learning styles: a response to Greg Ashman

In a post entitled Why I’m happy to say that learning styles don’t exist Greg Ashman says that one of the arguments I used in my previous post about learning styles “seems to be about the semantics of falsification“. I’m not sure that semantics is quite the right term, but the falsification of hypotheses certainly was a key point. Greg points out that “falsification does not meaning proving with absolute certainty that something does not exist because you can’t do this and it would therefore be impossible to falsify anything”. I agree completely. It’s at the next step that Greg and I part company.

Greg seems to be arguing that because we can’t falsify a hypothesis with absolute certainty, sufficient evidence of falsification is enough to be going on with. That’s certainly true for science as a work-in-progress. But he then goes on to imply that if there’s little evidence that something exists, the lack of evidence for its existence is good enough to warrant us concluding it doesn’t exist.

I’m saying that because we can’t falsify a hypothesis with absolute certainty, we can never legitimately conclude that something doesn’t exist. All we can say is that it’s very unlikely to exist. Science isn’t about certainty, it’s about reducing uncertainty.

My starting point is that because we don’t know anything with absolute certainty, there’s no point making absolutist statements about whether things exist or not. That doesn’t get us anywhere except into pointless arguments.

Greg’s starting point appears to be that if there’s little evidence that something exists, we can safely assume it doesn’t exist, therefore we are justified in making absolutist claims about its existence.

Claiming categorically that learning styles, Santa Claus or fairies don’t exist is unlikely to have a massively detrimental impact on people’s lives. But putting the idea into teachers’ heads that good-enough falsification allows us to dismiss outright the existence of anything for which there’s little evidence is risky. The history of science is littered with tragic examples of theories being prematurely dismissed on the basis of little evidence – germ theory springing first to mind.

testing the learning styles hypothesis

Greg also says “a scientific hypothesis is one which makes a testable prediction. Learning styles theories do this.”

No they don’t. That’s the problem. Mathematicians can precisely define the terms in an equation. Philosophers can decide what they want the entities in their arguments to mean. Thanks to some sterling work on the part of taxonomists there’s now a strong consensus on what a swan, or a crow or duck-billed platypus are, rather than the appalling muddle that preceded it. But learning styles are not terms in an equation, or entities in philosophical arguments. They are not even like swans, crows or duck-billed platypuses; they are complex, fuzzy conceptual constructs. Unless you are very clear about how the particular constructs in your learning styles model can be measured, so that everyone who tests your model is measuring exactly the same thing, the hypotheses might be testable in principle but in reality it’s quite likely no one has has tested them properly. And that’s before you even get to what the conceptual constructs actually map on to in the real world.

This is a notorious problem for the social sciences. It doesn’t follow that all conceptual constructs are invalid, or that all hypotheses involving them are pseudoscience, or that the social sciences aren’t sciences at all. All it means is that social scientists often need to be a lot more rigorous than they have been.

I don’t understand why it’s so important for Daniel Willingham or Tom Bennett or Greg Ashman to categorise learning styles – or anything else for that matter – as existing or not. The evidence for the existence of Santa Claus, fairies or the Loch Ness monster is pretty flimsy, so most of us work on the assumption that they don’t exist. The fact that we can’t prove conclusively that they don’t exist doesn’t mean that we should be including them in lesson plans. But I’m not advocating the use of Santa Claus, fairies, the Loch Ness monster or learning styles in the classroom. I’m pointing out that saying ‘learning styles don’t exist’ goes well beyond what the evidence claims and, contrary to what Greg says in his post, implies that we can falsify a hypothesis with absolute certainty.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That’s an important scientific principle. It’s particularly relevant to a concept like learning styles, which is an umbrella term for a whole bunch of models encompassing a massive variety of allegedly stable traits, most of which have been poorly operationalized and poorly evaluated in terms of their contribution – or otherwise – to learning. The evidence about learning styles is weak, contradictory and inconclusive. I can’t see why we can’t just say that it’s weak, contradictory and inconclusive, so teachers would be well advised to give learning styles a wide berth – and leave it at that.

