Hugh Lafferty† & Dr. Keith Burley†
Mr. Lafferty was in charge of MScs at
"Learning styles are, simply put, various approaches or ways of learning" (Wikipedia, 2009)
Many authors have advocated that there are identifiable ways that people learn. They have put forward their views of distinct learning styles and have attracted a great deal of support. One such eminent author is David Kolb (Kolb, 1984), who put forward his learning styles model and experiential learning theory (ELT) in 1984. However his views and those of his counterparts are strongly contested by others and the rejection of these learning styles is gathering momentum. This paper takes a scholarly look at the range of views on this subject and attempts to establish a consensus of opinions in the opposing camps. It puts forward the proposition that "Learning Styles are a myth". They are at most an approximation of reality and offer little to the learning process. This paper explores the implications of the rejection of learning styles on the institutional policies in learning and teaching. This is an 'old' topic but still a controversial one as illustrated by Peter Honey of Honey & Mumford's method (Honey, 1992, 2009) writing 'abusive' emails to a Donald Clark (Clark, 2007) who was presenting Coffield's evidence (Coffield, 2004) and Clark said that “As well as Vak, I came across labelling such as ‘activists’ versus ‘reflectors’, ‘globalists’ versus ‘analysts’ and ‘left brainers’ versus ‘right brainers’. There is no scientific justification for any of these terms”
Blackboard (Bb) is a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) which is used by SHU for
· storing the teachers' lectures,
· allowing students to upload their work
· storing teachers assessment
· allowing students to form a community by asynchronous means
The idea of Learning Styles has been around for a long time now and we will just use one example of the many that are proposed viz. Fleming's VARK or (VAK) (Fleming, 2001) which thinks that there are 3 or 4 types of learner, who learns best by
· Visual seeing e.g. seeing a Powerpoint Bb lecture
· Aural listening e.g. listening to a Bb lecture
· Reading/writing reading or writing e.g. writing a precis of parts of a Bb
· Kinaesthetic doing e.g. doing an experiment
Positron Emission Tomography (PET) is a non-invasive technique which measures the gamma rays emitted by a radioactive substance which is introduced into the bloodstream.
Electroencephalography (EEG) is a non-invasive technique where electrodes are placed on the outside of the head.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is a non-invasive technique which measures the neural activity of the haemoglobin, which carries oxygen.
We will provide arguments for and against the existence of learning styles being a myth, and then come to a conclusion.
There is nothing new in what we have to say, but the implications are profound. One implication is that the teachers should not change the way they teach because students learn in different ways. We will leave the other implications until the conclusions, later. With the advent of e-learning the teachers can make learning individual, because, at last, the teachers can do 1:1 teaching (Kruse, 2002). There are many to support the view that Learning styles exist from Kolb (Kolb, 1984) who 'invented' the idea, and a niece of one of the authors who teaches young children and 'knows' that her children learn in different ways, to the wife of one of the authors who says that the author has never taught in a school and hence does not know that some children learn when they are running about. That, straight away, brings us to models and a belief system. Why do they believe that Learning Styles exist, and don't they know that Learning Styles are only a model and are thus an approximation to reality? One of the models is a Community of Inquiry (CoI) (Garrison, 2003) which says that one should have three things in place, a teaching presence, a cognitive presence and a social presence. This as a model, appeals, but is it based on anything? Models are to be questioned and if they are 'wrong' then the models are to be changed. That is what the scientific method is all about. 'Wrong' can mean many things, like 'the weight of evidence', but even that can be in doubt when in the ancient Babylonians said 'the earth is flat', and the weight of evidence said that the earth was flat, but it isn't. 'Wrong' can mean the output from the model does not conform to what we see. Hence the forecast from the model is wrong e.g. we see the sail of the boat that is a long way away, before the prow, thus proving that earth is not flat. Thus proving that the model is wrong, but there are still 'flat earthers' who believe that the earth is flat. We will leave belief to another time.
We will see that Learning Styles do not exist because
· The forecast is wrong.
· That is not how the brain works.
We will see that Learning Styles are a 'bad' idea, because
· Matching the teaching to the learning does not work
· Learning styles are not measurable
· Changing teaching styles is not 'doable'
· Knowing your learning style does not make you a better learner.
· Knowing a student's learning style does make the teachers better.
