In recent years, many educators have ratcheted up their attacks on the idea of people having “learning styles”. While it was in vogue for awhile, more and more research is suggesting it isn’t as compelling a theory as it once was thought to be. To me, it is more about a theory that resonates instinctively with people, and more a metaphor for approaches to learning – a descriptive paradigm, if you will – then a hard and fast “rule” or law, let alone a theory. So when I saw an Atlantic article aiming to debunk it further, I couldn’t help but click.
In the early ‘90s, a New Zealand man named Neil Fleming decided to sort through something that had puzzled him during his time monitoring classrooms as a school inspector. In the course of watching 9,000 different classes, he noticed that only some teachers were able to reach each and every one of their students. What were they doing differently? Fleming zeroed in on how it is that people like to be presented information. For example, when asking for directions, do you prefer to be told where to go or to have a map sketched for you?
Today, 16 questions like this comprise the VARK questionnaire that Fleming developed to determine someone’s “learning style.” VARK, which stands for “Visual, Auditory, Reading, and Kinesthetic,” sorts students into those who learn best visually, through aural or heard information, through reading, or through “kinesthetic” experiences.
Basically the idea that everyone is relatively unique, but if you break them into sub-types for learning, you can reach them better by using techniques that target that sub-type. Yet the scientific evidence, i.e. the “testing” of the sub-types is less indicative:
…a lot of evidence suggests that people aren’t really one certain kind of learner or another. In a study published last month in the journal Anatomical Sciences Education, Husmann and her colleagues had hundreds of students take the VARK questionnaire to determine what kind of learner they supposedly were. The survey then gave them some study strategies that seem like they would correlate with that learning style. Husmann found that not only did students not study in ways that seemed to reflect their learning style, those who did tailor their studying to suit their style didn’t do any better on their tests.
Another study published last year in the British Journal of Psychology found that students who preferred learning visually thought they would remember pictures better, and those who preferred learning verbally thought they’d remember words better. But those preferences had no correlation to which they actually remembered better later on—words or pictures. Essentially, all the “learning style” meant, in this case, was that the subjects liked words or pictures better, not that words or pictures worked better for their memories.
However, in the same article, it basically says it isn’t about “styles”, it is about skills. Some people are better at certain tasks than others, so they may think they’re a visual learner because they happen to be good at things that are visual. My problem though is that I’m not sold the idea fails with their “tests”.
All of them have the same methodological problem that the studies about “digital reading” vs. “paper-based reading” exercises and measures of retention. Basically, the studies conclude that if two students read the same text, one on paper and one electronically, the one who read paper will remember better. Which I can practically guarantee will happen with the test they’re running…they’re taking a text that was designed for paper reading, converted it to e-format, and then ran the test.
But what is the more appropriate test? Well, how about optimizing the text electronically first? Taking advantage of the e-format to embed other info or even use a font that looks better on e-format? There’s a reason why so much money and attention is paid to web design — layout and format matter, and it isn’t simply a matter of converting from paper to electronic. And did they first gauge how comfortable the person is with reading an e-text? The assumption is that the texts are the same, so the reader experiences no difference. Yet we all know modern day Luddites who might be adept at email, surfing, or texting, but they find the idea of e-readers abhorrent. They just don’t want them. Almost NONE of the tests asked what the student preferred to use. If you start off blocked and negative, would you expect the outcome to be different? People are used to paper, they don’t often “balk” at a paper text (except in purchase decisions).
To use the VARK idea, and downgrading it from a learning style to a communications style, we all know that personality types are generally accurate in groups but not so much individuals (all stereotypes, negative or positive, break down when you go from a group to an individual — the standard of deviation is enormous). So let’s look at the personality-type model that resonates the most with me — the axis of introverts/extroverts vs. analytical/intuitive.
Analytical introverts (the blues) have a very clear preferred communications style — they want details. They analyse, they nuance, they want to get their fingers dirty poking the content so they understand it. Preferably, they get paper and read it on their own and they have it before they discuss it together.
Reds, i.e. analytical extroverts, are action-oriented and while they want details, what they really want are the KEY details — they prefer high-level summaries and overviews with minimal back-ground noise. Be brief, be bright, be gone. Don’t waste their time.
Yellows, i.e. intuitive extroverts, want interaction, team work, FUN. They want to discuss the information. Sitting quietly and reading the book by themself is tantamount to torture.
Greens, i.e. intuitive introverts, also want to be “involved” in small-group discussions. A bit quieter than the yellows, and preferably with some say in how they decide what to study or how to proceed.
Those personality studies have been studied to death and for about 60% of the population, they have pretty strong validity. Another 20% end up straddling types. Which leaves 20% where, in my view, they suffer from two measurement problems — about half don’t know themselves well enough to answer the questions reliably (they’re following scripts of what they THINK they should say, not describing what they actually do) and half who are balanced across multiple categories. It doesn’t mean the theory of personality types is wrong, it just means it isn’t universal when you apply to individuals. Quelle surprise.
So what might that look like in terms of learning styles? Well, if the four groups have differences in their preferred communications styles, would it be surprising that they have a different way of learning? Not really, it should be expected. So the test would have to be optimised first for EACH learning style.
But even then, it’s not going to be 1:1 for every person on every item for every subject. Not unlike the phrase that talking about love is like dancing about architecture, reading about art isn’t very useful without pictures of the actual artwork. Equally, if a picture is worth a thousand words, historical video footage of events is far more compelling and easy to “understand” as the students witness.
Is that true for everyone? Nope. Some are going to respond to the text more than the pictures, pictures over video, and video over text, or the reverse such as text over video.
Ultimately the benefit of the theory is not in saying everyone has a different style and targeting the individual, although some day we may be able to do that better. Instead, the benefit of the theory is recognizing what everyone has already known. Mixed teaching techniques, judiciously applied, work better than a single technique of one-size fits all.
But that’s just my view. What do YOU think? Do you learn differently from a friend or sibling? Or do you believe one can find a perfect way to deliver info for a topic or subject area that is applicable to all?