learning styles: what does Tom Bennett* think?

Tom Bennett’s disdain for learning styles is almost palpable, reminiscent at times of Richard Dawkins commenting on a papal pronouncement, but it started off being relatively tame. In May 2013, in a post on the ResearchEd2013 website coinciding with the publication of his book Teacher Proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it he asks ‘why are we still talking about learning styles?’ and claims “there is an overwhelming amount of evidence suggesting that learning styles do not exist, and that therefore we should not be instructing students according to these false preferences.

In August the same year for his New Scientist post Separating neuromyths from science in education, he tones down the claim a little, pointing out that learning styles models are “mostly not backed by credible evidence”.

But the following April, Tom’s back with a vitriologic vengeance in the TES with Zombie bølløcks: World War VAK isn’t over yet. He rightly – and colorfully – points out that time or resources shouldn’t be wasted on initiatives that have not been demonstrated to be effective. And he’s quite right to ask “where were the educationalists who read the papers, questioned the credentials and demanded the evidence?” But Bennett isn’t just questioning, he’s angry.

He’s thinking of putting on his “black Thinking Hat of reprobation and fury”. Why? Because “it’s all bølløcks, of course. It’s bølløcks squared, actually, because not only has recent and extensive investigation into learning styles shown absolutely no correlation between their use and any perceptible outcome in learning, not only has it been shown to have no connection to the latest ways we believe the mind works, but even investigation of the original research shows that it has no credible claim to be taken seriously. Learning Styles are the ouija board of serious educational research” and he includes a link to Pashler et al to prove it.

Six months later, Bennett teams up with Daniel Willingham for a TES piece entitled Classroom practice – Listen closely, learning styles are a lost cause in which Willingham reiterates his previous arguments and Tom contributes an opinion piece dismissing what he calls zombie theories, ranging from red ink negativity to Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Multiple Intelligences.

why learning styles are not a neuromyth

Tom’s anger would be justified if he were right. But he isn’t. In May 2013, in Teacher Proof: Why research in education doesn’t always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it he says of the VAK model “And yet there is no evidence for it whatsoever. None. Every major study done to see if using learning style strategies actually work has come back with totally negative results” (p.144). He goes on to dismiss Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory and Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire, adding “there are others but I’m getting tired just typing all the categories and wondering why they’re all so different and why the researchers disagree” (p.146). That tells us more about Tom’s evaluation of the research than it does about the research itself.

Education and training research has long suffered from a serious lack of rigour. One reason for that is that they are both heavily derived fields of discourse; education and training theory draws on disciplines as diverse as psychology, sociology, philosophy, politics, architecture, economics and medicine. Education and training researchers need a good understanding of a wide range of fields. Taking all relevant factors into account is challenging, and in the meantime teachers and trainers have to get on with the job. So it’s tempting to get an apparently effective learning model out there ASAP, rather than make sure it’s rigorously tested and systematically compared to other learning models first.

Review paper after review paper has come to similar conclusions when evaluating the evidence for learning styles models:

• there are many different learning styles models, featuring many different learning styles
• it’s difficult to compare models because they use different constructs
• the evidence supporting learning styles models is weak, often because of methodological issues
• some models do have validity or reliability; others don’t
• people do have different aptitudes in different sensory modalities, but
• there’s no evidence that teaching/training all students in their ‘best’ modality improves performance.

If Tom hadn’t got tired typing he might have discovered that some learning styles models have more validity than the three he mentions. And if he’d read the Coffield review more carefully he would have found out that the reason models are so different is because they are based on different theories and use different (often poorly operationalized) constructs and that researchers disagree for a host of reasons, a phenomenon he’d do well to get his head round if he wants teachers to get involved in research.

evaluating the evidence

Reviewers of learning styles models have evaluated the evidence by looking in detail at its content and quality and have then drawn general conclusions. They’ve examined, for example, the validity and reliability of component constructs, what hypotheses have been tested, the methods used in evaluating the models and whether studies have been peer-reviewed.

What they’ve found is that people do have learning styles (depending on how learning style is defined), but there are considerable variations in validity and reliability between learning styles models, and that overall the quality of the evidence isn’t very good. As a consequence, reviewers have been in general agreement that there isn’t enough evidence to warrant teachers investing time or resources in a learning styles approach in the classroom.

But Tom’s reasoning appears to move in the opposite direction; to start with the conclusion that teachers shouldn’t waste time or resources on learning styles, and to infer that;

variable evidence means all learning styles models can be rejected
poor quality evidence means all learning styles models can be rejected
• if some learning styles models are invalid and unreliable they must all be invalid and unreliable
if the evidence is variable and poor and some learning styles models are invalid or unreliable, then
• learning styles don’t exist.

definitions of learning style

It’s Daniel Willingham’s video Learning styles don’t exist that sums it up for Tom. So why does Willingham say learning styles don’t exist? It all depends on definitions, it seems. On his learning styles FAQ page Willingham says;

I think that often when people believe that they observe obvious evidence for learning styles, they are mistaking it for abilityThe idea that people differ in ability is not controversial—everyone agrees with that. Some people are good at dealing with space, some people have a good ear for music, etc. So the idea of “style” really ought to mean something different. If it just means ability, there’s not much point in adding the new term.