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41 thoughts on “learning styles: a response to Greg Ashman

  1. I think this doesn’t give credit to the crunch sentence in Greg’s post “I admit that it is an inductive leap”. Something also demonstrated in Hales’ piece who says “The very nature of an inductive argument is to make a conclusion probable, but not certain, given the truth of the premises.” which also seems compatible with your viewpoint. Hales goes on to say “So why is it that people insist that you can’t prove a negative? I think it is the result of two things. (1) an acknowledgement that induction is not bulletproof, airtight, and infallible, and (2) a desperate desire to keep believing whatever one believes, even if all the evidence is against it.” I would say Greg understandable wants to steer clear of (2). Yet, I think you are demonstrating (1).

  2. Short reply:
    Are there no fuzzy social ideas that you think we can shut the door on because they are wrong?

    Long reply:

    You seem to keep missing the important other point when you say absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. That is only true if no one has tried to find whatever it is you are talking about.

    If people have tried and failed that is evidence of absence. That is how we conclude there is no Loch Ness monster and there are no homeopathic cures for aids or cancer.

    With regard to fuzzy concepts outside a philosophy class it is quite normal language usage to say “I know what you mean.”, “I exist.” and express many other fuzzy conceptual ideas with certainty.

    If you think Physics has more claim to certainty then search “Feynman” and “Does a brick have an inside”.

    As Greg points out in the case of learning styles it is only worth talking about a concept labeled learning styles that has some utility in education. Whatever is being described if no evidence of utility is found after enough looking it is safe to conclude and state that nothing like that with such utility exists.

    If you want to argue that we should keep an open mind to all possibilities because sometimes people have been wrong in the past you have to weight the cost of that not just the benefit. It is not free to have people entertain all possible theories. Cherry picking an historical example that supports you view doesn’t make your case. You have to weigh that against all the wrong hypothesis that were rightfully abandoned.

    Are there no fuzzy social ideas that you think we can shut the door on because they are wrong?

    • Short answer: Not if we want to find out about how everything joins up.

      Long answer: Absence of evidence could refer to dozens of well-designed studies all showing no effect, which would indeed be robust evidence of absence. Or it could refer to several well-designed studies that resulted in contradictory or inconclusive outcomes. That would suggest a problem with the theory – researchers might inadvertently be testing different hypotheses or measuring different things. Or it could refer to a handful of studies that were all seriously methodologically flawed. The evidence relating to learning styles doesn’t look to me as if it’s in the first camp, but in the rather messy second two, which is why the advice to teachers to steer clear makes sense, but concluding evidence of absence doesn’t.

      Don’t forget that the label ‘learning styles’ has been applied to at least 70 different models encompassing many different constructs; we’re not just talking about the VAK model. And the Loch Ness monster, AIDS and cancer are a lot less fuzzy than psychological constructs.

      I don’t see how the colloquial tendency to express fuzzy conceptual ideas with certainty justifies evaluating scientific evidence that way. The instance of the inside of the brick illustrates perfectly the problem of applying fuzzy colloquialisms to precise situations.

      I don’t have a problem with Greg limiting his discourse to concepts that have some utility in education. But if, as he seems to think, learning styles don’t have that utility, why talk about them not existing? Unless he thinks that things cease to exist if they have no relevance to the educational sphere.

      I have weighed the costs and benefits, pros and cons; that’s my point. I’m complaining that people who say ‘learning styles don’t exist’ haven’t done that. ‘Rightfully abandoning’ a hypothesis doesn’t mean it was wrong. Lamarck was long mocked for suggesting that inherited characteristics could be determined by environmental factors; his hypothesis wasn’t right, but since the discovery of epigenetics the principle underlying his proposals has had to be hastily dusted off and reinstated.

      Science is not about certainty, it’s about degrees of uncertainty.

  3. This now seems to have been reduced to pedantry. If I say something doesn’t exist, a pedant might claim that I have not proved it not to exist with an appropriate degree of certainty, and insist that I rephrase my claim or acknowledge that it is unverified. But in practice, we often say things don’t exist simply because it would be dishonest or unreasonable to say they do. The pedant can take issue with this and point out that we cannot be certain, but the meaning is pretty well understood by most.

    • Like Stan, you seem to be conflating the colloquial use of language with the evaluation of scientific evidence. I’m not asking you to say that learning styles exist. I’m not saying that learning styles exist. Nobody has pressurised anybody into saying that learning styles exist or don’t exist. I’m saying it’s pointless to make absolutist statements about whether things exist or not. It doesn’t get us anywhere except into pointless arguments. Most of Daniel Willingham’s FAQs about learning styles seemed to hinge on his claim about their non-existence rather than on the recommendation to teachers not to bother with them.

