Learning styles – important or not?

This week I watched a presentation called ‘Changing the way we approach learner styles in teacher education’. This was delivered at IATEFL 2016 by Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries. If you get a spare half an hour this week I thoroughly recommend seeing it – you can access it on the British Council/IATEFL site.Lethaby and Harries talk first talk about “neuromyths” – common misconceptions about how the brain works. They’ve focused their own research around myths related to learner styles, notably this one:

‘Individuals learn better when they receive information in their preferred learning style (e.g. visual, auditory, kinaesthetic)’

learner styles1

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They stress that whilst learners may show a preference for the way they receive information, there is no evidence to suggest that they benefit from receiving input in their preferred style. Lethaby cites some recent studies (notaby Rogowsky, 2015) that have failed to find a significant relationship between preferred styles of learning and modes of instruction. They also mention another study (e.g. Kratzig and Arbuthnott, 2006) which showed that students may not accurately self-identify their learning preferences – findings based on learner style questionnaires, objective tests and self-reports from learners didn’t seem to match.

The speakers moved on to talk about the influence of “neuromyths” on teachers’ practice. They surveyed 128 teachers, with a large percentage thinking that a series of neuromyths related to learning were true. This was particularly true for the aforementioned ‘VAK’ neuromyth. Importantly, they established that 59% of respondents received input on brain-based ideas during their initial teacher training course; of those 59% almost all said that this input has influenced their teaching. Presumably, these ‘brain-based ideas’ related to learner styles, although they didn’t specifically mention what these ideas were during their talk. I haven’t had a chance to read the authors full publication in ELTJ yet, but I’d guess they expand a bit on the nature of this input.

They summarise by making some recommendations for changing teacher education. Most notably, they argue that ITT providers like Cambridge English should remove input on learner styles from their syllabus. They also call for more evidence-based training, for trainers to stop perpetuating neuromyths and to address these overtly with their trainees, and for trainers to provide more input on the importance of learners’ prior knowledge (although they don’t explore this much in the talk).

Input on learner styles during my training

The talk is very interesting and the findings are surprising for many that buy into the VAK neuromyth. Training during my CELTA, CELTYL and DipTESOL has all touched upon brain based ideas, with the CELTYL perhaps highlighting their importance most when covering Gardner’s framework of multiple intelligences (1983). We reviewed possible lesson materials for YLs and discussed how activities could be adapted/differentiated to accommodate learner preferences (which we learnt was another term for multiple intelligences).

learner styles2

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Should we bother to consider learner styles when planning/teaching?

The talk has prompted me to consider my own views on learner styles. Whilst I agree with most of what was mentioned in the talk, and I’m a VAK sceptic at heart, I feel there are a few things worth considering.

Affective benefits

Judging by the research from Lethaby and Harries, you could argue that the input I’ve received on learner styles was a waste of time. However, their concluding remarks from the talk make an interesting concession:

  • Variety in the classroom is good both for motivation and for learning

This, coupled with the fact that ‘learners do have preferences about how they like to learn’, are big considerations for the classroom. The authors strongly believe that input on learner styles should be omitted from training courses as ‘there is no evidence that teaching to preferred learning styles enhances learning’. However, they then point out that variety in the classroom, which could be provided by adapting materials to suit supposed learner styles, may enhance the learning experience. So, despite lack of scientific evidence that teaching to preferred learner styles is beneficial in a cognitive sense, it may have some affective benefits.

Critical thinking

The authors mention how these neuromyths such as those related to learner styles should be discussed with trainees. I feel this idea could be expanded further – the topic should be discussed with the learners themselves. The views of Clark (2015) were summarized in the talk as follows:

  • Stop wasting time and money on learner style assessments. There’s no evidence that it helps with learning

If you remove learning styles from the syllabus on teacher training courses, then presumably you remove materials on this topic from student books as well. These activities are great for prompting debate and engaging learners in critical thinking. My students have often found such topics highly engaging, and they offer a route into developing general knowledge about the brain.

What have learner preferences ever done for us?

At the start of his critique on Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, Klein (1997: 377) summarizes the impact of Gardner’s idea:

Pedagogically, multiple intelligence theory has inspired diverse practices, including balanced programming, matching instruction to learner styles, and student specialization. However… it is too broad to be useful for planning curriculum, and as a theory of ability, it presents a static view of student competence.

I agree. But given the influence it has had, why would you want to omit this from a training syllabus completely? It seems strange to me, because regardless of it’s validity, it’s had quite an influence on learning theory so it’s worth discussing. I’d rather study such theories myself so I could critically evaluate them, but that’s my, er, preference…!

