22 October 2010

Learning styles, teaching strategies

Anyone who has talked to me in person about learning will be aware that I don't believe in "learning styles", the idea that people have their own personal optimal way of learning.

Now I'm not saying that you shouldn't treat people differently in a classroom, because there are individual differences.  All I'm saying is that these differences are differences in past experiences, not fundamental differences in their ways of thinking.  If a new subject relies on knowledge that the student lacks, these holes must be filled before the new subject can be learned.

If we look at physics, a student that is not strong mathematically is going to have a lot of bother, because physics is built on maths.  No physics teacher is going to accept that the student is a "non-mathematical learner" and teach physics in a non-mathematical way -- this would be nonsensical and impossible.

Discussing learning styles with language learners and teachers is interesting.  I have heard and read many many learners claiming that they need the written word because they are "visual learners".  Now most professional educators (people with degrees, not one-month teaching certificates) would decry that as a misinterpretation of what learning styles is all about, but I haven't had a solid explanation of how to apply learning style theory in a classroom.  As Einstein said, if you can't explain it clearly, you don't understand it well enough.  This leaves us with the idea that no-one understands learning styles, yet it is now part of the fabric of the modern teaching system.

So what is there instead?  I've always held that we should talk about learning strategies, that the learner should be encouraged to develop strategies appropriate to the problem at hand rather than believing he has a fixed "style" that the task must be distorted to fit.  This latter notion always struck me like trying to drive screws into wood with a hammer.  It takes more time and effort, and the end result may look OK from the outside, but underneath, the structure is weaker.

But I've re-evaluated and decided that while the end-goal is learning strategies, the only thing we can really focus on is teaching strategies.  The appropriate strategy can only be known by someone familiar with the desired end-state knowledge and the learner's initial knowledge.  The course given to the student must define the optimal strategy and walk the learner through it, because it is only be doing that we learn, so it follows that in employing a strategy, we learn it.  We then hope that the learner will recognise in future where to apply the strategy he has now learnt.

Anyway, so I was very glad when I was recently directed to the journal article Learning Styles: concepts and evidence.  The article is a very specific type of review of the published literature on learning styles: it looked at the methodology behind the experiments supporting (or otherwise) learning style theory, to see if they really proved anything.  The findings were pretty damning: the only experiments that held up to examination showed that learning styles had no discernable effect on the optimal strategy for teaching a subject.

The authors were very careful to say that this does not disprove learning style theory, but they stated quite clearly that their professional opinion was that the focus on learning styles in modern education is distracting attention and money from finding the optimal approach for the subject itself, and that there is no place for learning styles in modern education.

And they're quite right.  Even if language styles do exist, we still don't know what they really are or we certainly don't know how to account for them, so discussion of learning styles is the equivalent to the old clichéd philosophical debate on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

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