  4. Some years ago (about ten) I was approached by a head of department during a break where I was presenting problem-solving type ideas across the KS3/KS4 age range. He said something along the following lines: I know you taught in mixed-ability groups and I wondered if you would be available to come in and help my department; we are going to group students according to their preferred learning style! I politely said, “No thank you”! I have also known some teachers who got the children to write their preferred/predominant learning style on their exercise books – goodness knows what that was all about. As you will no doubt have discerned I was somewhat sceptical about this VAK research – though I prefer your idea of equating it to Santa Claus.

  5. There’s a useful saying in these contexts — being open minded is good, but not being so open minded your brain falls out.

    The evidence for learning styles, despite some serious looking, is very weak. At this point almost anything else we could examine would be a better use of our time as educators. The opportunity cost argument alone says we need to move on.

  6. I think it comes down to a point of language. But you can’t argue both that it is okay to say scientifically some things don’t exist such as Santa and that it is unscientific to say learning styles don’t exist. Yet there is no absolute standard for when you can say scientifically something has passed the boundary to where we will say it doesn’t exist. It’s a judgment call.

    In this case you seem to be in agreement on what most people should do – ignore learning styles in their work but you take issue with someone making too strong a claim.

    The examples you give just don’t match your view of the unlikely benefit of investing in learning styles. You don’t seem to think Learning Styles is the next germ theory of disease. Your example of Lamarck shows how easily an old idea can be resurrected with new evidence not how dangerous it is to make a claim about non-existence. Yet somewhere you have a weight of reasoning to say claiming learning styles don’t exist is going to be bad for us.

    I would counter that someone making the claim of non-existence is a good thing. It puts the debate in proper focus. It forces the question to be asked which side of the boundary of let’s move on and lets keep looking does this sit? It pushes the proponents to sharpen their definitions and produce some new ways to investigate or lose the debate. Scientific research is both an objective and social activity as it is carried out by people. It’s a good thing to use language effectively for the social part if it sharpens the debate. It doesn’t mean everyone immediately agrees and we all will die of the plague because we are wrong.

    • “I think it comes down to a point of language. But you can’t argue both that it is okay to say scientifically some things don’t exist such as Santa and that it is unscientific to say learning styles don’t exist”

      But that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that ‘scientifically’ we can’t say something doesn’t exist, unless we have access to all possibility spaces where it might exist. We can’t say, ‘scientifically’ that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, because the Santa hypothesis isn’t falsifiable. Since no one has come up with any robust evidence that Santa does exist, it’s pretty safe to assume he doesn’t, but making an assumption isn’t the same as testing the hypothesis.

      “Yet there is no absolute standard for when you can say scientifically something has passed the boundary to where we will say it doesn’t exist. It’s a judgment call.”

      Scientists generally don’t go round pontificating on whether things exist or not – unless they’re talking about real effects in their experiments. The boundary you mention is only an issue for people who want to make judgement calls about the existence of things.

      “In this case you seem to be in agreement on what most people should do – ignore learning styles in their work but you take issue with someone making too strong a claim.”

      Yes. Because ignoring a pedagogical approach on the grounds of flimsy evidence is a different thing to making overstated claims about the evidence. Don’t forget that Willingham & Bennett, who I think have made overstated claims, are in the vanguard of a movement to get teachers involved in research. Making too strong a claim about evidence is a major problem at the interface between research and policy (see many press releases).

      “The examples you give just don’t match your view of the unlikely benefit of investing in learning styles. You don’t seem to think Learning Styles is the next germ theory of disease. Your example of Lamarck shows how easily an old idea can be resurrected with new evidence not how dangerous it is to make a claim about non-existence. Yet somewhere you have a weight of reasoning to say claiming learning styles don’t exist is going to be bad for us.”

      I don’t think LS is the next germ theory. I used it as an example of how flimsy evidence can be wrongly interpreted. But antipathy to the Lamarckian model played a significant role in the eugenics movement (the French model of eugenics was totally different to the German one) and still colours a lot of people’s thinking about genetics.

      “I would counter that someone making the claim of non-existence is a good thing. It puts the debate in proper focus. It forces the question to be asked which side of the boundary of let’s move on and lets keep looking does this sit? It pushes the proponents to sharpen their definitions and produce some new ways to investigate or lose the debate. Scientific research is both an objective and social activity as it is carried out by people. It’s a good thing to use language effectively for the social part if it sharpens the debate. It doesn’t mean everyone immediately agrees and we all will die of the plague because we are wrong.”

