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The Myth of Learning Styles



The Early Career Framework states teachers must learn that... There is a common misconception that pupils have distinct and identifiable learning styles. This is not supported by evidence and attempting to tailor lessons to learning styles is

unlikely to be beneficial.


When I began my teaching career, during my training and early years as a teacher, there was a high focus on Learning Styles and ensuring that lessons catered for these learning styles. In the early 2000s, we [student teachers] were taught to apply the VAK Learning Style Theory in all of our lessons. VAK learning style theory is designed to describe how distinct type of learners process information. The VAK learning style was pioneered in 1987 by Neil Fleming. VAK stands for visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic (Tactile). The theory is one prefers to learn through one of these sense channels. Visual learners process and comprehend information much quicker when the information is presented in front of them. A visual learner learns best from charts, graphs, pictures, videos, or even live demonstrations rather than listening to someone lecturing the entire time. Lecturing without visual aids does not help these learners as they retain less information. Auditory Learners learn best through verbal lessons, discussions, talking things through and listening to what others have to say. Auditory learners interpret the underlying meanings of speech through listening voice, pitch, and speed. These learners learn best through listening to information on videos. Kinaesthetic Learners learn through moving, doing, and touching. Kinaesthetic learners learn best through a hands-on approach, actively exploring the physical world around them .These learners are easily distracted thus the teacher has to have activities to actively engage these students to maintain and keep them focused.


This then moved on to Multiple Intelligence theory in the late 2000s and very early 2010s until the research suggested that learning styles was likely to be unhelpful in the classroom. Multiple intelligences refers to a theory describing the different ways students learn and acquire information. These multiple intelligences range from the use of words, numbers, pictures and music, to the importance of social interactions, introspection, physical movement and being in tune with nature. The theory posits that an understanding of which type(s) of intelligence a student may possess can help teachers adjust learning styles, and suggest certain career paths for learners. The theory has come under criticism from both psychologists and educators, where many believe that the eight “intelligences” represent innate talents and abilities. Cognitive psychologists have further stated that there is no empirical evidence to support the validity of this theory.


In actual fact, there is no evidence that designing lessons that appeal to different learning styles accelerates student learning. Should you have a variety of activities within your lesson to maintain engagement and pace? Absolutely. However, you do not need to ensure that you are working to fulfil the "learning styles" of each individual student.


Research articles such as the journal Education Next, articles written by The Association for Psychological Science and The British Psychological Society debunk these theories as unhelpful in an education setting. More recently labelled a "myth"; learning style theories are no longer applicable for teachers in a classroom.



Carol Lethaby suggests that there are four reasons to avoid learning styles

  1. Neuroscientists say the idea doesn't make any sense

  2. Learning styles are not consistent attributes

  3. There’s no evidence that accommodating learning styles improves learning

  4. Business interests are getting in the way of evidence

So, if we are no longer focusing or even acknowledging learning styles within teaching, what should we be focusing on? How do we meet the needs of all learners within a lesson.


The Early Career Framework instead says that to meet individual student needs (without creating unnecessary workload), teachers must learn how to:

  • Make use of well-designed resources (e.g. textbooks).

  • Plan to connect new content with pupils' existing knowledge or providing additional pre-teaching if pupils lack critical knowledge.

  • Build in additional practice or removing unnecessary expositions.

  • Reframe questions to provide greater scaffolding or greater stretch.

  • Consider carefully whether intervening within lessons with individuals and small groups would be more efficient and effective than planning different lessons for different groups of pupils.

Well-designed resources

  • A good resource is accurate

This goes without saying – an educational resource must be factually accurate. But that’s not the full story – consistency is also important. The factual narrative, in terms of the scientific models and descriptions used, should be coherent. For example, both the Bohr model and quantum model of the atom are valid in the right contexts, but we shouldn’t flip between these two models without sufficient explanation. That can lead to confusion.


  • A good resource is useful

Any resource should have clear structure and language. The most effective method of presentation depends on the content. For example, a video is often more effective at demonstrating a practical technique than a text document. But if a supplementary set of instructions would also help, then this should be included too. Often, a format that can be edited is the most useful. You need resources you can integrate into existing lesson plans and materials, and you need to be able to tailor resources to the specific needs of your students. Sometimes, this is as simple as making a text document available in Word format instead of PDF. As well as being clear and editable, all resources should have appropriate guidance for teachers. This includes learning outcomes and information on misconceptions that the material can clear up, or even introduce if handled poorly.

  • A good resource is efficient

A teacher’s time is precious, and any resource worth using needs to provide a good return on the time invested in delivering it. A resource that involves a number of hours of preparation time needs to be very beneficial to the students to offset the work involved. But the existence of an efficient resource is not enough – you need to be able to tell how useful it is, without needing to invest a lot of time working out whether or not you want to use it. The benefits should be easy to appreciate, and the aims should be clear – what it sets out to achieve, how it does it, and who it’s aimed at.

