Learning Styles – help or hoax?Posted: July 4, 2016
A Professor in a Pickle
Some years ago, H. Douglas Brown, a professor of TESOL at San Francisco State University, was traveling from Barcelona, Spain, to Naples, Italy, a trip that would normally take a few hours. On this occasion it took nearly 24. One disaster after another occurred. Doug missed a flight, another was delayed, and then another was rerouted. He finally arrived at Naples Airport at 3:00 a.m. Without his luggage. Exhausted and frustrated, he looked around for help, but the airport was almost empty and he spoke little Italian.
Fortunately, Doug was able to use a variety of personality traits to get through the mini-crisis. His left-brain got him to take practical, logical steps. His right-brain got him to empathize with airport staff and to use alternative communication strategies. His ability to remain tolerant of ambiguity allowed him to keep the conversation going. He was impulsive enough to insist on prompt action, but reflective enough to understand where miscommunication might slow down the process.
Having finally got his luggage back and collapsed on a hotel bed, Doug, like all good educators, reflected on his experiences. His behavior had revealed that he possessed various interactive styles and character traits that had helped him to achieve his task.
Several of those personality traits that Doug used can be categorized as learning styles – a potentially powerful concept. If we know how people prefer to learn – for example, some are visual (they learn through images), some are auditory (learn by listening), others kinesthetic (learn by moving and touching) – surely we can adapt our teaching method to the student. This means pupils will have a better chance of learning and retaining the content.
Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? It ticks all the boxes. It makes logical sense; it appeals to our need for practical solutions; it seems to echo Howard Gardner’s influential Theory of Multiple Intelligences; and it explains why some students are dozing in class while others are bouncing off the walls.
Carl Jung first proposed a theory of psychological types in the 1920s, but it wasn’t widely applied to education until the 1970s. Since then, numerous questionnaires have been developed so that students can find out how they like to learn best, and scholarly and practical works have come thick and fast in both ELT and general education.
But wait. Is it really so simple? Could learning styles be the Magic Box that contains the answer to the only question really worth asking in language education: how to motivate students? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
Let’s look a bit deeper and see why learning styles are problematic.
A Beautiful Fiction
Firstly, what is a learning style? It’s a personal disposition to learn in one way, as opposed to another. But that definition is so vague that it encompasses just about every cognitive, cultural, sensory and communicative factor you can think of. Indeed, some studies suggest there are up to 80 styles. Others say more.
The styles are usually bipolar, e.g. reflective versus impulsive, inductive versus deductive, concrete versus abstract. This begs the question: are people really one or the other and not somewhere floating in the middle? Aren’t our styles variable rather than fixed? I’ve known people whose personalities change completely depending on whether they’ve had their morning coffee or not.
The other issue with the notion of a person having “a learning style” is that information processing just doesn’t work like that. It uses multiple modalities. Just as Doug Brown, stranded luggage-less in Naples Airport, used both left and right brain, was both impulsive and reflective, people simultaneously process information in different ways.
Another problem is how to assess a person’s learning style. People commonly report having a particular style, but when tested they don’t do any better using that style than another. In short, people think they are visual or auditory learners, etc., but they’re wrong. They have no idea about their own learning style.
It seems that the concept may not be a Magic Box, after all, but rather a ‘neuromyth’ (a term used by Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries during their talk at IATEFL 2016).
Misapplied science or the accidental hoax
We language educators like to co-opt the findings of neuroscience. Our profession has the habits of a magpie, the great thief of folklore. Just as we “borrow” from therapy, games, drama, etc., so we happily borrow from science. The problem is, we don’t always see the full picture. An example: left-brain and right-brain theory. This theory came about because of Roger Sperry’s research on brain hemispheres in rats, cats, monkeys, and epileptics. There was no educational use for the theory and no empirical evidence that people are more inclined to be right- or left-brained. Yet we educators brought his work into our classrooms.
Something similar happened with Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner himself has looked on in horror as his ideas are played out in classrooms in the form of children writhing around on the floor because “they’re kinesthetic learners.” He has repeatedly said it’s only a theory. It shouldn’t drive entire educational methodologies.
Learning styles, which are frequently confused with Multiple Intelligences, have at times been similarly misappropriated.
While learners do report that they have preferences in the way they learn, the educational implications are controversial and inconclusive. Research studies that looked at the correlation between Second Language Acquisition and learning-style-tailored-instruction found negligible gains for the learner. In other words, there’s just no evidence that it works.
None of this means learning styles are worthless. Perhaps the biggest benefit is that the concept has alerted teachers to principled variety: students have a variety of predispositions and teachers might therefore want to provide a variety of activities. Lots of pictures, some extended aural input, hands-on activities and games, some digital whizz-bang and some chalk-and-talk – the variety means we have more chance of reaching more students more of the time.
(*This story begins a chapter on Styles and Strategies in Doug’s book Principles of Language Learning and Teaching.)