      But science isn’t about debate, it’s about evidence. It’s not about sides, it’s about how the evidence is weighted. It’s not about agreement or disagreement it’s about careful evaluation of evidence that’s often difficult to tease out. Certainly, social activity, debate and the use of language are involved, but you appear to be conflating them with the scientific method. The scientific method has been developed largely to avoid the problems associated with social activity, debate and the use of language.

      • “But that’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that ‘scientifically’ we can’t say something doesn’t exist, unless we have access to all possibility spaces where it might exist. We can’t say, ‘scientifically’ that Santa Claus doesn’t exist because the Santa hypothesis isn’t falsifiable.”

        This really is extreme pedantry. Did anyone claim to be speaking “scientifically” in the sense you mean?

      • If Willingham’s detailed analysis of what cognitive science has to say about the matter here, his detailed answers to questions here and Tom Bennett’s evaluation in Teacher Proof of the review papers aren’t speaking ‘scientifically’ then why is anyone citing them in respect of the cognitive science or the evidence?

      • “If Willingham’s detailed analysis of what cognitive science has to say about the matter here, his detailed answers to questions here and Tom Bennett’s evaluation in Teacher Proof of the review papers aren’t speaking ‘scientifically’ then why is anyone citing them in respect of the cognitive science or the evidence?”

        Because most people can understand plain English, even in contexts related to research. It is you (and only you) who claims that saying “Santa Claus doesn’t exist” is a problem for scientific credibility. I don’t think it’s a problem for anyone else. Well, nobody over the age of 8.

      • You can’t have it both ways, OA. Willingham is explicit that he’s speaking as a cognitive scientist. Bennett is explicitly evaluating scientific evidence. So in answer to your question “Did anyone claim to be speaking “scientifically” in the sense you mean?’ Well, yes they did.

        I’ve explained several times (although I shouldn’t need to do so) why it’s pointless to make statements about whether entities as broad and poorly defined as ‘learning styles’ exist or don’t exist. Which is the reviewers haven’t done that. Instead, they’ve said ‘the evidence is weak; it’s not worth teachers using learning styles’. What isn’t that enough? Why go beyond the evidence?

      • Nope. The moment you admitted that you had problems with saying “Santa Claus does not exist” then you moved into a level of pedantry that nobody other than you ever claimed to be bound by, and nobody other than you would have expected Tom or Dan to be bound by.

      • As you well know, when it comes to non-existence, Santa Claus is in the same boat as Russell’s teapot. Or God for that matter. ‘Scientifically’ one can’t say they don’t exist, because their non-existence isn’t a falsifiable hypothesis.

        The non-existence of learning styles isn’t a falsifiable hypothesis either. So why even comment on it? Again, why go beyond the evidence?

        And I didn’t introduce fairies, Santa Claus, psychics, UFOs, or telepathy into the conversation. Other people did.

      • The point is that if people, having looked into the evidence, believe something doesn’t exist, they should be free to say so. The fear of some crank saying “just because all the attempts to find evidence for it have failed consistently over several decades, you can’t prove it doesn’t exist” is no reason to stay silent and not say something that reasonable people can accept as beyond reasonable doubt. After all, look at the reaction across Twitter from people who wanted learning styles to be true, read your post and thought you actually had an argument for learning styles existing? You have personally convinced people that lies such as learning styles are okay, and that challenging the lies is wrong. It is only after a lot of challenging that it became clear that actually, you have nothing but a pedantic point that people should not say something that is beyond reasonable doubt, because it hasn’t actually been proved “scientifically”.

      • “The point is that if people, having looked into the evidence, believe something doesn’t exist, they should be free to say so.”

        I’ve got no problem with people saying what they believe. But evaluating scientific evidence isn’t a matter of belief. It’s a matter of evidence. If figures in the vanguard of a movement to get teachers involved with research are going beyond the evidence and resorting to expressing their personal beliefs instead, that’s a matter of some concern.

        “The fear of some crank saying “just because all the attempts to find evidence for it have failed consistently over several decades, you can’t prove it doesn’t exist” is no reason to stay silent and not say something that reasonable people can accept as beyond reasonable doubt.”