So there you have it. Despite the convincing talk, the prominence of neuromyths in general, and the distinct lack of scientific evidence for shaping instruction to suit certain learner styles, I’m still on the fence. How about you?

learner styles3Great job Carol and Patricia on the talk. All the references above you’ll find in their Powerpoint slides, apart from this one:

Klein, P.D. (1997). Multiplying the Problems of Intelligence by Eight: A critique of Gardner’s Theory. Canadian Journal of Education 22, 4: 377-394

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11 comments

  1. A better understanding of the nature of learning is what is required. Knowing how to use TPR with beginner level learners and why it works is more important than knowing about kinesthetic learners. Understanding how listening precedes other skills is more important than dealing with auditory learners. Using pictures in text support or as prompts is more important than trying to figure out who are visual learners. Why we do these things are related to good classroom practice, which is something ITT programs need to cover a lot more off. The relevance to VAK or MI is purely incidental.

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    1. Absolutely agree. If a mention of learning styles in ITT courses prompts teachers to consider how they can bring more variety into class, great. But yeah, it would be incidental – it doesn’t mean we have to agree with MI and VAK theories themselves.

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      1. Yes, but, if the reason we’re bringing variety is based pseudoscience and we realize that, we challenge the concept of variety in the classroom. If, however, it’s based on more than that, it sticks better. We need and must have the latter.

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      2. Using a variety of techniques and activities in the classroom keeps my learners engaged and motivated. I observe this, and learner feedback provides evidence of it. I don’t need Gardner’s or Fleming’s ideas as a basis to underpin what I do, yet I’d say their work has been influential enough, despite it being pseudoscience, to at least be mentioned on a training course. Surely it’s better to explore it and allow trainees to critically evaluate it, after all VAK is a pretty popular neuromyth…

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  2. I like the post a lot, but I’d still go for a moratorium on the “What kind of learner are you?” nonsense sections of books. It tends to reinforce learners’ preferences toward a certain modality, which can apparently – I read this before on Primary INSET – lead them to reject modalities that they imagine won’t work for them. We are, unless disabled in some way, multimodal. If you are kept fiddling with bits of paper you’ll be dying to speak. If you’re made to just speak and speak, you’ll be dying to read, etc.

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    1. *punster30 subtly hides his copy of ‘Multiple Intelligences in EFL’ down the back of the couch*. Yep, I could see that happening. A major issue with VAK modalities is they seem to be viewed as separate, yet they are all interconnected. Sure, certain processes may be localised to certain areas of the brain but it’s integrated in nature. The most use I’ve made of VAK is on Cambridge CELTA courses as I always get a tick on my lesson plan from tutors when I say something like ‘this task will suit visual learners’.

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      1. Yeah, I think I lost out on the Dip by explicitly avoiding VARK by classifying learners as mitigated or unmitigated extroverts or introverts. Lead balloon.

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  3. “…their concluding remarks from the talk make an interesting concession: Variety in the classroom is good both for motivation and for learning.”

    To me, a classroom based on variety seems to be precisely the opposite of a classroom based on individual learning styles. I don’t see a concession there.

    That said:
    * Learners differ in other significant ways.
    * I agree with punster30 that VAK(T) and Multiple Intelligences should still feature in teacher development programmes. They just need to be seen as part of the history and influences on modern ELT, and not as criteria for best practice.

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    1. Fair point. I see variety as catering for a range of learner styles, can see it can be interpreted differently though. As a CELTA tutor, does the topic of learner styles come up much when you’re tutoring? If so, how do you deal with it with regard to practical suggestions? Cheers

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      1. Yeah, I can see variety as practical implication of either. I just see it as more essential for the belief that all people learn through a balanced combination of modes; and more of a concession if you believe individuals learn best through particular learning styles (because it’s then a way to cope if you can’t fully cater to each student individually).

        I believe the concepts are valuable as inspiration for variety. They might also be useful for engagement and motivation if some students have particularly strong preferences, so long as the aim as to ease them into other modes. And they can be useful for teaching students about learning strategies – how to use modes they don’t normally use to help them build a wider range of (neural) connections, etc.

        On teacher training courses, I tend to share these views with teachers (depending on timing, which is much tighter on a CELTA than a Delta or Trinity Dip, and other factors). A bit more emphasis on inspiration for variety on a CELTA, since it’s a very practical, ‘technicist’ kind of course.

        But I think the (your?) point on critical thinking is the most important one. Teachers need to take trainers’ views and weigh them up along with all the other experience, evidence, etc, too.

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