“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”.
Thursday 12 February 2015 at 07:20
I highly recommend new TEDTalk by Ben Ambridge 10 myths about psychology debunked. He shows in a very funny way that “learning styles” is one of the top 10 myths. Completely unproven. http://go.ted.com/Qfz
Thursday 12 February 2015 at 11:42
Hi Nicole, I’ve not seen that one – I shall add it to my watchlist! Thanks, David.
Thursday 12 February 2015 at 10:55
Good post. Students do benefit from changes of pace, variety and of course, interesting activities – but, as you say, because they add to the class itself, not because they fit into some theories. But as learning theories go, this one is one of the less harmful – perhaps even beneficial to teachers who otherwise wouldn’t have thought of including as much variety in the class.
On group vs individual activities, I’ve always used both. Again, variety is important. I use individual work less, but it’s important.
Thursday 12 February 2015 at 11:50
I guess the mantra should probably be “teach the students – not a theory”. I’m not entirely sure it is harmless though. It makes assumptions about learner cognition and the learning process which may not be valid. At the very least, this leads to much more ineffective and inefficient classroom practices. A worst case scenario (and a clearly alarmist position on the issue…) is that it might be actively preventing learning. Ultimately however, we don’t know because there’s not much in the way of research and what research there has been focuses on possible positive effects.
Thanks for commenting,
Thursday 12 February 2015 at 13:27
Not harmless, but one of the less harmful.
I agree with Chomsky on this: “Psychology and linguistics have caused a good deal of harm by pretending to have answers to those questions and telling teachers and people who deal with children how they should behave. Often the ideas presented by the scientists are totally crazy and they may cause trouble…(…) The truth of the matter is that about 99% of teaching is about making the students interested in the material. Then the other 1% has to do with your methods.”
Thursday 12 February 2015 at 14:37
Everything we do (or avoid doing) when teaching is based on assumptions. There is no such thing as default/neutral teaching materials and procedures. What is needed is critical awareness of those assumptions.
Thursday 12 February 2015 at 14:39
Everything we do (or avoid doing) when teaching is based on assumptions. There is no such thing as default/neutral teaching materials/procedures. What is needed is critical awareness of those assumptions.
Friday 13 February 2015 at 00:12
Very true. But the default position in much of teacher training is the uncritical adoption of these ideas. Criteria 1.3a of the CELTA syllabus is that successful candidates can “demonstrate an awareness of the different learning styles and preferences that adults bring to learning English” – and 1.3c is that they “make practical use of this awareness in planning and teaching”. Which troubles me as it seems being critical of the idea is not encouraged – you won’t pass the Celta unless you follow the party line. So perhaps this criticality is something that should be built into teacher training programmes?
Tuesday 17 February 2015 at 09:39
“But the default position in much of teacher training is the uncritical adoption of these ideas….Which troubles me as it seems being critical of the idea is not encouraged – you won’t pass the Celta unless you follow the party line.”
What myth is this, David? I’ve been a CELTA tutor since 1983, and a Delta one since 1988, and I’ve never pushed a “party line” or discouraged trainees from being critical. And, yes, we do discuss the theories of learning styles and preferences, but in a critical and reflective way, and certainly not as some knee-jerk response to orthodoxy. The notion of failing a candidate who is critical of the idea is absurd.
It seems that you subscribe yourself to some myths about CELTA. So, could you perhaps add your quote above to your myth-busting list?
Thursday 12 February 2015 at 20:25
Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.