There is no question that people learn in a spectrum of ways and Susan learns 'better' than Robert (Biggs,2009a, 2009b), at least she 'always' gets a first, and Robert 'always' gets a third' There is also, a spectrum of ability of teachers, but they can get 'better' if they 'talk' to their peers or students or read more, and are more reflective (Francis, 1995). But, that does not mean that Learning Styles exist, or that teachers have to change their teaching styles according to how the students learn.
If Learning Styles exist then the teachers should teach in the style that a student prefers to learn. But, Willingham (Willingham, 2009) has shown that if the subject is visual then the teachers should teach in a visual style and not an aural style. For example, if the subject is geography and we are teaching the shapes of the countries in Africa then we should teach in a visual style, even if we know that the student is an aural learner.
One should teach in the manner that the topic demands. Another way to put it is, the way one learns is topic dependent as Curwin thinks (Curwin, 1999).
So, the forecast from the theory does not work, and that puts Learning Styles existence in doubt.
4. That is not how the brain works
Baroness Greenfield (Greenfield, 2007) has said the 'Learning styles … are nonsense' because, it is inferred, 'that is not how the brain works', and Willingham agrees (Willingham, 2009). Baroness Greenfield is a neuro-scientist, hence the inferral, and refuses to answer why she says that they are 'nonsense'. What is her evidence? She leaves it to her PA to write to us saying that we should buy her books (Greenfield, 2009), which we did, (Greenfield, 2000a, 2000b, 20008) but they did not explain why she thinks learning styles are nonsense. We know something about how the brain works, but we do not know what learning means, and e-learning is just one type of learning. Experiments on the brain, usually, cannot be done, because they require lots of equipment and usually require that the experimenter is medically/biologically qualified. Even if experiments could be done, they might change the way the brain works. For example, an ergonomist was once asked 'Why do you not experiment on the brain more to find out how people sit?' he answered 'Imagine a remote tribe, who lived in the jungle, and one day they came across an old TV set and they pulled out a valve, and sparks flew about. Would a valid conclusion be they have removed the spark suppression mechanism?' So, experimenting on the brain might change the brain. At the microscopic level even observation might cause us to know more about one variable e.g. position, than about another e.g. velocity, because firing a photon at a molecule might cause it to move to another position. Thus 'proving' Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.
We consider a different mechanism for each learning style, and as there are at least 70 ways of measuring learning styles according to Coffield et al (Coffield, 2004), and more are suggested by Margaret Martinez (Martinez, 2009), we have to consider at least 70 different ways that the brain stores information. And, at least 70 ways getting the information out. If we do not consider a different way of getting information in/out of the brain then there is only one way, and Learning Styles do not exist, or we have to consider 70 ways getting information in/out of the brain, and the number is growing, and that is unlikely. So, the idea of Learning Styles existence is put in doubt because 'that is not how the brain works'.
Greenfield (Greenfield, 2000) mentions some non-invasive techniques like PET, EEG and fMRI, and 7 workers from MIT have built a small, wearable, device that works on EEG principles, but even non-invasive techniques change the brain by changing the memory of their use. Nevertheless, some research could be done by people wearing the device whilst using Bb, say, and so the models of learning could be based on how the brain works. But, the company set up by the 7 from MIT, Emsense, will not let the device out, unless it is to do with 'large' customers (Emsense, 2009). If they did lend out their device, models of how we learn, could be built and based on how the brain works, despite the changing of the brain by their use.
Rowbotham (Rowbotham, 1999) and others e.g. Stahl (Stahl, 1999), Siegfried (Siegfried 1979) have shown that just as many papers have been written that show that teaching should be matched to learning, as papers that show that teaching should not be matched. Or they show no evidence that students learn any better if the teachers align their teaching to how the students learn. We could conclude that even if Learning Styles exist and could be measured the teacher does not need to change his teaching style by matching his teaching style to the student's learning style.
Occam's donkey also thinks that matching does not work "Let us accept that some learning styles are valid concepts and can be validly and reliably assessed. The question then arises whether knowing learners' learning styles and adapting your instructional methods to complement those styles is feasible and effective? The answer is unfortunately an unequivocal NO. It sounds good in theory, but it does not work." (Occam's donkey, 2008)
This does not prove that Learning Styles do not exist, but is a supportive argument.
One author has tried 2 methods of measuring learning styles and in one case was measured along 4 axes and in another was measured along 7 axes. Fleming's VARK method (Fleming, 2001, VARK, 2009) measured 4 ways, and Gardener's Memletics method (Memletics, 2009) measured 7 ways. In both cases he had to answer a subjective questionnaire, and he did not believe the outcome, anyway. We come back to belief again. The authors believe, deductively, that most of the other 69 methods are questionnaire based, and hence questionable. We come back to belief yet again, rather than evidence based deduction.
