phlogiston for beginners

Say “learning styles” to some teachers and you’re likely to get your head bitten off. Tom Bennett, the government’s behaviour tsar/guru/expert/advisor, really, really doesn’t like the idea of learning styles as he has made clear in a series of blogposts exploring the metaphor of the zombie.

I’ve come in for a bit of flak from various sources for suggesting that Bennett might have rather over-egged the learning styles pudding. I’ve been accused of not accepting the evidence, not admitting when I’m wrong, advancing neuromyths, being a learning styles advocate, being a closet learning styles advocate, and by implication not caring about the chiiiiiiiildren and being responsible for a metaphorical invasion by the undead. I refute all those accusations.

I’m still trying to figure out why learning styles have caused quite so much fuss. I understand that teachers might be a bit miffed about being told by schools to label children as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (VAK) learners only to find there’s no evidence that they can be validly categorised in that way. But the time and money wasted on learning styles surely pales into insignificance next to the amounts squandered on the industry that’s sprung up around some questionable assessment methods, an SEN system that a Commons Select Committee pronounced not fit for purpose, or a teacher training system that for generations has failed to equip teachers with the skills they need to evaluate popular wheezes like VAK and brain gym.

And how many children have suffered actual harm as a result of being given a learning style label? I’m guessing very few compared to the number whose life has been blighted by failing the 11+, being labelled ‘educationally subnormal’, or more recent forms of failure to meet the often arbitrary requirements of the education system.  What is it about learning styles?

the learning styles neuromyth

I made the mistake of questioning some of the assumptions implicit in this article, notably that the concept of learning styles is a false belief, that it’s therefore a neuromyth and is somehow harmful in that it raises false hopes about transforming society.

My suggestion that the evidence for the learning styles concept is mixed rather than non-existent, that there are some issues around the idea of the neuromyth that need to be addressed, and that the VAK idea, even if wrong, probably isn’t the biggest hole in the education system’s bucket, was taken as a sign that my understanding of the scientific method must be flawed.

the evidence for aliens

One teacher (no names, no pack drill) said “This is like saying the ‘evidence for aliens is mixed’”.  No it isn’t. There are so many planets in the universe it’s highly unlikely Earth is the only one supporting life-forms, but so far, we have next to no evidence of their existence. But a learning style isn’t a life-form, it’s a construct, a label for phenomena that researchers have observed, and a pretty woolly label at that. It could refer to a wide range of very different phenomena, some of which are really out there, some of which are experimental artifacts, and some of which might be figments of a researchers’ imagination. It’s pointless speculating about whether learning styles exist or not because whether they exist or not depends on what you label as a ‘learning style’.  Life-forms are a different kettle of fish; there’s some debate around what constitutes a life-form and what doesn’t, but it’s far more tightly specified than any learning style ever has been.

you haven’t read everything

I was then chided for pointing out that Tom Bennett said he hadn’t finished reading the Coffield Learning Styles Review when (obviously) I hadn’t read everything there was to read on the subject either.   But I hadn’t  complained that Tom hadn’t read everything; I was pointing out that by his own admission in his book Teacher Proof he’d stopped reading before he got to the bit in the Coffield review which discusses learning styles models found to have validity and reliability, so it’s not surprising he came to a conclusion that Coffield didn’t support.

my evidence weighs more than your evidence

Then, “I’ve seen the tiny, tiny evidence you cite to support LS. Dwarfed by oceans of ‘no evidence’. There’s more evidence for ET than LS”. That’s not how the evaluation of scientific evidence works. It isn’t a case of putting the ‘for’ evidence in one pan of the scales and the ‘against’ evidence in the other and the heaviest evidence wins. On that basis, the heliocentric theories of Copernicus and Kepler would have never seen the light of day.
how about homeopathy?