This is where Willingham lost me. Obviously, a preference for learning in a particular way is not the same as an ability to learn in a particular way. And I agree that there’s no point talking about style if what you mean is ability. The VAK model claims that preference is an indicator of ability, and the evidence doesn’t support that hypothesis.

But not all learning styles models are about preference; most claim to identify patterns of ability. That’s why learning styles models have proliferated; employers want a quick overall assessment of employees’ strengths and weaknesses when it comes to learning. Because the models encompass factors other than ability – such as personality and ways of approaching problem-solving – referring to learning styles rather than ability seems reasonable.

So if the idea that people differ in ability is not controversial, many learning styles models claim to assess ability, and some are valid and/or reliable, how do Willingham and Bennett arrive at the conclusion that learning styles don’t exist?

The answer, I suspect, is that what they are equating learning styles with the VAK model, most widely used in primary education. It’s no accident that Coffield et al evaluated learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning; it’s the world outside the education system that’s the main habitat of learning styles models. It’s fair to say there’s no evidence to support the VAK model – and many others – and that it’s not worth teachers investing time and effort in them. But the evidence simply doesn’t warrant lumping together all learning styles models and dismissing them outright.

taking liberties with the evidence

I can understand that if you’re a teacher who’s been consistently told that learning styles are the way to go and then discover there’s insufficient evidence to warrant you using them, you might be a bit miffed. But Tom’s reprobation and fury doesn’t warrant him taking liberties with the evidence. This is where I think Tom’s thinking goes awry;

• If the evidence supporting learning styles models is variable it’s variable. It means some learning styles models are probably rubbish but some aren’t. Babies shouldn’t be thrown out with bathwater.

• If the evidence evaluating learning styles is of poor quality, it’s of poor quality. You can’t conclude from poor quality evidence that learning styles models are rubbish. You can’t conclude anything from poor quality evidence.

• If the evidence for learning styles models is variable and of poor quality, it isn’t safe to conclude that learning styles don’t exist. Especially if review paper after review paper has concluded that they do – depending on your definition of learning styles.

I can understand why Willingham and Bennett want to alert teachers to the lack of evidence for the VAK learning styles model. But I felt Daniel Willingham’s claim that learning styles don’t exist is misleading and that Tom Bennett’s vitriol was unjustified. There’s a real risk in the case of learning styles of one neuromyth being replaced by another.

*Tom appears to have responded to this post here and here. With yet another article two more articles about zombies.

References
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.

Pashler, H. McDaniel, M. Rohrer, D. and Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 106-116.

Advertisements

27 thoughts on “learning styles: what does Tom Bennett* think?

  1. I don’t understand why Bennett is so against learning styles? It is not a term I like, and nor have I ever been directed to consider it, I prefer to base my practice on my understanding of child development, but what does activity underpinned by belief in learning styles look like in secondary schools? Is it a little bit different from sitting still in dry as dust minimalist grey-walled academy rooms, memorising (I couldn’t call it learning) lists of facts that can be tested later and then used to make judgements about whether teachers are crap or not?
    I am concerned that Bennett has the ear of Secretaries of State for Education and when he grandstands his ‘ideas’ it is they who are listening. All this anti-learning styles, anti-creativity, anti-skills, pro-lists of facts is feeding into and helping to justify the tickboxization of our education system. Anything that can’t be tick-boxed must be got rid of. The first step in getting rid is to discredit.
    I am not so bothered about the LS evidence – good teachers will bring them in anyway, whether they know about them or not. I am bothered about why Bennett campaigns against them so vehemently? And, actually, if he let some of us follow him around at school for a day, we would see lots of evidence that he uses them himself. Or maybe I flatter him?
    I think also, that Mr Bennett and his chums could do with a bit more joined-up thinking? They have big rows with educators about teaching items of grammar metalanguage, for example, or ‘knowledge has to come before creativity’, and then host conferences where people speak about the need for students to understand the milieu of what they read, or the effects of boys’ emotional lives on their willingness to read and ability lo learn.
    And then they can’t see any links between these scenarios.
    Only connect.

  2. “So if the idea that people differ in ability is not controversial, many learning styles models claim to assess ability, and some are valid and/or reliable, how do Willingham and Bennett arrive at the conclusion that learning styles don’t exist?”

    Because ability is still not a learning style? You might as well say “there is no evidence that fairies exist, but if I call my dog a fairy, how can anyone arrive at the conclusion that fairies don’t exist”.

