Learning Styles: Whose styles are these and what are they for?
The idea of learning styles commonly refers to some notion for a preferred way of learning. It implies that each of us has a natural inclination toward learning of some kind, and that if that natural inclination can be identified then teaching experiences can be provided that facilitate our learning. Obviously, there is diversity in learning. However, to identify a generic set of abstract categories, label people according to these categories, and then provide experiences designed to help people in that category learn contains a variety of assumptions that need to be examined more closely...
The Origins of Learning StylesThe idea for revisiting learning styles came to me via the Autono Blogger which lead me to James Atherton's entry Heterodoxy: Learning styles don't matter. This line of thinking amounts to a dismissal of the assumptions that:
- people have preferred ways of learning;
- these ways of learning can be categorized and collected under the banner of learning styles;
- teaching experiences should be designed to address specific categories of learning styles; and
- that the quality of learning will somehow be improved if the educational experience is appropriately matched to the learning style of the learner.
Thought about in this manner, the idea of learning styles is clearly an exercise in over-generalization and obsessive classification. To create a set of categories and then to place people firmly in one or a set of categories is limiting at best. It begs the question:
Whose learning style is this and why should it matter to me?
How is it that a system that purports to promote something called learning designs such a limiting framework for experience? The answer to this question, I believe, is not hard to find. Education is a system uniquely based on the assumptions of abstraction and classification. In other words, the concepts and ideas promoted are commonly removed from their context and, in addition, placed into systems and categories that are artificial. We refer to this as a curriculum, or the technology of abstraction and classification. The idea of learning styles is commonly associated with instructional design, or the technology of communicating abstraction and classification. In a sense, this is the content of education and the various subjects and courses represent variations on this theme.
A learning style, then, is simply a direct extension of abstraction and classification. Instead of categorizing information, we categorize people. Worse, the people said to be learning, the students, are all too often mere recipients information that has been prepared for them.
A Misleading AssumptionA fundamental problem with the idea of learning styles is that the idea of learning is often confused with education. Education often assumes learning to be something along the lines of acquiring knowledge, developing skill and promoting a positive attitude. If these things are happening, and they can be measured via assessment and evaluation, then we assume that learning is taking place.
Our rational possibilities of understanding, in the absence of strong corrective effects from other qualities, tend to split off into ever-narrower specialist streams, carried on at great pace by the momentum of their own internal logic. Yes. Logic. Self-justifying, self-fufilling, self-interested logic. - John Ralston Saul in On Equilibrium
However, this definition of learning is also a direct offspring of the same set of assumptions. That is, the more students master abstract categories the more, so it is assumed, they are learning. The proposition simply does not make sense. Learning styles in this context really equates to something that might be more appropriately called styles of being educated.
There is a failure on the part of those promoting learning styles to provide an adequate and broad perspective on learning that reaches beyond the educational system itself. This retrieves the old adage, "To a person with a hammer everything looks like a nail." We become seduced by our won technology (i.e. - in this context, curriculum and instruction).
In the end, it is misleading to assume that education has an expert and intimate relationship with learning. The two are frequently far removed from one another, and it is entirely possible that education inhibits learning.
The Plasticity of Learning Styles
...pandering to learning styles may be doing the students a disservice: they will benefit more from adapting and becoming versatile, more able to respond both to formal teaching and learning from experience...
- James Atherton in Learning Styles Don't Matter
David Suzuki and Richard Restak explore the possibility that the brain can change and transform itself based on experience. if this is the case, then it is entirely possible that learning styles change and transform themselves based on experience as well. If we promote a preferred set of learning styles for an individual we may in fact be limiting their ability to learn from a neurological perspective.
It may be that the uncomfortable and unfamiliar are perhaps more valuable in a learning environment than the routine. Learning to become more adaptable, flexible, versatile and responsive to the unexpected is perhaps better preparation for the experience of living, than spending years in a controlled and sterilzed environment. The uncomfortable and unfamiliar are qualities that promote fundamental change and growth in learning. Without them, we have something less than learning.
Of course, educational systems do not typically have a healthy sense of plasticity to them. In their worst form, they are static systems of self-serving logic. They view minor variation as fundamental change or innovation. Our common sense tells us clearly that life simply isn't logical and certainly not static - it is mysterious. And this mystery demands flexibility and adaptability in order to embrace it, and in difficult circumstances to merely survive. Promoting a fictitious set of learning styles under the banner of improving something called learning is a disservice to the individual.
"Educating" Styles vs. Learning StylesPerhaps part of the solution is to separate, to some degree, the idea of being educated from the idea of learning. We might then explore the notion of "educating" styles - which seems like a term more appropriate to what is being described as learning styles. This would help to unhinge the assumptions that learning and education are intimately connected.
In this sense, a learning style is unlikely to be presented as a taxonomy whereas "educating" styles can be effectively presented as a taxonomy. If we think about learning as a kind of universal interface with experience, then a taxonomy lacks utility. For example, we can ask ourselves the question:
What are the learning styles implied in the experiences of:
We could add many names to this list. But the important point is this - the learning style, if there is one, is the person and all of their circumstances and situations in life. Jerry Wennstrom, in this sense, is a learning style.