        Scientific evidence isn’t evaluated on the same basis as legal evidence. If a case is tried in court, a verdict has to be arrived at. The criterion, as you say, is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. But science doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t have to arrive at a verdict. It can maintain a level of certainty between 0% and 99.9% for decades, centuries even. The uncertainty doesn’t matter. The quality of the evidence does.

        “After all, look at the reaction across Twitter from people who wanted learning styles to be true, read your post and thought you actually had an argument for learning styles existing? You have personally convinced people that lies such as learning styles are okay, and that challenging the lies is wrong.”

        All I’ve seen is a small group of people getting upset that I’ve challenged the ‘learning styles don’t exist’ mantra and a handful of other people who’ve gone ‘meh’. I have no idea how I’ve convinced people that learning styles “are okay” since I’ve never advocated using them as an approach. All I’ve questioned is the ‘learning styles don’t exist’ mantra because, contrary to what some people claim, that belief isn’t supported by the evidence.

        As for learning styles being a ‘lie’, that might be your belief but that isn’t supported by the evidence either.

        “It is only after a lot of challenging that it became clear that actually, you have nothing but a pedantic point that people should not say something that is beyond reasonable doubt, because it hasn’t actually been proved “scientifically”.

        Reasonable doubt doesn’t come into the evaluation of scientific evidence. I rest my case.

      • Your argument seems to consist of “if anyone invokes science, they immediately commit themselves to a manner of expression that I have dictated”. This is no way to argue. The principle by which you should interpret what others are saying is the principle of charity, not your own dictates about what you, somebody who is hardly authoritatice, think is meant by speaking “scientifically”.

      • Do you seriously think this is just my opinion? That scientists think it’s OK to substitute their beliefs for the evidence?

        The principle of charity applies to philosophical argument, not to how hard evidence is evaluated. Psychology isn’t philosophy. Different level of abstraction, different challenges.

        And what does one have to do to become ‘authoritative’ according to your criteria?

      • I’m sorry, nobody is suggesting that beliefs are substituted for science, just that scientists can express their, evidence-informed, opinions without you getting to be the arbiter of how they should have spoken. And, yes, I do think that it is only you that is this pedantic; did you even read the link in the article you replied to that discussed exactly this sort of claim?

        And in order to become authoritative, you would have to be recognised as an authority on what you are talking about. Nobody would recognise you as an authority on how scientists should speak.

      • You introduced the idea of beliefs and reasonable doubt OA, not me.

        And if I’m wrong about hypothesising that things don’t exist, feel free to explain how I’m wrong.

        And if I’m not an authority on how scientist should speak, doesn’t that mean you’re not either?

      • “And if I’m wrong about hypothesising that things don’t exist, feel free to explain how I’m wrong.”

        If you didn’t realise you were wrong with the Santa Claus example, how am I meant to make it any more obvious?

        “And if I’m not an authority on how scientist should speak, doesn’t that mean you’re not either?”

        I’m not the one writing blogposts condemning people (including a scientist) for expressing their views “unscientifically”.

      • Me: “And if I’m wrong about hypothesising that things don’t exist, feel free to explain how I’m wrong.”

        You: If you didn’t realise you were wrong with the Santa Claus example, how am I meant to make it any more obvious?

        Me: OA your approach to pointing out apparent errors seems to be to repeat ‘you’re wrong’ with little or no explanation. When asked for an explanation, you often change the subject.

        Me: “And if I’m not an authority on how scientist should speak, doesn’t that mean you’re not either?”

        You: I’m not the one writing blogposts condemning people (including a scientist) for expressing their views “unscientifically”.

        Me: No but you are critiquing those posts. If you’re entitled to criticise ’em I must be entitled to write ’em.

      • I’m a scientist. Clearing that up because that gives me some ‘authority’. Apparently (although I hope it’s about arguments not pedigree). The blogger should have given Greg a bit more credit. Most of the comments below this article are a bit out of their depth, as if they almost know science but not really. I especially thought the use of the word ‘pedantic’ was, well, eeh pedantic. Also the claim you may only know science if you are one (hence I felt I needed to respond). This is especially ironic because the very link in Ashman’s post (and I posted early on) shows two functions. Most love to disregard one of the two, depending on the preferred view. For example, teachingbattleground wants to emphasise the second point, namely that you can have Santa. True, that is a problem, you would not have any ground to denounce the biggest quackery. Yet he disregards the first point Hales makes, namely that “induction is not bulletproof, airtight, and infallible”. That’s why I liked Ashman’s “I have to make an inductive leap”, a much more reasonable reaction than most other comments.