    You are just obscuring the argument.

    • Here, Willingham says

      “children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement”.

      The conclusion that reviewers have drawn is that there’s no evidence suggesting that using the VAK learning styles approach improves educational achievement. Agreed. Teachers shouldn’t be bothering with learning styles as a general approach to teaching. (But it doesn’t follow that any given child might not benefit from using a particular sensory modality; children with sensory impairments don’t have much choice in the matter, for example.)

      But here, Willingham says

      “I think that often when people believe that they observe obvious evidence for learning styles, they are mistaking it for ability….If it just means ability, there’s not much point in adding the new term”.

      Indeed there isn’t. But ability in specific sensory domains is central to the VAK model. What it says is enhanced performance <- preference <-ability.

      To use your analogy, calling your dog Fairy certainly doesn’t mean that fairies exist, but calling your dog Fairy doesn’t make it any less a dog.

      In short, why does calling learning styles ‘ability’ mean that learning styles don’t exist?

      • What does “is central” mean here? Actually what does “ability in specific sensory domains” mean? The sense of what Willingham and Bennett are saying seems fairly clear. What you are saying seems to differ from paragraph to paragraph. Could you make an unambiguous statement of what you think Bennett and Willingham have disagreed with? I will personally ask them if they have disagreed with it.

      • ‘Central’ means ‘what the VAK model is based on’.

        As for “ability in specific sensory domains” it’s what I assume Willingham means by “abilities with different modalities” but I’d be grateful if you could ask him about it. I’ve tried to contact him several times over recent months to no avail.

        Review papers make it clear that there is some evidence for the existence of individual stable traits in the way different people learn. Some learning styles models have some validity and reliability in the way they assess those stable traits. In short, the evidence says that learning styles exist – depending on your definition of learning style. Willingham says learning styles exist if your definition of learning style is “abilities with different modalities”. But Bennett says there’s no evidence whatsoever for learning styles and both of them say ‘learning styles do not exist’. That’s where they depart from the evidence.

      • Hang on. I asked what you meant by “ability in specific sensory domains”. You can’t answer that by saying it’s the same as another phrase, which you don’t understand. Do you actually know what the words you are using mean?

        “Willingham says learning styles exist if your definition of learning style is “abilities with different modalities”.”

        But isn’t he arguing that this is *not* what is meant by learning styles? You seem to be taking a passage about how learning styles only exist if you use a daffy definition, to imply that learning styles do exist. If Willingham said:

        “learning styles do exist if, by ‘learning styles’, you actually mean dogs”

        would you take that as evidence that learning styles exist?

      • I think Willingham means ‘abilities in specific sensory domains’ when he refers to ‘abilities with different modalities’ because he goes on to expand on specific sensory modalities at some length in his Ask the Cognitive Scientist column. What alternative reading is there?

        He says in his FAQ piece “The idea that people differ in ability is not controversial…so the idea of “style” really ought to mean something different”. He might think it ‘ought to mean something different’. But
        IF
        the originators of the VAK model have actually applied the label ‘learning styles’ to ability, as Willingham suggests (“I think that often when people believe that they observe obvious evidence for learning styles, they are mistaking it for ability”),

        AND

        if people do “differ in their abilities with different modalities”,

        AND

        learning styles are defined in terms of ability

        THEN

        by that definition, learning styles exist.

        The whole thing is made problematic by people claiming that learning styles do not exist, and that there isn’t any evidence for them. There’s no need for those claims – they simply muddy the water.

  3. I agree with the first commenter. This post is not helpful. If people have spent some effort looking for something and found little or none of it then it is safe to lean towards it not being there. This is particularly true if it is something that is supposed to be useful not just a curiosity. It is also quite understandable to show “palpable disdain” for those that tell everyone such a thing surely exists and is important based on the same research.
    You probably apply the same reasoning to something – religion, miracle cures, astrology, trickle down economics, …

    • Leaning towards it not being there is not the same as claiming, despite the evidence, that it doesn’t exist. Science is a work in progress. The history of science is littered with ‘things that don’t exist’ eventually being found to be responsible for the majority of diseases or holding the universe together.

      • There are is even more litter that was found not to be there. The ether, the four elements. You are using survivor bias here and heading towards the Galileo fallacy. Looking and not finding is a good reason to complain about those that claim it exists and take the opposite stance.
        That’s how all fake medicines are shown to be fake. It is how every hypothesis that is not true gets rejected.

