“We have had all kinds of rubbish thrown at us over the last 10 to 20 years,” he says. “We’ve been told that kids only learn properly in groups. We’ve had people claiming that children learn using brain gym, people saying that kids only learn if you appeal to their learning style. There’s not a scrap of research that substantiates this, and, unfortunately, it is indicative of the really, really dysfunctional state of social science research that exists today.”
This quote from a recent Telegraph article is from Tom Bennett and is thankfully yet another voice calling for a more rigorous critical evaluation of educational trends and theories. In this case, Tom Bennett is unfortunately mostly being a bit self-promotional, but his central argument – that teachers need to question the research behind the “theories” that they are being asked to engage with and that teachers need to be ready to actually drive the research and help build the evidence one way or the other – is a good one. A better read is his denunciation of educational neuroscience for the New Scientist.
It is not to say that these theories are completely wrong, just that the claims that are made for them are unproven. I have said elsewhere that I find learning styles unconvincing and that most of what I have read suggests teaching to a particular learning style makes no difference. I doubt very much whether categorizing learners as kinaesthetic or logical-mathematical helps them learn vocabulary much faster. The only contribution that I think the concept of learning styles has made to education is that it has forced teachers to consider delivering their lessons in modes and with activities that they otherwise might not have considered. My traditional view of language education (mostly recalled from my GCSE french lessons) is that of rote repetition and grammar based activities in the book. Moving around the classroom, encouraging the association of visual to linguistic, communication between classroom partners – these were all absent. I believe including them makes my classroom a more interesting place to be and gives the learners a change of pace from the mundane. But that is principled selection of a activity for other reasons – not because one of my students might be a “visual learner”.