because my own learning varies with the style in which I am expected to learn - but it is equally clear that many other factors (am I hungry? do I like the subject? am I tired?) are at play.

More to the point, so is the locus of the research. How much of the 'learning style' research been conducted in a formal academic setting? How much of it involves in some way some sort of directed learning? In how many of the cases do the students select their own learning style, as opposed to testing 'assigned' learning styles? The process of double-blind experimentation sometimes blinds us.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Interesting report. Posted some thoughts here: Learning Styles: Whose Styles Are These And Why Should They Matter To Me?

7:26 AM  
Blogger Harold Jarche said...

Different people learn in different ways at different times and in different situations. One size does not fit everyone and slicing learnng styles into being either an A, B, C, or D doesn't work either. There is a lot of interesting learning style research out there (e.g. Kolb) but for me, I use this as my design yardstick - adapt your instruction for as many different perspectives and approaches as possible and as much learner control as practical.

2:08 PM  
Blogger Clark Quinn said...

I spent 2.5 years leading a project building a system that adapted learning on the basis of independent learner characteristics (read: learning styles). I had several months to steep myself in the, er, research before I had the luxury to hire a psychometrician to complement the senior cognitive scientist also on the team.

My take was that the measures were highly redundant (a view this report apparently concurs with). However, I agree with Stephen Downes that learning styles are important. My mandate to the team was to review all proposed measures and find some commonality to reduce it to a comprehensive but minimal set. We ended up with 31 different measures (or flavors), and had nine built into the first version of the system. They included cognitive, conative, and affective.

Note that we didn't claim it was definitive, but we felt it was a reasonable cut that we could build upon. There's lots of leeway, obviously, to make sense of this, but we've got to step beyond small proprietary models and look to some basics.

That project's probably lost to history (I know where it resides, if anyone's interested), but the lessons are simple: there's a lot of potential in learning styles (even more when coupled with knowledge adaptation), but the existing basis is too narrow and blinkered to be of much use.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Christopher D. Sessums said...

Does it make sense to design a learning experience one way for Bob and a different way for Sally?

Roger Schank does not belive so. In Designing World-Class E-learning: How IBM, GE, Harvard Business School, & Columbia University are succeeding at E-Learning, he insists that people do not have different learning styles, but they do have different personalities.

Schank's dictum: figure it out yourself or get help.

He claims "repeated practice is necessary to embed new rules and replace the ones that have failed. All people learn through failure and practice no matter what type of personality or style they possess"(81).

Schank suggests that designers should take personality differences into account when designing a learning environment. For example, "Some people learn to swim by being thrown in the lake, and others learn by being gently held. Nevertheless, the learning is the same"(81).

"A good e-learning system must present the learner with options that allow the learner to learn in his or her own way and own time. A learner who is in control of his or her own experience is likely to learn the most"(81).

Based on a cursory review of learning style literature, differences *do* exist and need to be accounted for in the learning environment.

Is this issue one of unconscious preparation of learning materials or differences in learning styles? Is this an issue concerning pedagogy, i.e., teacher/instructor preparation? Perhaps it is simply a case of "know your audience," as my writing instructors used to insist.

Boud and Griffin (1987) suggest that much of what passes for e-learning is text-based and therefore tied to the development of our rational thinking processes and ergo to the exclusion of our other capabilities, e.g., our emotional, relational, physical, metaphorical, & spiritual capacities.

The question becomes: Do we risk losing our students if we don't pay attention to these other dimensions?

Palloff & Pratt (2003) suggest that in order to foster learning and develop community online, designers should focus on building courses that utilize collaborative activities as a means for touching on all six learning capacities. To me, this begs the question about learning styles in general: i.e., what if I don't want to collaborate; what if that's not my style? Isn't collaboration really a governance issue or a Cold Cure?

Ultimately, e-learning design should attempt to re-create the work environment and problems faced by your audience. If practice is the sine qua non of learning, then the question of learning styles seems somewhat irrelevant.

Or is it?

1:58 PM  
Anonymous Donald Clark said...

Learning Styles
Let's continue the debate just in images for visual learners. Better still in a kinaesthetic fashion for those touchy/feely learners!

Schank is right - it's faddish, non-empirical nonsense, confusing personality traits with the process of learning. Trainers and teachers would be better served understanding personality and the role it plays in learning.

Worse, as Coffield points out, this stuff is dangerous, as educationalists use these half-baked theories (and there's lots of them) to pigeon-hole and stereotype learners, feeding them with what they think is important, rather than the learner making the choice.

This stuff is to learning what creationism is to evolutionary science.

When teachers do come across personality extremes, they don't know what to do and they panic. Think of those many thousands of kids diagnosed with attention disorders. They're too quick and fast for the classroom so we slow them down with drugs to the match the dreary pace of their teachers.

12:43 PM  
Blogger michael hotrum said...

Well, sometimes we are just slightly too smug about learning styles. Granted the reserach is inconclusive, and the dichotomies are ludicous. The question still stands - why do the same people go through the same learning experience and some come out with an ability to apply and others don't? As a teacher and a designer I've seen some otherwise inattentive learners come alive once I change my approach. Sure, there are many factors that promote learning - and many that deaden it. While I still don't buy the learning styles theory, I'm still hankering after some greater clarity of intention that could guide me in delivery and design.

9:45 AM  
Blogger jay said...

If one believes, as I do, that learning is adaptation to one's surroundings, Roger Schank's approach may be the most realistic. Life is not delivered according to learning styles.

For example, athletic activities have never scored highly among my multiple intelligences. In high school, we didn't have a special football team for the inept, so I had to learn to cope with what we had. I earned my football letter by serving as team manager.

Eight years later, the coping skills I learned in high school enabled me to serve in the U.S. Army for two years without doing a push-up or running a lap. I'm glad my high school didn't have a special football team for the uncoordinated.

10:20 AM  

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