So, is there evidence to suggest that learning styles inventories are both valid (cogent) and reliable (can be repeated over time)? A 2004 study of 13 of the most prevalent models of learning styles concluded that ‘the idea of a learning cycle, the consistency of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic preferences and the value of matching teaching and learning styles are all highly questionable’ and that ‘none of the most popular learning style instruments have been adequately validated through independent research’.
A number of common learning disabilities such as dyslexia and dyspraxia are diagnosed using similar methods. People are asked a number of questions that probe how they think, and how they respond to problems, and their answers are plotted on a spectrum that defines whether they have that condition and, if so, at what level of severity. The difference is not the method per se, but the amount of rigour involved in devising, analysing and presenting those diagnostic questions. After all, anybody can come up with a learning inventory. To prove it, I’ve done one:
- Question 1) I think better when the sun is in the east? (Answer yes/no)
- Question 2) I typically wake up before 9am? (yes/no)
- Question 3) I find it difficult to concentrate in the dark (yes/no)
- Question 4) I like to complete complicated tasks before lunch (yes/no)
If you mostly answered ‘yes’ you are a morningtonian. You are a ‘morning person’ who finds it easiest to cognitively function in the hours immediately following awakening. If you mostly answered ‘no’ you are afternoonarian. You often wake up late, and are most productive either in the afternoon or the evening. You will often need several doses of caffeinated drinks to stimulate your problem-solving abilities.
So, now that you have your diagnosis, what do you do? Does the label help?
I think that the learning disabilities example demonstrates that it can. If we are confident that a condition exists, and the diagnosis of that condition is accurate then I think that we should feel a duty as teachers to ensure that ‘reasonable adjustments’ are made to ensure that no one is needlessly disadvantaged.
However, I would agree with Frank Coffield that any method needs to be subjected to external and independent scrutiny. Anybody can claim to be a ‘activist’, an ‘assimilator’ or a ‘morningtonion’. Teachers should not be expected to warp and wend their teaching to fit every preference. As such, the learning style inventories become more useful to the learner as one means of reflecting on how their brain might work at a particularly point in time. As long as that diagnosis is regarding with a hefty pinch of salt I see no harm in that.