The subjectivity is not important (because the data is most probably subjective), but it does matter that the learning of the topic depends on so many things (Musa, 2003), (Reid 1987) e.g. motivation (Shih, 2001), temperature (Cambiano, 2000), emotions (VanWagner, 2005), (Martinez, 2009), the subject matter (Willingham 2009) (Anon, 2009) but Draper (Draper, 2008) thinks that mathematicians do not learn in a different way to chemists. The learning style depends on how experienced the learner is in the subject (Denzine, 2008), the personality of the learner (Western Nevada, 2009) etc. Each of these can be split into yet more e.g. how well fed the learner is, how much the learner had to drink the night before, is the learner 'in love'? No matter what we think of as important, more measures will be thought up, and it is time to call a halt, and declare that Learning Styles are not measurable.
Again this does not prove that Learning Styles do not exist, but is a supporting argument.
In order to change our teaching style to how the student learns we first have to measure how the student learns. If we assume that learning styles exist and are measurable, then measuring learning styles is possible. But, let us say there are 16 important learning styles and are measurable, then we measure how the student learns. A lot of teachers teach a topic one way and then another. This means that we have to create at least 32 lessons for each topic, one for saying it one way and one for saying it a different way (that way it strengthens synapses and our teaching is based on how the brain works). We most probably have to create n ways of teaching a topic and generate a pseudo-random number between 1 and n to choose one way of teaching, to avoid bias. This way we have to create 320 different ways of teaching just one topic, if n=10. Teachers are not going to do this. But, what happens if there are 70 different ways of learning, and the number is growing? Teachers are not going to believe you and are not going to do it, they are busy enough as it is. Even if there are only 3 ways of learning we first have to measure, for each topic, how a student learns, because the way one learns is topic dependent. Then, we have to create 6 different lessons for each topic, and that means 3 different types of assessment. The 6 comes from there being 3 learning styles and 2 ways of teaching each learning style. Neither student nor teacher will 'wear' this, the student because he is constantly being measured, and the teacher because he has to create so many lessons and assessments. So, even if learning styles exist, using them is not 'doable'
Even though you know what your learning style is e.g. aural, it does not make you a better aural learner for every topic. But, Lu et al (Lu, 2003) assume that Learning Styles are not subject dependent and are constant. Knowing that your learning style is aural, does not make you a better learner, for a visual topic. But, Southampton University (Southampton University,2009) thinks it does, where you are asked to find out what type of learner you are. "Understanding your own preferred Learning Styles can help you study more effectively by ...." but Southampton University does use the words natural, preferred, and comfortable but does not ask questions about the current topic. So, they think that learning styles exist most of the time. As soon as you qualify it, you admit that the way we learn depends on lots of things and learning styles are only an approximation if they exist at all.
Knowing your learning style might even be a 'barrier' to learning and used against the teacher, who is told "I am an aural learner and you were teaching visually". The implication being "therefore I am not going to learn". So, knowing your learning style, might be used against the teacher, and does not make you a better learner, and calls into question the existence of Learning Styles.
"Of course we know that models are an approximation of reality" (Berger, 1972), "of course we know what the scientific method is, we are not 'flat earthers', do you think we are stupid or something?" They say, raising their voice and trying to convince themselves. "What do you say to a class doing sport at University that cannot concentrate for 2 hours, and have to get up and do something?". "They cannot learn sitting down, they learn when they are doing, they are kinaesthetic (however you spell it) learners". We say "Do not teach for 2 hours" it is too long. But, teach in the normal way, say it in 2 or 3 different ways because that is strengthening synapses, say that you have said it, again because that is strengthening synapses which is how the brain works. Let them practice, because that is strengthening synapses. Draw it, because that is strengthening synapses. So, do base our models of learning on how the brain works.
Might the subject be such that everybody has to do to learn? Maybe everybody doing sport is motivated by sport. Maybe, maybe.
Now, arguing specifically against the idea that Learning styles are a myth, and introducing a new argument.
That a visual subject has to be taught visually does not prove that learning styles do not exist, or that we have a preferred way of learning. "How we learn is subject and teacher dependent, we learnt that very early on, didn’t you? " they say, trying to win the argument. But, winning the argument is not important, being right is.
