You put your right leg in…

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.


Repeat back to me

Do tests of learning styles inform our understanding or reflect it?

Defenders argue that they can reveal hidden tendencies by asking a question that is once removed from the original line of inquiry. For example, instead of asking ‘Are you a visual learner?’ one could ask ‘Do you like to create mind maps?’. From these (relatively) oblique answers a pattern is discerned from which a generalisation can are inferred.

The trouble here is that, in many cases, it is pretty straightforward to see what is happening. If the mechanics are exposed it is easy to explicitly or implicitly manipulate your answers to achieve the desired result. A number of people that I know have done this while completing personality tests as part of selection processes in order to give the ‘right’ impression.

Equally, I may be a terrible judge of my own character. I may think that I love collaborative learning because I view myself as a cheery, convivial soul – and answer questions accordingly – and yet my peers may feel very differently about my preferences and abilities. Perhaps, as with some dating sites, my peers should fill our these learning styles inventories on my behalf?

Ultimately, those of us involved in education are schooled in the idea that you should not place excessive trust in one source. As with Brookfield’s Four Lenses judgements are more authoritative if they are cross-referenced (i.e. include consideration of student and peer feedback and theoretical literature). It would appear to me that learning styles tests only make use of one source and do so in a way that is open to abuse (willful or otherwise).

In this case, I suspect that it more ‘I think therefore I might be’ , rather than ‘I think therefore I am’.

Do you like dogs?

This month’s theory is learning styles. The theory of learning suggests that people learn in different ways, and that diagnosing how someone learns is useful in designing and delivering an education that does not prize one style over another.

For example, it could be that some people are psychologically or culturally disposed towards lectures as a teaching format. A course designed around a programme of lectures would be the ideal way of them to be introduced to new ideas, to reflect on those ideas and to formulate ways in which they can be applied. Others might prefer a more ‘active’ learning style which allows them the opportunity for do something in order to make sense of it.

I decided to take a free online learning styles inventory to see what kind of learner I am. It reported that I was a ‘visual learner’, as opposed to an auditory or tactile learner. There are two immediate responses to this. The first one is: is this correct? Is there such a thing as a visual learner and, if so, does it best describe me? Furthermore, am I to be trusted in making an accurate assessment of my own preferences?

For example, a friend once introduced me to a Viz questionnaire that satirised the popularity of magazine surveys. It asked one question: do you like dogs? If you answered yes it proudly diagnosed that you were a dog person, and that you were the type to favour long walks in the countryside, the throwing of sticks and the company of an obedient chum. You were most emphatically not a cat person. If you answered no it declared that you were the type of person that didn’t like dogs, and didn’t like wet fur or doggy prints on the carpet. The point is obvious. These surveys tend to repeat back to you what you think about yourself, but in a codified way so that you imagine that something profound has been said.

Equally, even assuming that this is a worthwhile exercise what exactly do I do with this information as a student? Do I accept that this is who I am and or do I confront those areas of relative deficiency?  Also, what is a teacher supposed to do with this information? Do you ensure that each programme has a mix of different activities so that every student is equally favoured and disfavoured? This pushes you into a reactive role where you design your teaching around the habits of your students rather than the outcomes that you think best describe what it is that the students should be able to demonstrate?

I’m going to try and answer those questions in my next posts. I’m also going to look at one of the most popular learning style models: the 1984 Kolb LSI (Learning Style Inventory) to see whether it is more robust.