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Secondary learning

2.6 Learning styles

The concept of ‘learning styles’ has been described as students’ ‘tendency to adopt a particular strategy in learning’ (Mutiu and Moldovan, 2011, p. 578) based on their personal characteristics, and suggests that different modes of learning suit different students. It has also been termed ‘learning preferences’ or ‘learning strategies’.

Some people believe that these ideas have implications for the classroom because a student’s preferred learning style may affect the way in which they respond to your teaching. Various schemes have been suggested and are popular in schools. However, despite the popularity of the concept of learning styles, there is very little evidence to support the idea that learners learn more effectively if they have the opportunity to learn in their preferred style (Petty, 2009). You will consider this evidence in the next activity.

Activity 6 Learning styles

Timing: Allow about 1 hour

Watch the TED talk video below by Tesia Marshik.

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There’s actually a few different versions – actually, many different versions – of learning styles, but probably the most common one is the one that you've heard of, is that some other auditory learners where we learn best by listening to things and that some of us are more visual learners where we learn best by seeing things, and that some of us might be more tactile or kinaesthetic learners, where we learn best by actually doing things in engaging in physical activities.

How many of you heard of them before? Well, the good news and bad news. Bad news is, if you believe in learning styles, you’re actually wrong, and I'll explain that in just a minute. But the good news is that it's not entirely your fault.

This belief in learning styles is incredibly pervasive. It's so common that few people ever think to even question it. Right – it sounds so logical, it sounds so real, but when put to the test we found that learning styles don't exist and again there are tons of people that believe this. When we survey for example students and teachers, we find that something like 90% of them or over 90% of people believe that they have a learning style and teachers today, many teachers, are still told that part of their job in order to be effective teachers, is the figure out what their students’ learning styles are and then to accommodate them for the classroom. There are even a host of companies and organisations out there that support learning styles and who for a fee will train you on how to maximise your potential, or that of your students, right, by addressing learning styles and learning what yours are. But again, the key is when put to the test these actually these learning styles don't exist, and it doesn't make a difference.

Now I will say that when we survey people, many people say they have preferences, so if I asked you ‘How would you like to learn something?’ or ‘How would you like to study?’, many you might say things like ‘I’d prefer to see it’, ‘I’d prefer to hear it’ or ‘I’d prefer to actually do it’.

So that's true, but the key is that those preferences don't actually enhance your learning. When we test them in experimental conditions, and there are many different ways to test this, but the basic design is this. We bring in a bunch a different people who have supposedly different learning styles. We teach them in a variety of ways and then we see if teaching them in one way somehow was better for them or more effective than others.

So for example, let's say I had a list of words that I wanted you to memorise. In one group I might show you that that list of words I would present the list of words to you. Or in another group similarly I might actually show you images of those words. In yet another group or another condition I might just let you listen to those words and hear them, so you wouldn't actually see anything but you just hear someone saying ‘dog’, ‘hose’, ‘coat’, et cetera. Now if learning styles existed – if it was true – we would expect that visual learners, or so-called visual learners, would be able to recall more words when they saw them, right, so either when they saw the list or when they saw the actual images, and we would expect that so-called auditory learners would be able to recall more words when they heard them, right? But again the finding is learning this actually the same the number of words that you recall is exactly the same regardless of how the material is presented to you. Now I know that's just one example of one particular study, but I'm asking you to trust me that this has been replicated in many different contexts, with many different people of all different ages, and tested in slightly different ways, with exactly the same results. In fact there have been several meta-analyses papers, where they've looked at all the research on this topic for 40 years, and all of them have concluded the same thing: that there's still no evidence that matching teaching styles to supposed learning styles or students’ preferences actually makes a difference. But I would encourage you to look up some of this research on your own in particular these review articles.

So then how is that possible I'm sure some of you are wondering how does that even make sense right because it sound so good and there's a lot of different research on learning and memory to explain this but one of the main ideas is, that most of what we learn in the classroom and most of what teachers want us to know in particular is stored in terms of Meaning and it's not tied to one particular sense or one particular sensory mode. Now it's also true just like people have preferences it's also true that some of you might have better visual memories or better auditory memories or auditory processing skills compared to other people and that might be advantageous for certain types of tasks, so for example if I wanted you to remember what was the colour of the coat on that last slide or how many windows were on that house on the last slide than having a really good visual memory would help with that. Likewise if I had read you the list of words and I said were they read in a high voice or a low voice, or which words were read by a woman and which words were read by a man; then having really good a really good auditory memory would help with that, but those aren’t typically the kinds of questions that teachers are asking you to remember or the things that teachers want you to learn in the classroom.

Mostly what you’re learning in the classroom is much more conceptual or meaning-based right, it's not just what something looks like or what something sounds like and by the way this finding or this whole idea also helps to explain why simple rehearsal strategies like Re-reading your notes or just rewriting your notes, even though they're very commonly used strategies they tended not be very effective; because re-reading your notes or rewriting your notes doesn't necessarily help you understand the material.

In order to retain information right, we have to organize it in a way that's meaningful right we have to make connections to it connecting it to our experiences or coming up with our own examples or thinking of how we're learning something in one class how that relates to what else we now that's what helps us remember it.

Now again there's a lot of researches support this idea that most of what we learned is stored in terms of meaning and not according to visual images or auditory sound but from some of the best most relevant research comes from these classic studies that were done in the seventies.

Now Chase & Simon they were interested in chess players abilities to recall pictures of chess board games in progress, so what they would do is they would show players An image of a game in progress for a short time typically only five seconds or so, and then it would disappear and then they would ask the players to recall where where were all the pictures where were all the pieces in that picture.

And what they found was a big difference between novice players or beginner players and experts beginner players when asked to recall where the pieces were…they can only remember about four pieces right, experts on the other hand could actually identify almost all of them, over twenty of them could they correctly identify and the next game board when asked to recall these.

Now again they were interested in knowing you know why is this difference why do we see this difference between beginners And novices and it wasn't because like you might be thinking that the experts had better visual memories than the beginners, it was because the experts had more experience playing chess and more knowledge. In other words this game board was more meaningful to them right they could see the strategy involved they could imagine what was happening and why the players have their pieces positioned the way they did.

And to further support this idea they did a follow-up study and a follow-up study, they showed chess players pictures of randomly arranged chess boards right and that's this picture here now to you or I or to beginner chess player these might look basically the same.

I mean yeah the pieces are in different places but for the most part they might be equally difficult to to remember right, to an expert though we found big differences when presented with a randomly configured board once it was random experts no longer had an advantage in remembering pieces, because it wasn't meaningful to them. But because there's no meaningful arrangement in the second piece, right they lost that advantage which again is just further evidence that we store information in terms of meaning and not according to a censoring mode.

And this basic finding by the way has been extended to other contexts everything from Chess, to basketball, to computer programming, and to dance right. We store information in terms of meaning and not limited to particular sensory modes.

So that’s the first reason, another reason why this learning styles theory doesn't pan out is that you know the best way to teach something or to learn something really depends on what it is you want to learn right, or depends on the content itself. Now if I wanted you for example to know what a bunch a different song birds looked like, the best way to teach you that is to let you look at pictures of those song birds, to let you see them in real life right but know that that's true for everybody, that's not true just because you're a visual learner; that's because looking at them is what I'm asking you to do is to remember what they look like.

On the other hand if I wanted you to remember what they sounded like are to be able to distinguish between different songs of different sound birds songbirds, then letting you hear them would be the best way, but again that applies to everybody.

Just like if I wanted you to know what different flowers smell like, the best way to teach you that is going to be it to let you experience those flowers by smelling them, right but that doesn't mean you're in all factory learner or that you learn everything better through smelling. I mean take a minute to imagine what that would look like in a math class or in anatomy class right or a physics class right, and as absurd as that sounds it's really important to remember that the same problems the same criticisms apply.

Whether we're talking about so-called all-factory learners or whether we're talking about auditory learners, or visual learners, or even kinaesthetic learners. Right the last three might see more palatable or more reasonable but the same issues apply. It really depends on what I'm asking you to learn the best way to teach it.

But that also brings me to another point and that’s this idea that many things can be taught using multiple senses, so it's not just limited to one. For example so say I wanted to learn the game of football right, probably the best way to teach you football is going to get you out to be to get you out there and play football right to actually practice and having that physical experience playing. But you'd also probably benefit from being able to watch a football game, or being able to look at schematics or drawings of the different formations in the different positions just like you’d probably also benefit from hearing coaching or hearing feedback as you're playing right.

You're getting the kinaesthetic experience the visual and the auditory.

Similarly if a music teacher wanted you to know the different parts of a symphony orchestra Then yeah going to an orchestra and listening to one would be beneficial, but it would also add to the experience if you have the capability to touch the instruments, or maybe to learn how to play them right, or to actually watch one live.

Again it's not that different modes make it meaningful to different people based on their learning style, it's not like all the visual learners are only going to learn by seeing it.

It's because it’s incorporating multiple sensory experiences in to one make it into one lesson makes it more meaningful.

So then you might be wondering why did this myth persists right, and there's a few different explanations; and the first one is quite simply that everybody believes it right, it's so common that you never even think to question it, how could so many people be wrong, if so many people believe it how is that possible that it's wrong. But as you know, just because something is commonly believed doesn't necessarily make it true.

Remember just as an example at one point we used to think that the Earth was the centre of the universe right until scientists like, Copernicus and Galileo proved us otherwise right.

Likewise there was a time in which some people actually believed or worried that polio might be caused by ice cream, which we now know is nonsense.

And unfortunately even today one unfortunate myth that still persists is this idea that vaccines cause autism despite the lack of any scientific evidence.

Just because a lot of people believe it doesn't make it true and that might seem really obvious to you but again, the key is the key ideas that when something is so pervasive it doesn't even occur to people to challenge it right, we need to be willing to critically reflect on beliefs even if they're commonly believed.

Another reason why this persist is quite frankly the idea of learning styles is sexy, it sounds good, it feels good right. Saying people have different learning styles is another way of acknowledging that people are different and differences are important, especially when it comes to the classroom.

But me saying that learning styles don't exist, I'm not saying people are the same right people do differ in many important ways learning styles just isn't one of them, and just because some ideas sound really good just because we really want something to be true doesn't make it so.

We have to remember that even when we’re talking about something as appealing as Santa Claus, unicorns, big foot or learning-styles.

And last but not least another reason why this belief persists is something called confirmation bias, and this is this natural tendency that we have as human to want to be right, people don't like to be right so when or don't like to be wrong I should say, so when people have this belief right, or any belief, we tend to look for information that fits our beliefs and we ignore information that doesn't fit our beliefs right we don't really very frequently try to prove ourselves wrong right more often than not we try to prove ourselves right, we look for evidence to support whatever it is that we think.

And sometimes this is deliberate sometimes this bias is very deliberate so you all know that person who deliberately closes their eyes or plugs their ears and says blah blah I’m not listening I don't want to hear that and turns their back. But more often than not this is unintentional this is sub-conscious we don't even realize that we're doing it.

How many of you for example have ever been thinking of someone only to have them call or text you or how many do you have experience déjà vu, or had a dream only to have it come true right and you start to think woah, I've got something going on here right some extrasensory perception telepathic powers right, again I'm sorry to say you don't right. There that's been studied frequently too and there's no evidence to suggest that we have these tele-communicator or tele-communicative powers to talk to each other right.

But the problem has it that we noticed every time it happens right we noticed every time we're thinking of someone and they call us because it’s a cool coincidence right kind of exciting, we notice when we have that moment of déjà vu we don't notice all the times that we're thinking of someone and they don't call us right, or we don't really think about all the dreams that we've had that don't come true.

It's just like that other common belief that full moons are somehow associated with crazy behaviour or increases in emergency room visits, this is also been something that people have scientifically studied and again despite common belief there's there's no significant correlation there between full moons and emergency room visits.

so now you might be wondering why does it matter, right who cares so yeah learning styles don’t exist hopefully you're buying that by now right now I see why it's still so common though but who cares right why not believe in learning styles, and I would argue there's at least two important reasons why we need to stop believing this and stop spreading this idea that people have learning styles.

The first one is that we're wasting valuable time and resources valuable educational resources. Teachers already have a momentous Task of accommodating students from all different backgrounds, of different ability levels different disabilities in their classroom different interest the motivations. That's not easy right, the whole fact that learning styles doesn't matter to some extent should be a relief that's one less thing that teachers have to worry about right.

But at the very least we can’t afford to be wasting our time and resources trying to promote learning styles, when there's no evidence that it actually helps learning. Especially when there are research supported strategies, things that we know we can do that actually do impact learning; so that's the first reason.

The second reason is this whole idea that labelling yourself as a learner or labelling a student as a learner can not only be misleading but it can be dangerous, if I as a teacher think that you have a particular learning style that you only learn in one way, that might prevent me from trying other strategies that could otherwise help you learn the information better. Likewise if you as a student believe that you have a particular learning style that could cause you to shut down or lose interest when a teacher isn't teaching in a way that's consistent with your preferred style, right and that might actually perpetuate your failure but it's not because you couldn't learn that way it's because you gave up and you stopped trying right.

This whole idea that learning styles don't exist in many ways should be further good news because it means that all of us are capable of learning in a variety of ways, we are not as limited as sometimes we think we are.

So in conclusion when I teach about this topic in my classes and even when I talk to other professionals and colleagues, first reaction I get is usually a little bit of surprise, surprised that something that's no common so ubiquitous isn't actually true. But that's often times followed by a little bit of defensiveness, and I am sure there are some of you out there right now thinking okay I hear what she’s saying I don't really care though I know how I learn I know that I still have a learning style.

People don't like to be wrong right, and believe change is really hard especially when it’s a belief that you've held for a really long time or one that’s central to your identity, but again it's really important that we're willing to let our guard down sometime and to challenge our beliefs and to truly consider other perspectives or different ideas.

How often do we get defensive when we hear information or hear ideas that we don't like to hear or that go against our beliefs, how often do we surround ourselves intentionally with likeminded people just so we don't have to face different perspectives.

And in a day and age when information is more readily accessible than ever before, how often do our Google searches take us to show me I’m right dot com rather than unbiased evidence. Thank you

End transcript
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Note your thoughts in response to this talk as it progresses. What strategies would you use to help learners ‘make meaning’ in your subject?

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There are many theories about learning and this section has touched on a few of the more established ones. The theories of learning described in this section not only suggest how this might be achieved but also provide a framework to help you to reflect on practice. No single theory should be regarded as ‘right’; in different contexts, with different topics, with a particular group of students, all have something to offer.

As a teacher, your responsibility is to support your students to learn. You can’t make them learn – that is up to them – but you can draw on the various theories of learning in order to create the conditions in which learning is likely to take place. New theories are emerging. For example, in recent years there has been a great deal of focus on neuroscience and what happens in the brain when learning takes place. This is an area that is advancing fast and is controversial. The concepts of ‘learning without limits’ and ‘growth mindsets’ have also impacted on views about learning. The Further reading section provides links and references that might interest you.


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