Week 13: THE PENDULUM — #EDUBLOGSCLUB

I don’t buy the argument that learning styles have been officially debunked. There I said it. I’ve been wanting to say it for several years now. And I already feel much better. When I read The Myth of Learning Styles by Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham published in 2010, not only did its tone irritate me but its assertion that instructors are merely clinging to learning styles out of a false hope for achieving classroom equity just didn’t ring true. Like it or not, they say, we are just conflating student ability with the egalitarian myth of learning styles. So, I went in search of the published research article to which they were referring: Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence.

Here’s what the authors of that research, Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, actually said:

“We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all” [emphasis mine](Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2008, p. 1)

Hm. That sounds a lot different than the claim that learning styles have been officially debunked and that they are just a myth perpetuated by well meaning but terribly misinformed educators who unthinkingly implement folk wisdom in their classrooms. Such a claim is not a definitive warrant supported by irrefutable empirical evidence. So, tick-tock, it’s still an open question due to the absence of strong evidence either way.

However, Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork’s thoughtful but contrarian paper has been seized upon by publishing companies and professor-consultants with evangelistic zeal who wish to supplant market mainstays with new “post-learning style” materials that promise lecture fees, book deals, and lucrative consulting contracts, all of which predictably accompany each “swing of the pendulum” in education. And why would cash strapped school districts and HR departments in penny pinching companies argue the point? If learning styles are debunked, we can all just return to an economical one-size-fits-all curriculum! Hurray!

Nonsense! I say carry on with providing materials and activities in a range of formats and approaches. If the term “learning styles” is now regarded as pejorative in your district or institution or company than use another word. My suggestion would be holistic, which I think is the primary sentiment and original impetus behind the advocacy of learning styles in the first place. Fifty years later, there’s wide agreement that the individual needs of the learner should be reasonably accommodated for effective learning. So maybe we don’t need the bully pulpit built by the doctrine of learning styles anymore. But we do need to carry forward the practices that continue to benefit our students as whole people.

We still need learning that gives students choice, that engages the five senses and a range of physical experience, that provides time to listen and reflect, to view and respond, to read and write and debate, that facilitates engagement with classmates and community, that encourages experimentation, invention and creation with digital technology and analog materials, that values time to explore and to come to know themselves as individual learners, as spiritual persons, and as engaged citizens in a pluralistic democratic republic.

Holistic education in all its myriad approaches and styles is student-centered education. Learners deserve the freedom to ask for and receive materials and mediums that throughout their student careers they will (or have) come to understand makes their learning easier, more enjoyable, and sustainable. And they must also be challenged to engage with learning in mediums that feel less comfortable. This tension between challenge and comfort between self-acceptance and accomplishment are important aspects of learning how to learn, a journey of self-discovery that is unique to each student and so necessary for life in the 21st century.

In this regard, Holistic education is certainly no myth.

Reference:

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles concepts and evidence. Psychological science in the public interest, 9(3), 105–119.