  7. Thanks for clearing that up. So you are being pedantic. Not that alone makes your point invalid. I like pedantry as a rule.

    But you didn’t respond to the point that taking a firm stance has a positive effect discussion on the topic in question rather than the danger you allude to. If your pedantic point had some importance I would have thought you would take up that point more than the philosophical and linguistic debate about what can be said when speaking scientifically.

    As for who can say how scientists speak, we should look at the evidence. Do you think we would find scientists who said there is no Lamarckism? No ether? Nothing with a velocity greater than the speed of light? No people who lived with dinosaurs? No link between MMR and autism? No God?

    Should we care that all scientific announcements about the future are just as inductive as those about non-existence? No scientist can say the sun will rise tomorrow because induction only allows us to assign a probability to that. But I keep reading about scientists saying if we don’t act now global warming will be a problem. It seems when trying to persuade people scientists do round off the uncertainty when it is close to zero.

    Here is a philosopher with an nice piece on why you are mistaken.
    http://departments.bloomu.edu/philosophy/pages/content/hales/articlepdf/proveanegative.pdf

    • “Thanks for clearing that up. So you are being pedantic. Not that alone makes your point invalid. I like pedantry as a rule.”

      I don’t think I’m being any more pedantic than the learning styles reviewers. Coffield et al devoted much of their 182 page review to applying precise tests of validity and reliability to 13 learning styles models. Pashler et al trawled the evidence for a precisely defined hypothesis. I don’t know why they bothered when they could have said ” Let’s just say they don’t exist” and had done with it.

      “But you didn’t respond to the point that taking a firm stance has a positive effect discussion on the topic in question rather than the danger you allude to. If your pedantic point had some importance I would have thought you would take up that point more than the philosophical and linguistic debate about what can be said when speaking scientifically.”

      Where exactly does taking a firm stance come into it? I’m taking a firm stance on people saying more than the evidence warrants but you think that’s pedantic.

      “As for who can say how scientists speak, we should look at the evidence. Do you think we would find scientists who said there is no Lamarckism? No ether? Nothing with a velocity greater than the speed of light? No people who lived with dinosaurs? No link between MMR and autism? No God?”

      They might say things like that in the pub. Some misguided souls have tried saying them in press releases and have generally got into hot water. But in an evaluation of the evidence? Why wouldn’t they say “the evidence suggests that…”? What is the problem with saying that?

      “Should we care that all scientific announcements about the future are just as inductive as those about non-existence? No scientist can say the sun will rise tomorrow because induction only allows us to assign a probability to that. But I keep reading about scientists saying if we don’t act now global warming will be a problem. It seems when trying to persuade people scientists do round off the uncertainty when it is close to zero.”

      Where have you read that? My guess is that it’s been in articles in the poplar press, not in evaluations of the evidence. Willingham and Bennett are entitled to their views but in the context of evaluating the evidence, they are not entitled to go beyond the evidence.

      “Here is a philosopher with an nice piece on why you are mistaken.”

      People keep citing philosophers at me. I think that’s quite telling. Mathematics, logic and philosophy are not psychology. Different levels of abstraction different challenges.

      • “People keep citing philosophers at me. I think that’s quite telling. Mathematics, logic and philosophy are not psychology.”

        Nope. But neither do your views on how scientists should speak have anything to do with psychology either. But they are based on philosophical errors.

      • I think you could have avoided the long discussion if you just said they should have just said the evidence suggests Learning Styles don’t exist or something similar.

        Sure that would be better.

        But then what you be the point of your first quote in your piece “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.”

        You quoted this from his blog post which starts
        “Whilst dipping one of McVities’ finest chocolate digestives into a cup of tea during an after school CPD session the other week…”

        It is clearly not written as a scientific paper. But even there the quote is exactly what you are asking for.
        In Tom’s case what exactly is it you object to. His tone not his words, in what is clearly an informal piece?

      • “I think you could have avoided the long discussion if you just said they should have just said the evidence suggests Learning Styles don’t exist or something similar.
        Sure that would be better.”

        I did. Some people didn’t agree.

