Let’s assume that learning styles are real, and that people learn in different ways. What is a teacher to do?
Do you ensure that your teaching contains a bit of everything, to keep everyone equally happy (or unhappy)? That seems to be the lesson that learning styles imply. People learn in different ways so you should teach in different ways. So, if I have thirty students all wanting to be educated in Devonian geology I should lecture a bit, seminar a bit, workshop a bit, juggle a bit, do the hokey cokey and turn around, because that’s what it’s all about.
This is a significant difference from a number of the earlier theories, which provide a more assertive stance on how learning should be conducted. For learning styles there is no world view to rally against or behind. There is the simple message: people are different so act accordingly. My first reaction is to despair. It makes me feel bad that whatever I do as a teacher will probably be difficult for some of my students. With Kolb’s learning styles inventory there are fours stages (Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualisation, and Active Experimentation) and a four-type definition of learning styles (Diverging, Assimilating, Converging and Accommodating) which is an awful lot of different ways for a human brain to make sense of stuff which need to be accommodated. Possibly too many.
And yet? I have a colleague at the Royal College of Art who would describe himself as a visual learner. He finds it difficult to process and author text. He is excellent at his job, but whenever I – as a representative of the damp duvet of bureaucracy – ask him to write something down, he finds it difficult. For the most part, I do not, so I’m at an advantage to him when it comes to writing reports, applications and pretty much any task that involves thinking up and ordering words on a page. Get him to do the things that he is good at however, and he’s fantastic. He can describe and understand processes with a wave of his hand that would take me an afternoon of diligent research. It is anecdotal I know, but here for me is an example of two people who think very differently, and learn very differently. Ask us to do visual challenge and he would shine and I would struggle (despite my earlier diagnosis as a visual learner). Ask us to do a textual challenge and the roles would be reversed.
So, if people are made from different molds shouldn’t we acknowledge this in how we teach? To some extent, this goes back to the initial assumption. Should we assume that learning styles as a theory is robust? If not, we are left with the general assertion that people are different, but we’re not quite sure how? This would be a flimsy basis on which to design an education. So, we need to know if the theory is sound before we start doing shaking it all about.