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.

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.

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,
• some learning styles models have some validity and reliability,
• there is little evidence that teaching children in their ‘best’ sensory modality will improve learning outcomes,
• 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.

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. (2008). 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.