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Learning Styles: Whose Styles Are These And Why Should They Matter To Me?

workahead.jpgIn Learning Styles, ha, ha, ha Jay Cross provides a synopsis of Learning styles and pedagogy post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review [free download available] published by the Learning Skills and Development Agency. His entry reminded me of an entry I wrote a couple of months ago called Learning Styles: Whose styles are these and what are they for?. Jay refers to the conceptual confusion that arises from existing "research" into learning styles. This confusion, I believe, originates in a narrow and confining assumption about learning...

How Can We Teach Students If We Do Not Know How They Learn?

The opening sentence of the introduction to the report asks the question, "How can we teach students if we do not know how they learn?" It is a useful question. However, the answer is deceptively simply, "Get out of the students' way."

Do we really need to know how students learn in order to do something called "teaching" to them? Of course, teaching students is entirely possible in the absence of knowing how they learn. This remains a standard approach in education in spite of the weight of information about learning styles available. Teaching is an idea more closely aligned with education, not learning.

The idea of teaching emerging from the report seems to have something to do with making students more aware of their own personal learning styles. The assumption is that we in fact know what learning styles are, that they are valid, and that students somehow "learn" better if they know what their individual styles are. The assumed vehicle for teaching in the report is something called "course design" and this brings us into close proximity with the design of the prerequisite. In other words, the underlying proposition is that the teacher knows what learning styles are and the student needs them in order to become something even more mysterious - a better learner.

Conceptual Confusion About Learning

There is no better way to become conceptually confused about learning than by embracing theory:

That is the function of theories - to oversimplify, and thus to assist believers in organizing, weighting, and excluding information. Therein lies the power of theories. Their weakness is that precisely because they oversimplify, they are vulnerable to attack by new information. When there is too much information to sustain any theory, information becomes essentially meaningless.
- Postman, Neil. Technopoly : The Surrender of Culture to Technology

Theories do not help us to expand our awareness and understanding of learning; they serve to reduce and confine it. As Harold Jarche pointed out in his comment to Learning Styles, ha, ha, ha ...many people will still make much money off of these schemes, and this is perhaps the primary directive of any theory. Theories are commodities - we buy and sell them as material possessions and belief systems. The long list of this versus that in Learning styles and pedagogy post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review [p. 144] might as well be a corporate inventory and a basis for developing marketing plans.

Conflicting assumptions about learning underpin mainstream ideas about learning and the best-known models of learning styles... Even if we dismiss these extreme examples, the notion of styles tends to imply something fixed and stable over time. However, different theorists make different claims for the degree of stability within their model of styles.
- Learning styles and pedagogy post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review

Learning At The Local Garage

Of course, taking the opposite side and stating that learning styles are not useful is also incorrect. What is incorrect is that learning styles seem to be the domain of educational expertise, and educational researchers often work under the mistaken assumption that learning lies within their expertise. Multi-disciplinary approaches do not help since educational disciplines originate in the same set of assumptions. The key is to invite a broader range of non-educational perspectives.

Stephen Downes points out that After all, we see high school dropouts happily working away, and learning rapidly, at the local garage (I've seen it myself). Therefore, some difference between the learning at school and the learning in the garage accounts for the difference. What he achieves in this insight is to shift out attention our of the confines of schooling. I too have seen precisely the same thing. This perspective helps to separate the idea of learning from the idea of being educated.

If we can shift our attention from school to the local garage, then we can shift it well beyond that garage. One of the phrases in Learning styles and pedagogy post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review caused a momentary lapse of reason [yes - Pink Floyd. A Momentary Lapse of Reason] on my part - the logic of lifelong learning. I had never considered that lifelong learning had an inherent logic to it. And after that momentary lapse of reason celebrated the fact that of course lifelong learning does not have any inherent logic at all. And we should all be thankful that it doesn't. Lifelong learning cannot be reduced to mere theory.

In Learning Styles: Whose styles are these and what are they for? I offered the possibility that the narrative of an individual life can be one possible foundation for exploring the dramatic twists and turns of learning throughout a lifetime. This is learning in the full face of experience unfettered by institutions and trite conceptualizations. If we were to pose the question, "What is the learning style of this person's life?" we would immediately feel the shallowness of the question itself. Attempting to reduce, categorize, abstract and order a person's lifelong learning experiences according to a style or specific group of styles is an exercise in futility. Learning is an idea that evokes constant motion, movement, mobility and change throughout the confluence of everyday life.

Six Blind Men and an Elephant

In the meantime, we agree with Curry’s summation (1990, 54) of the state of play of research into learning styles: ‘researchers and users alike will continue groping like the five blind men in the fable about the elephant, each with a part of the whole but none with full understanding’.

The reference to five blind men is incorrect - there were six blind men in the fable. The moral of the fable is:

So oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!
- The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

This fable captures one of the most basic problems with the nature of expertise. An expert is someone that keeps digging the same hole deeper. Often the hole being dug is a theory, so the expert is surrounded by the walls of the hole, that is, the increasing burden of over-simplification. Once the hole has become deep enough, all that can be seem are the walls. The rest of the world is out of sight.

... why should politicians, policy-makers, senior managers and practitioners in post-16 learning concern themselves with learning styles, when the really big issues concern the large percentages of students within the sector who either drop out or end up without any qualifications?

I don't believe this statement means that research into learning styles should be dropped. But it does point out a range fundamental issues lying hidden within:

  • If learning styles are useful and we have now developed more theories and concepts to support them than we have ever had available before, then precisely why are these learning styles unable to assist in the practical and concrete problems we face (e.g. - bullying and dropouts)?
  • Is it possible that in some circumstances the use of learning styles, nor matter how optimistically they are framed, have in fact had a negative influence on people's lives?
  • What are the learning styles of the learning style theorists and advocates, and is it possible in some sense that they are imposing their own preferences on others?
  • Are we attempting to apply the confines of reason and logic to a human phenomenon that simply can't be reduced, isolated and classified by expertise?
  • To what extent are learning styles an extension of trade and commerce?
  • If the specific life values of learning styles cannot be clearly stated in practical terms, why should we bother with them?
  • Does it even make sense to think about learning as a range of possible "styles?"

Without focusing on key questions such as these, we will continue to see a lot of different elephants:

And so these men of Indostan Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!
- The Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887)

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