        “But then what you be the point of your first quote in your piece “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.”
        You quoted this from his blog post which starts
        “Whilst dipping one of McVities’ finest chocolate digestives into a cup of tea during an after school CPD session the other week…”
        It is clearly not written as a scientific paper.”

        I was looking at what Tom had said about LS. I also quoted from his book which is about research, from a chapter which is about evidence and that cites specific research papers. That’s not a blog post, personal opinion in the TES or casual comment in an interview.

        “But even there the quote is exactly what you are asking for.”

        It is?

        “In Tom’s case what exactly is it you object to. His tone not his words, in what is clearly an informal piece?”

        No it’s his conclusion in what is clearly a formal piece – his book.

  8. No you did not just say that. You said a lot more.
    Your quotes from his book are labeled by page numbers p144 and p146. You later repeat the same claim yourself made in the quote from p144 you say “It’s fair to say there’s no evidence to support the VAK model”.

    So I have to assume it is the quote from page 146 you object to. This is where he tells us he is tired of wading through all the different categories and gives up on it.

    Is that really what you are complaining about or have I missed something in what you wrote?

    • “No you did not just say that. You said a lot more.”

      I had in fact said ‘just that’ numerous times previously in response to claims about learning styles. The reason for saying a lot more in the series of posts is because there are other issues involved, such as how evidence is evaluated, conclusions from evidence being different to how conclusions are applied etc. It looked to me as if some teachers were repeating the claims because they weren’t aware of the other issues.

      “Your quotes from his book are labeled by page numbers p144 and p146. You later repeat the same claim yourself made in the quote from p144 you say “It’s fair to say there’s no evidence to support the VAK model”. So I have to assume it is the quote from page 146 you object to. This is where he tells us he is tired of wading through all the different categories and gives up on it. Is that really what you are complaining about or have I missed something in what you wrote?”

      You’ve missed something. The way I’ve structured the post is to set out what Tom says and then to pick up the points I’d question. With regard to the quotes from Teacher Proof;

      1. It’s misleading to say of VAK “And yet there is no evidence for it whatsoever. None.” (p.144). That’s because the VAK model isn’t a black box. Like the other models it has components. Reviewers have taken the models apart and assessed the components separately. In some cases some components are well supported by the evidence but others aren’t. VAK starts with the assumption that people have strengths and weaknesses in different sensory modalities (some support, see Coffield p.12, for example – even Willingham agrees). It moves on to an assumption that a preference for a particular sensory modality indicates the capacity for enhanced performance in that modality (not well supported at the population level). It then moves to the hypothesis that teaching students in their preferred modality will enhance their learning (not supported overall). What that says is not that there is no evidence for VAK whatsoever, but that the evidence for its effectiveness overall is weak. Weak evidence does not mean no evidence.

      2. In the next sentence, Tom broadens his focus; “Every major study done to see if using learning style strategies actually work has come back with totally negative results”. That is simply inaccurate. If it was accurate, Coffield et al wouldn’t have found any LS models with predictive validity.

      3. As for p.146 “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”, as I pointed out in my blog, that’s not an effective method of evaluating evidence. Tom’s written that sentence for effect, obviously, but it reinforces the ideas that if researchers disagree you can dismiss whatever they disagree about, and that in order to evaluate evidence you don’t have to take it all into account.

      • Regarding point one, so you were incorrect when you stated ” It’s fair to say there’s no evidence to support the VAK model – and many others”
        Just above the bolded line “taking liberties with the evidence”.

        Regarding point 2 Why not identify one example to make your point concrete.

        Regarding point 3 are you fine with the words used by Coffield et al, “bedlam” quoted by them, and their words “bewildering”, and “off-putting” ?

        You seem to think despite the poor quality of research the onus is on those reviewing it to keep going rather than the researchers to improve their work. If someone gets tired of wading through sloppy research and says so what is the harm? I think the criticism would be better directed at those researchers using a jargon term such as learning styles which clearly makes it harder not easier to understand what they are referring to.

      • “Regarding point one, so you were incorrect when you stated ” It’s fair to say there’s no evidence to support the VAK model – and many others”. Just above the bolded line “taking liberties with the evidence”.”

        I see what you’re saying, but it isn’t supported overall. It was the outright dismissal of VAK and all other learning styles models I felt was unwarranted.

        “Regarding point 2 Why not identify one example to make your point concrete.”

