Monday, January 25, 2010

Why Learning Styles Matter

There was an article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed last month that after reading it, I decided to promptly ignore. But it has been resurrected in a few places and Stephen Downe's referenced it recently as an argument against learning styles. The article is "Matching Teaching Styles to Learning Styles" by David Glenn. There are articles that are written just to generate letters to the editor and I think this was one of them. The article begins with "almost certainly, you were told that your instruction should match your students' styles. " (I have never heard anything of the kind. What I do hear is that we should strive to make our information multimodal.) And then introduces the argument from Pashler's recent paper that "there is no strong scientific evidence to support the "matching" idea, they contend in a paper published this week in Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And there is absolutely no reason for professors to adopt it in the classroom." The article then goes on to quote Sternberg who has conducted a lot of research in this field who says that "while he holds Mr. Pashler and his colleagues in high esteem, he believes they did a poor job here. Several of the most-cited researchers on learning styles, Mr. Sternberg points out, do not appear in the paper's bibliography. "The authors draw negative conclusions about a field they fail adequately to review," Mr. Sternberg says." So in other words, the author of the article is giving us this "it may or may not be a valid position" kind of argument.

What this article points out is that more research needs to be done in this field. It is not "evidence" of any kind that learning styles are not an issue. One thing these articles do point out is how uselessly narrow research has become and how important cross-disipline work is in education. "Conclusions" for or against the idea of learning styles in the education field ignore the entire history of the study of visual intelligence in the cognitive sciences.

In one of my previous incarnations as a tutor, I used to listen very carefully to how students described problems. Phrases like "I can' t understand a word my instructor says" or "he hands out these charts and they are all Greek to me" gave me important clues on how to shape my tutorials and teach students how to study. Gathering information from them about how they take in information would shape how they studied. And sometimes learning how a teacher delivers information would help us find disconnnects between how a particular student learns and their performance in class. We made no hard and fast universal conclusions about our practices and called them "learning style preferences." We were not scientists, but educators in the trenches out to solve real and immediate problems. We used learning style inventories for purely practical, common sense reasons - it worked. That said, I will agree that more work needs to be done to verify the claims that some educators have made. We did not use them to say "teachers should now teach differently" - we used the information to show the students ways to leverage their learning style. Some teachers can be threatened by the idea that a picture might actually aid their students in understanding what the hell they are saying, and some aren't. I feel like a Civil War nurse, I don't really know why people who get operated on with boiled surgical instruments survive but I am going to keep doing it anyway and look forward to the day when the medical schools come out with a Universal Germ Theory.

If learning styles don't matter, why bother using pictures, graphs, concept maps, video, or audio recordings? Why provide transcripts to videos? The real question that needs to be worked out is how learning styles matter and how to measure that effectively.

If you are in a successful, ivy leaguish, academic environment (a well-monied university, for instance), you are in the worst place possible to do this kind of research. The kinds of students you will get there are students who are strong read/write oriented people. The system is designed to weed everyone else out! I want to see someone working in the K-12 system (preferably special education) and in developmental ed classes at the community college level before they attempt to draw conclusions on learning theories based on a study of 500 Stanford juniors.

If learning styles do not matter, then I can deliver all information in a single modality (blocks of text) and everyone will get it - no matter what their background, culture, or experience. This just does not happen. How does one explain "illiterate" students finally learning how to read using the Montessori method? (They use images and manipulatives.)

Learning styles matter because as an instructional designer, I can use the principle of making course materials multimodal which increases the engagement of the learners.

A very useful summary of the issues are on Christy Tucker's blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment