Style Matters

The topic has been around for the best part of thirty years now but the controversy surrounding it has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent weeks thanks to the social networking sites Twitter and YouTube. I’m talking of course about the concept of ‘learning styles’ and the flurry of excited posts on Twitter celebrating the research of Professor Daniel T Willingham of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia which – he claims -demonstrates that ‘learning styles don’t exist’. Quite why there should be such enthusiasm for his ‘findings’ is worthy of consideration in itself, but if you haven’t yet seen or heard it you may wish to listen first of all to Professor Willingham in his own words:

I’ve written before on the blog about my admiration for the work of Harvard professor Howard Gardner and his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which transformed thinking about learning and teaching in the 1980s. Gardner’s notion – arrived at largely through his work with brain-damaged adults – that there are different ways of learning and that we all have preferred learning styles, led us to question traditional notions of intelligence or ‘IQ’ which until then were based largely on an academic model of learning through reading, and depending wholly on the teacher/expert for the transfer of knowledge:

“The daily opportunity to work with brain-damaged adults and with children impressed me with one brute fact of human nature: people have a wide range of capacities. A person’s strength in one area of performance simply does not predict any comparable strengths in other areas……..

We are not all the same; we do not all have the same kinds of minds (that is, we are not all distinct points on a single bell curve); and education works most effectively if these differences are taken into account rather than denied or ignored.”

Howard Gardner, Intelligence Reframed – Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century

Over time, Gardner’s views were often misinterpreted or distorted, with some schools and teachers in extreme cases going so far as to label children as one kind of learner or another, reinforcing the concept of ‘fixed’ intelligence which the theory of MI had done so much to rebut, but for many of us it marked the recognition at last that significant numbers of young people in the system were being failed because they didn’ t fit the narrow definition of intelligence which had hitherto prevailed. Suddenly, it was not acceptable to focus only on a small section of the population, with talk about those who were ‘willing to learn’ as opposed to those who weren’t, those who were ‘bright’ and those who would never ‘get it’.  The common practice of ‘streaming’ in secondary schools (grouping pupils according to IQ scores into the same group for all subjects) was largely abandoned. Learning and teaching became a whole lot more challenging and  a whole lot more rewarding at the same time.

I believe that Willingham falls into the same trap as those who took the theory of MI too literally and who wrongly came to the conclusion that the way forward was to identify a young person’s preferred learning style and cater for that exclusively from then on in, when in fact what Gardner had been advocating was that teachers use a wide range of methods and approaches for all students.

It’s well worth listening again to Howard Gardner himself in this 1997 interview on the importance of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences and its significance in the context of education:

For more on this topic see Ian Gilbert’s excellent post over at Independent Thinking.

Next time: ‘Entry points’ for understanding and why they matter.

8 thoughts on “Style Matters

    • Thanks for taking the trouble to read the post, Dan, and thanks for the advice if not necessarily the tone. As you will see in my follow-up post, I have now read Gardner more closely and updated my thoughts accordingly.

  1. Is it possible that :
    Riener, C & Willingham, D. (2010) The Myth of Learning Styles. Change, 42 (5), 32-35.
    has misquoted
    Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2008) Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Wiley-Blackwell), 9 (3), 105-119

    Willingham uses 2010 (p35 in resources box) in the reference when it should be 2008… any reasons why this might be? just curious.

    Hardly ‘new’ just social networking may have caught up after 3 years?

    Also, my understanding is not that the work is saying ‘learning styles don’t exist’ just the idea that adapting teaching to suit a learner’s style may not be proven (with evidence) to achieve better outcomes.

    • Hi Carl,
      I couldn’t possibly answer your question without some further research but perhaps one of the authors of the later report will help us out there. Neither was my aim to suggest that teaching approaches should be adapted in every case to suit every individual learner’s preference. However, to take one – perhaps obvious – example, some kids find it very difficult to learn while sitting still, and for some of their learning they need to have the opportunity (as do their peers) to learn while moving around.

      • This is very true of course. This is where some ideas of Sternberg’s triarchic teaching approach may be useful. Or as it is now known – teaching for succesful intelligence. Practical , creative and analytical approaches to hit many types of learners as can be seen in many a science classroom across the land. Good varied teaching can cater for any style of learner.

        This line of reasoning can obviously lead on to how our system is often geared to the analytical, and memory recall for high stakes exams putting pressure of teachers to cram heads full of stuff for regurgitation at a later date, even bringing in the ideas of performance management into the mix to further confuse the issue. ie. Being judged on student performance in high stakes exams where the system compares and highlights (even ridicules) failing schools or teachers, then puts them in a league for society to do the same. Do we want a holistic humanistic approach or materialistic society where we encourage people to get ‘better and better’ stuff? (educational neoliberalism?)

        I digress, back to the original point, I do believe you have confused intelligence with style though and there is much more evidence based research on intelligence as a predictor of academic success rather than style.

  2. Thanks Carl,
    I accept of course that the jury is still out on the exact relationship between the intelligences and preferred learning styles and on the effectiveness of related pedagogies. I also fully accept that there is much more evidence-based research (currently) on intelligence as a predictor of academic success.
    This is partly due, I would suggest – and I think you hint at this in your middle paragraph – to a narrow definition of ‘academic success’ which predominates in education systems at the moment. In the recent major review of Scottish education, Curriculum for Excellence, the four key aims were identified as being to ‘enable each child or young person to be a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor’. Academic success, however you define it, may be part of that package but is definitely not the whole.

  3. learning styles of ASL’s is very different from the VSL’s. Our present educational paradigm clearly favours the ASL which means we lose so much talent that the VSL could contribute

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