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Learning styles are fake news

Written by: Gavin Moodie
Published on: 28 Apr 2020

Student sleeping on deskSource: iStock

Before “fake news”, we used to think that demonstrating the falsity of a claim consigned it to irrelevance for all but a delusional fringe. But perhaps it is time to accept that myths persist and mutate as malignantly as viruses.

Academic research can have its own myths. Education research certainly does. Perhaps the most pervasive of these is learning styles.

The theory is based on the common observation that people have different preferences for absorbing information. The hope is that by matching education to individuals’ preferences for absorbing information, inequality of attainment can be significantly reduced. This individualistic, egalitarian appeal is illustrated by the title of a 1995 paper by Neil Fleming of Lincoln University in New Zealand: “I’m different; not dumb”.


Teaching intelligence: building a global community for pedagogy

There may be little scope amid the mass unplanned online switchover to cater to different learning styles, but the concept is still prominent in the plethora of advice being offered about how to do online teaching. In fact, however, there is no strong evidence that students’ learning is improved when education is matched to their posited learning styles. By contrast, learning is demonstrably affected strongly by many other factors, including ability; motivation; prior attainment; family, social and economic backgrounds; and the course’s particular curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and teachers.

All learning-style theories assume that an individual will learn best if all the education or training is delivered in the same individually preferred way, regardless of what type of knowledge or skills the learner is seeking to master. “Visual” learners would learn best visually regardless of whether the subject were visual arts, music, languages or mathematics.

In 2014, Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at the University of Bristolreported that between 93 per cent and 97 per cent of schoolteachers in the UK, Greece, the Netherlands, China and Turkey believed that “individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style”. And a Google search of “university learning styles” generates about 70,000 results. Typical of the results on the first page is a university that claims that “an obstacle to effective teaching and learning can arise when students and instructors fail to recognize different learning styles”.

The reality is that different knowledge and skills have different structures, methods and modes of representation, which are best learned in different ways. Teachers should support students to develop their ability to learn in the way that is most suitable for each subject.

Education has evidently failed in its special responsibility to equip students to evaluate knowledge claims. However, while it should not give up trying, it is so pre-2016 to think that education alone can block myths’ malign influence on public policy. People shape their children’s education more on views picked up from personal interactions and what they find on the internet than on experts’ advice. Hence, even before the coronavirus thrust all parents into the role of educators, there had been a sharp increase in homeschooling and alternative schools, such as academies in the UK and charter schools in the US.

There seems to be a need to address scholarly communication’s increasing bifurcation into journal articles targeted at research specialists and mass media articles targeted at the public, which report biased or faulty “research” without qualification. This gap could be filled by systematic reviews of research, written in plain language for practitioners and the public. Such reviews would be a good way of accessibly reconciling and synthesising disparate findings. A good model would be the global not-for-profit network Cochrane, which maintains 7,000 plain language summaries of its systematic reviews of primary research in healthcare and health policy.

A hierarchy of research syntheses of increasing generality, supported by research funders and overseen by scholarly societies, would promulgate the broad scholarly consensus with more authority than separate, unendorsed studies. They may not get us out of the post-truth era, but they would be easily identifiable and accessible alternatives to the misinformation that pervades public forums and even infects university teaching.

Gavin Moodie is adjunct professor of education at RMIT University, Melbourne, and the University of Toronto.