        Coffield et al found four examples (p.138). They say go so far as to say that Vermunt’s Inventory of Learning Styles (ILS) “can be safely used in higher education, both to assess approaches to learning reliably and validly, and to discuss with students changes in learning and teaching.”

        “Regarding point 3 are you fine with the words used by Coffield et al, “bedlam” quoted by them, and their words “bewildering”, and “off-putting” ?”

        Yes. That’s a fair description of the evidence. That’s why they wrote the report. To make sense of the muddle.

        “You seem to think despite the poor quality of research the onus is on those reviewing it to keep going rather than the researchers to improve their work. If someone gets tired of wading through sloppy research and says so what is the harm?”

        The reviewers have done the work for us. That’s the purpose of review papers. To get an overview you only need to read the summary at the beginning and the conclusion at the end. Tom wants teachers to do research and to understand research. He’s founded an international network that’s supposed to be supporting them in doing that. In order to understand the research teachers need to make sure they’ve got a grasp of all the evidence, not give up before they get to the valid and reliable bits and prematurely and wrongly conclude it’s all rubbish. Teachers, or worse, students, might think that’s an example to follow.

        “I think the criticism would be better directed at those researchers using a jargon term such as learning styles which clearly makes it harder not easier to understand what they are referring to.”

        What would you call them? The reviewers are pretty careful to explain what they mean.

  9. Regarding your question at the end. What would I call them? Taking the Vermunt case as described by Coffield et al I see no benefit of using an overall label that is already used else where for other things. Vermunt showed correlation between differences in different dimensions of learning. He could just say that without using the term learning styles and it would be more informative. For example according to the summary in Coffield, people who learn because they seek self improvement tend to feel pleasure when learning and people who learn for vocational reasons more often have an interest in practical details. Even putting labels on the columns in the table in Coffield adds no value and looks like a simple paraphrase of the orientation row.

    It is this need to describe a correlation as something more than it is that is a problem not people getting tired of it.

    • Are you saying that you wouldn’t use an overall label for all these models? Or that you don’t agree with the developers using the term ‘learning styles’?

      I don’t know what you mean by ‘orientation row’.

      You could certainly describe reliability and validity as forms of correlation, but they do have different characteristics, which is why they can be assessed separately.

      The types of correlation relating to learning styles models are an issue, for sure. But they are a different issue from someone who’s a vociferous advocate for teachers getting stuck into research giving up evaluating the evidence before he’s finished.

      • We may be at the point of diminishing returns in resolving our differences of opinion.
        I don’t see the harm of someone giving up on reviewing evidence once they have had enough. As long as they are honest about it that can be a fair response to poor quality research. If some good research is mixed into a bedlam of confusion the onus is on the researchers and advocates for it to somehow separate it from the rest.

        The orientation row is the row in Coffield Table 35 on page 104. I am saying the column headings look like just another way to say the same thing as the entries in this row. I would agree there is some small difference but nothing much would change if the headings on the columns was removed and he just referred to each column by hits entry in the orientation row.

        Reading Coffield it is only the undirected style of Vermunt that has some predictive value in exams. So dressed up in all of that multi-dimensional factor analysis is the idea that .students who are ambivalent and insecure about why they are learning don’t do as well as those that are not.
        This is not something that warrants a special label of its own. It is not very clear is something more than this result can be said to exist based on my reading of Coffield.

        My point is before creating a taxonomy for clumpings in some multi-dimensional analysis there should be more confidence (through agreement on the dimensional analysis and repeated results). Otherwise you get the situation here. Lots of people using the same labels for slightly different things and so the labels are less than useful as to know what the author means by them you have to do a lot more reading.

      • Giving up when you’ve had enough is fine. Giving up before you’ve got an overview of the evidence and then coming to a conclusion that is at odds with review papers isn’t. If teachers are actually interested in doing research rather than just applying conclusions from the research they need to have an idea of the state of play of the research; what’s good/bad, weak/robust and why.

        I’m not clear what you’re looking for in Coffield. It’s a review of the research field, not a manual for teachers. People researching all kinds of things, such as constructs used in training or trends in training approaches would find it useful.

        I agree completely about labels; Coffield’s results are predictable on the basis of the constructs alone. But that’s one of the problems with the research. If you’re going to save people the effort of trawling through it all themselves, a systematic multi-dimensional analysis is useful because it facilitates comparison.

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