learning styles: the evidence

The PTA meeting was drawing to a close. The decision to buy more books for the library instead of another interactive whiteboard had been unanimous, and the conversation had turned to educational fads.

“Now, of course,” the headteacher was saying, “it’s all learning styles. We’re visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners – you know, Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.” His comment caught my attention because I was familiar with Gardner’s managerial competencies, but couldn’t recall them having anything to do with sensory modalities and I didn’t know they’d made their way into primary education. My curiosity piqued, I read Gardner’s book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. It prompted me to delve into his intriguing earlier account of working with brain-damaged patients – The Shattered Mind.

Where does the VAK model come from?

Gardner’s multiple intelligences model was clearly derived from his pretty solid knowledge of brain function, but wherever the idea of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) learning styles had come from, it didn’t look like it came from Gardner. A bit of Googling learning styles kept bringing up the names Dunn and Dunn, but I couldn’t find anything on the VAK model’s origins. So I phoned a friend. “It’s based on Neuro-Linguistic Programming”, she said.

This didn’t bode well. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a therapeutic approach devised in the 1970s by Richard Bandler, a psychology graduate, and John Grinder, then an assistant professor of psychology who, like Frank Smith, had worked in George magical-number-seven-plus-or-minus-two Miller’s lab and been influenced by Noam Chomsky’s ideas about linguistics.

If I’ve understood Bandler and Grinder’s idea correctly, they proposed that insights into people’s internal, subjective sensory representations can be gleaned from their eye movements and the words they use. According to their model, this makes it possible to change those internal representations to reduce anxiety or eliminate phobias. Although there are some valid elements in the theory behind NLP, evaluations of the model have in the main been critical and evidence supporting the effectiveness of NLP as a therapeutic approach has been notable by its absence (see e.g. Witkowski, 2010).

So the VAK Learning Styles model appeared to be an educational intervention derived from a debatable theory and a therapeutic technique that doesn’t work too well.

Evaluating the evidence

Soon after I’d phoned my friend, in 2004 Frank Coffield and colleagues published a systematic and rigorous evaluation of 13 learning styles models used in post-16 learning and found the reliability and validity of many of them wanting. They didn’t evaluate the VAK model as such, but did review the Dunn and Dunn Learning Styles Inventory which is very similar, and it didn’t come out with flying colours. I mentally consigned VAK Learning Styles to my educational fads wastebasket.

Fast forward a decade. Teachers using social media were becoming increasingly dismissive of VAK Learning Styles and of learning styles in general. Their objections appeared to trace back to Tom Bennett’s 2013 book Teacher Proof. Tom doesn’t like learning styles. In Separating neuromyths from science in education, an article on the New Scientist website, he summarises his ‘hitlist’ of neuromyths. He claims the VAK model is “the most popular version” of the learning styles theory, and that it originated in Neil Fleming’s VARK (visual, auditory, read-write, kinaesthetic) concept. According to Fleming, a teacher from New Zealand, his model does indeed derive from Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Bennett says the Coffield review “found up to 71 learning styles had been described, mostly not backed by credible evidence”.

This is where things started to get a bit confusing. The Coffield review identified 71 different learning styles models and evaluated 13 of them against four basic criteria; internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity and predictive validity. The results were mixed, ranging from one model that met all four criteria to two that met none. Five of the 13 use the words ‘learning style(s)’ in their name. They included Dunn and Dunn’s Learning Styles Inventory that features visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile (VAKT) modalities, but not Fleming’s VARK model nor the popular VAK Learning Styles model as such.

Having cited John Hattie’s research on the effect size of educational interventions that found the impact of individualisation to be relatively low, Coffield et al concluded “it seems sensible to concentrate limited resources and staff efforts on those interventions that have the largest effect sizes” (p.134).

A later review of learning styles by Pashler et al (2008) took a different approach. The authors evaluated the evidence for what they call the meshing hypothesis; the claim that individualizing instruction to the learner’s style can enable them to achieve a better learning outcome. They found “plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information” (p.105). But like the Coffield team, Pashler et al concluded “at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number” (p.105).

Populations, groups and individuals

The research by Coffield, Pashler and Hattie highlights a core challenge for any research relating to large populations; that what is true at the population level might not hold for minority groups or specific individuals – and vice versa. Behavioural studies that compare responses to different treatments usually present results at the group level (see for example Pashler et al’s Fig 1). Results from individuals that differ substantially from the group are usually treated as ‘outliers’ and overlooked. But a couple of high or low scores in a small group can make a substantial difference to the mean. It’s useful to know how the average student behaves if you’re researching teaching methods or developing educational policy, but the challenge for teachers is that they don’t teach the average student – they have to teach students across the range – including the outliers.

So although it makes sense at the population level to focus on Hattie’s top types of intervention, those interventions might not yield the best outcomes for particular classes, groups or individual students. And although the effect sizes of interventions involving the personal attributes of students are relatively low, they are far from non-existent.

In short, reviewers have noted that:
• there is evidence to support the idea that people have particular aptitudes for particular types of learning,
and
• some learning styles models have some validity and reliability,
but
• there is little evidence that teaching children in their ‘best’ sensory modality will improve learning outcomes,
so
• given the limited resources available, the evidence doesn’t warrant teachers investing a lot of time and effort in learning styles assessments.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading some commentaries on learning styles. In the next couple of posts, I want to look at what Daniel Willingham and Tom Bennett have to say about them.

Bibliography
Bandler, R. & Grinder, J (1975). The structure of magic I: A book about language and therapy. Science & Behaviour Books, Palo Alto.

Bandler, R. & Grinder, J (1979). Frogs into Princes: The introduction to Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Eden Grove Editions (1990).

Bennett, T. (2013). Teacher Proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it, Routledge.

Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall, E. & Ecclestone, K (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Learning and Skills Research Council.

Fleming, N. & Mills, C. (1992). Not another invention, rather a catalyst for reflection. To Improve the Academy. Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education. Paper 246.

Gardner, H. (1977). The Shattered Mind: The person after brain damage. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. Fontana (1993).

Pashler, H. McDaniel, M. Rohrer, D. and Bjork, R. (2009). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 106-116.

Witkowski, T (2010). Thirty-Five Years of Research on Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
NLP Research Data Base. State of the Art or Pseudoscientific Decoration? Polish Psychological Bulletin 41, 58-66.

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