  4. The issue with ‘learning styles’ is the fact that, by and large, it is not based on evidence at the individual level. If I assess a student who clearly has a stronger visual memory than verbal, I will suggest that You Tube demonstrations etc. may complement their learning, or if a student’s visual memory is weak, I suggest notes/Dictaphone etc.
    I often assess learners who claim to prefer visual demonstrations and yet this is not supported by their scores, so I’m left wondering as to how that have come to that conclusion – and artefact from school maybe? In the extreme, some of these students can’t follow simple hand movements.
    Similarly, I often see visual timetable/visual cues etc on paperwork for students with ASD, but again this is not always supported by cognitive testing. Many students with ASD have stronger verbal/concrete abilities than visual/fluid ones.
    In short, unless evidence is gathered for each individual student, you have no evidence at all – you are guessing. In the absence of evidence for an individual, it’s probably best to present lessons through all channels because having a preference/style/whatever does not mean a complete inability to learn through other means.

  5. Pingback: Perpetual motion machines do not exist | Evidence into practice

  6. Pingback: The problem with Bandwagons. | Love Learning....

  7. What this debate has thrown up is at the core of the current vogue for positivistic methods of educational research which is that these tend to throw up solutions for the population and not for the individual, and also the difference between the hesitancy of the academic to make overarching statements and the willingness of the journalistic content that is written in TES. So a headline like, “learning styles is more complex and nuanced depending on semiotics, analysis and application” is not going to cut the “journalistic mustard” in the way that, “it’s all bolløcks …” is.

  8. “IF the originators of the VAK model have actually applied the label ‘learning styles’ to ability, as Willingham suggests (“I think that often when people believe that they observe obvious evidence for learning styles, they are mistaking it for ability”)..”

    Your quotation does not demonstrate your premise.

    “…AND if people do “differ in their abilities with different modalities”, AND learning styles are defined in terms of ability THEN by that definition, learning styles exist.”

    Why are you repeating this? I showed above that it could be equally used to prove fairies exist.

    Obviously, if we redefine “learning styles” to mean “abilities” or “personality traits” or “apples” then they exist. But in using this argument we haven’t shown that learning styles exists, we have simply decided to talk about something else. Like I said, if you redefine the word “fairy” to refer to your dog, it won’t prove that fairies exist.

    • There is no evidence that fairies exist, but that doesn’t prove they don’t. There might be no evidence that red crows exist, but that doesn’t prove they don’t either. On the basis of the evidence red crows are far more likely to exist than fairies, but you know as well as I do that you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist.

      The evidence suggests that the theory around learning styles is pretty flaky, but whether they exist or not depends on what we’re referring to when we use the term ‘learning styles’. Willingham thinks that people who talk about learning styles often mean ‘ability’ and that ‘learning styles’ should therefore refer to something-other-than-ability. He’s entitled to his opinion, but that doesn’t tell us anything about whether something-other-than-ability exists or not.

      I can’t see the point of making claims for the existence/non-existence of learning styles without clarifying what’s meant by ‘learning style’.

      • The point is that “learning styles” didn’t need clarifying. You are not clarifying; you are equivocating.

        Also, fairies don’t exist. There I said it. Going to write a blog condemning me for claiming this?

        It is hard to prove something doesn’t exist to some absolute degree of certainty. On the other hand, we often use “X doesn’t exist” to mean “those who claim X exists are all either lying or mistaken”. That’s where we are with learning styles.

      • Learning styles do need clarifying. Clarifying conceptual constructs is a major issue in the social sciences.

        As I pointed out, many specific claims about things existing or not don’t actually matter that much. What does matter is assuming that the fact that there’s little evidence to support the use of x means that x doesn’t exist. That’s just sloppy thinking, OA.

        You might use “X doesn’t exist” to mean that “those who claim X exists are all either lying or mistaken”, but it doesn’t follow that the substitution is valid or that you speak for everyone else.

      • “Learning styles do need clarifying. Clarifying conceptual constructs is a major issue in the social sciences.”

        Your premise does not support your conclusion. Social scientists can go to the bathroom without writing a treatise on what it means to take a crap. It only needs clarifying if there is some ambiguity. There isn’t.

        “You might use “X doesn’t exist” to mean that “those who claim X exists are all either lying or mistaken”, but it doesn’t follow that the substitution is valid or that you speak for everyone else.”

        Me? No, when I wrote on this, I used the phrase “learning styles are complete arse”. But “The Principle Of Charity” means that we should interpret what people are in the way that makes their argument strongest and interpreting “learning styles don’t exist” to mean “I can personally provide definitive proof that learning styles of a sort that nobody has identified and/or tested (even if they seem to bear no resemblance to what is previously been understood by the words “learning styles”) cannot possibly exist” is not following that principle. It’s just a way to shift the burden of proof from those spreading lies, to those who challenge the lies.

      • If there was no ambiguity there would be no need for lengthy reviews teasing out the similarities and differences between models.

        Could you explain how you are using the principle of charity in relation to my argument?

  9. Pingback: Why I’m happy to say that learning styles don’t exist | Filling the pail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s