  • A good resource is relevant

Resources need to be clearly curriculum-relevant to be the most useful, and all should be framed in the wider context of the subject. Connections should be exploited – it should be clear how a resource builds on, is built on by, and links to others. This helps teachers see how it can be most effectively used over several lessons and in schemes of work. Finally, a resource should show where it came from and who made it. You can have more confidence in the relevance of a resource when you know something about its origin


Connecting new content with prior knowledge


Yale Poorvu Centre for Teaching and Learning states that research in educational psychology demonstrates that students’ prior knowledge can directly impact their learning in class. For example, learners who have more extensive K-12 academic preparation tend to have greater academic success in college (Kurlaender and Howell, 2012). Conversely, prior misconceptions or inaccurate knowledge can also hinder future development (Ambrose, et. al 2010). As such, instructors should take the time through assessments, active learning, and beginning-of-class activities to ascertain the knowledge their students bring to the classroom, and strategize how this information can inform pedagogy


Building in practice time


Deliberate practice is not the same as rote repetition. Rote repetition — simply repeating a task — will not by itself improve performance. Deliberate practice involves attention, rehearsal and repetition and leads to new knowledge or skills that can later be developed into more complex knowledge and skills. Although other factors such as intelligence and motivation affect performance, practice is necessary if not sufficient for acquiring expertise (Campitelli & Gobet, 2011). Building in additional practice time enables students to consolidate more complex knowledge and skills. You can also utilise backwards fading. The 'backwards fading' continuum is a sequence of tasks that slowly increases learner application and effort whilst simultaneously reducing the need for worked steps. As students grow in proficiency, they are required to solve more of the problem themselves, a shift that represents the transition from novice to expert.


Scaffolding


Scaffolding refers to a method where teachers offer a particular kind of support to students as they learn and develop a new concept or skill. In the instructional scaffolding model, a teacher may share new information or demonstrate how to solve a problem. The teacher then gradually steps back and lets students practice on their own. It also can involve group practice. The model of instructional scaffolding is also sometimes described as “I do. We do. You do.” In other words, the teacher shows how something is done, then the class practices together and, finally, students work individually. Questioning is an essential tool for teachers to master as it can be used for many purposes (Coe et al., 2014). Questioning can help develop pupil thinking as well as check it. Studies have shown that more effective

teachers ask more questions and often require pupils to give extended explanations of their thought process (Rosenshine, 2012). Sequences of open questions can help to manage pupils’ limited working memory. For example, when introducing a maths problem you could ask:

  • ‘What would we do first?’

  • ‘Why would we do this first?’

  • ‘Once we have done that, what might we do next? Why’

Such questions require pupils to explain their answers which encourages pupils to think about the underlying principles of learning, deepening and consolidating their knowledge (Pashler et al., 2007). These questions are more effective when pupils have grasped key ideas first (Coe et al., 2014).


[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]


*Davis, P., Florian, L., Ainscow, M., Dyson, A., Farrell, P., Hick, P., Rouse, M. (2004) Teaching Strategies and Approaches for Pupils with Special Educational Needs: A Scoping Study. Accessible from: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6059/1/RR516.pdf.

Deunk, M. I., Smale-Jacobse, A. E., de Boer, H., Doolaard, S., & Bosker, R. J. (2018) Effective differentiation Practices: A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies on the cognitive effects of differentiation practices in primary education. Educational Research Review, 24(February), 31–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2018.02.002.

*Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Accessible from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Hattie, J. (2009) Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Kriegbaum, K., Becker, N., & Spinath, B. (2018) The Relative Importance of Intelligence and Motivation as Predictors of School Achievement: A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2018.10.001.

*OECD (2015) Pisa 2015 Result: Policies and Practices for Successful Schools. Accessible from: https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264267510-en.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008) Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9 (3).

Sisk, V. F., Burgoyne, A. P., Sun, J., Butler, J. L., & Macnamara, B. N. (2018) To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? Two Meta-Analyses. Psychological Science, 29(4), 549–571. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617739704.

Speckesser, S., Runge, J., Foliano, F., Bursnall, M., Hudson-Sharp, N., Rolfe, H. & Anders, J. (2018) Embedding Formative Assessment: Evaluation Report. [Online] Accessible from: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/EFA_evaluation_report.pdf [retrieved 10 October 2018]. 36

Steenbergen-Hu, S., Makel, M. C., & Olszewski-Kubilius, P. (2016) What One Hundred Years of Research Says About the Effects of Ability Grouping and Acceleration on K-12 Students Academic Achievement: Findings of Two Second-Order MetaAnalyses. Review of Educational Research (Vol. 86). https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654316675417.

Tereshchenko, A., Francis, B., Archer, L., Hodgen, J., Mazenod, A., Taylor, B., Travers, M. C. (2018) Learners’ attitudes to mixed-attainment grouping: examining the views of students of high, middle and low attainment. Research Papers in Education, 1522, 1–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/02671522.2018.1452962.

Willingham, D. T. (2010) The Myth of Learning Styles, Change, 42(5), 32–35.