Finally “How about homeopathy? Mixed evidence from studies.”   The implication is that if I’m not dismissing learning styles because the evidence is mixed, then I can’t dismiss homeopathy. Again the analogy doesn’t hold. Research shows that there is an effect associated with homeopathic treatments – something happens in some cases. But the theory of homeopathy doesn’t make sense in the context of what we know about biology, chemistry and physics. This suggests that the problem lies in the explanation for the effect, not the effect itself. But the concept of learning styles doesn’t conflict with what we know about the way people learn. It’s quite possible that people do have stable traits when it comes to learning. Whether or not they do, and if they do what those traits are is another matter.

Concluding from complex and variable evidence that learning styles don’t exist, and that not dismissing them out of hand is akin to believing in aliens and homeopathy, looks to me suspiciously like saying  “Phlogiston? Pfft! All that stuff about iron filings increasing in weight when they combust is a load of hooey.”

4 thoughts on “phlogiston for beginners

  1. Science: When I did A level biology in 1973, all life was either plant or animal. They were a bit puzzled about mushrooms, which they put in the plant camp, and bacteria, which they put with the animals, but no, you were either a plant or an animal. They were wondering too about viruses, which they were trying to decide are not living things at all. I remembered all this for years.
    When my daughter did A level Biology in the mid 90s, she told me that living things now have 5 classification groups – plant, animal, fungus, bacterium, virus. I was both shocked and intrigued.
    I am waiting now for some of those supposed ‘building blocks of life’ that are supposedly floating around the universe, to be captured, and labelled as the sixth type of life form.
    In my science lessons, though, I was taught to state only facts as facts, could bes as could bes. I was taught to be absolutely sure that what I was writing and saying could not be laughed out of town. Our chemistry teacher, bless him, would publish others’ badly drawn diagrams of equipment in experiments, in a main corridor, named, with big red circles around blocked test tubes or the wrong colour flame on a bunsen burner, along with BUFFOON! or THIS WILL EXPLODE AND KILL US ALL, in giant red letters. People laughed at first. But then they didn’t.
    We learned to check. We learned to think. We studied the characteristics of plants and animals so that we didn’t just accept what somebody told us. When my daughter told me about the 5 categories of living things, I asked her to explain their characteristics, and she did.
    Most of all, maybe, I learned how to say or write something that I only thought or believed, as thought and belief, and not present it as proven fact. I learned that inquiry is more satisfying than being right all the time.
    I am not totally sure that people learn this distinction between fact and opinion at the moment? I have often stated facts about my field, in Twitter discussions, for example, to refute what someone else has said, when they quoted someone’s research. And I know, I can tell, they have not read the research, because they don’t come back at me. They are unable to argue a point except to just keep repeating what they have already said. They have not read the research, they have just decided to agree with someone they perceive to be powerful in some way and they too may not have read it. The actual research could be several generations away from the last person who read it and those who quote it.
    This is not science. And it is not research.
    Learning styles: My thinking on this is that most people who can’t agree that there is such a thing are secondary school teachers. My theory is that little children all have VAK going on 24/7. What 4 year old does not need to move, to look at stuff, to manipulate stuff with their hands? Being at school, they gradually learn to be able to keep more still and take in learning through their ears primarily. My theory is that some? many? children don’t actually manage to grow out of the need to move and fiddle with stuff, someone wonders why they can’t keep still, someone comes up with a theory that some children learn better when they can move and fiddle with 3D artefacts, and calls it learning styles. My theory is that more little kids need more moving and playing with stuff, enough so that they don’t need it any more. If some children don’t seem to be growing out of it, we need to wonder why. Can we teach them to focus on what we want?
    I once knew a year 2 teacher who had a girl who would never do any work and always demanded to play with sand. (Year 2 had sand play in those days, among other things) My friend, every day when she was sending children to their work, said, “And you can go to the sand.” Every morning. After a week, she said, “And you can go to the sand.” And the girl said, “I want to do my work! I don’t want to play with sand any more.” Teachers of 4,5,6 year olds will tell you that when children have had enough of this hands on play, they will get fed up of it and will be ready for formal work. It’s the ones who haven’t had enough play that never seem to grow out of the need for it. Of course they don’t.
    Look at the child or young person and think what might be going on. Read what someone says about what someone says about someone else’s research if you like, but spend some time looking at the child / young person, please.

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