People do learn at different rates (Christensen 2008) and to different 'depths' (Reynolds, 2008) and that 'proves' that learning styles do exist. Susan 'always' gets 'better' marks than Robert, and that 'proves' that she is a better learner than Robert and that 'proves' that learning styles exist, and we forecast she always will.
The brain passes information through synapses, or gaps between neurons. The gaps pass the information by chemical neuro-transmitters which 'puff' the information from the axon to receptors in neighbouring neurons. At least that is one common way. So, we postulate some neuro-transmitters for getting information into the 'circuit' of neurons and another set for getting information out. So, Learning Styles can now be broken down into two, one for getting information in and one for getting information out, and we have a 'better' model for learning, now, based on how the brain works. An explanation is that Miss Trimble has more circuits for storing facts, and 'better' indexes, than us, for getting information in and out of the brain.
Just that there are a lot of learning styles does not mean they are not measurable.
We only have to create our lesson once, if we are doing e-learning, so creating our lesson might be 'hard' to design and take a long time to create, but it is 'doable'. Anyway, MIT have made all of their content freely available online, so we do not have to create any content. All we have to do is support the content, and Bb makes that easy.
Nevertheless, this argument on its own does not 'prove' or negate the existence of Learning Styles.
Ignoring for the moment that learning styles are subject dependent, then knowing your learning style does make you a better learner, and that is why Southampton University do it. Knowing that you are an aural learner, does mean that the way you learn, is by listening, most of the time? Knowing that you are a kinaesthetic learner does mean that you learn when you run about, and because oxygen is carried to the brain by running about, our model of learning is based on how the brain works. So, that 'proves' that learning styles exist, and our models are correct. Susan is better than Robert because she knows her learning style and sticks to it, and that 'proves' that learning styles exist. One of the author's niece sees pupils staring at ceiling while she is talking, but still they are learning, and that 'proves' that aural learners exist, and so learning styles exist.
This is a new argument against the premise that learning styles are a myth. If we could measure a student's learning style as a visual learner, say, and this topic warranted a visual style, then the teacher should teach it in a visual way. Thus making the teacher better, and utilising e-learning in a 1:1 way.
We have put forward 2 arguments why Learning Styles are a myth and 4 arguments why they are a 'bad' idea.
The arguments for Learning Styles being a myth revolve around
· the forecast is wrong because it is subject dependent e.g. a visual subject has to be taught visually
· that is not how the brain works because we have to assume too many ways of getting information in/out of the brain.
The arguments for Learning Styles being a 'bad' idea revolve around
· teachers do not have to match to the students' learning style and thus have to change the way they teach by measuring learning styles. Teachers carry on being teachers but get better.
· there are so many ways of measuring learning styles, and the number is growing, that one conclusion is that they are not measurable
· changing the way teachers teach according to how the student learns is just not 'doable' because we have to measure the student's learning style (and there are at least 70 ways of doing this) and then construct at least 140 ways of teaching them, and 70 ways of assessing them. Teachers will just not do this, even if we assume there are only 4 ways of learning
· knowing ones own learning style does not make one a better learner, because learning is subject dependent, and learning styles can be used against the teacher.
The arguments against Learning Styles being a myth revolve around
· the forecast is not wrong because we know that the way we learn is subject and teacher dependent. The argument for the forecast being wrong does not get round Susan 'always' being 'better' than Robert, and we forecast that she 'always' will be.
· the models of learning are based on how the brain works because we could assume one neuro-transmitter for each learning style. We could postulate many transmitters for getting information in, and many transmitters for getting information out. Learning style is now split into two, and we have a 'better' model based on how the brain works.
The arguments against Learning Styles being a 'bad' idea revolve around
· the teachers must match their teaching style to the student's learning style because in e-learning we only have to measure how 1 student learns.
· learning styles are measurable. Just because there are many learning styles does not mean they are that they are not measurable.
· changing a teacher's teaching style is 'doable' even though it is hard and time consuming.
· knowing ones own learning style does make one a better learner because most of the time we learn in one way which makes Susan 'better' than Robert.
· knowing a student's learning style does make one a better teacher because then we can match our teaching and learning styles.
Because Susan 'always' does 'better' than Robert we can say that she 'always' learns better than Robert, and learning is most probably measured along a spectrum. In order to make this spectrum manageable we split the spectrum into 3 ,4 or is it 7 or 70. All we say is that Learning Styles is a model of how we learn and the fewer types of learning styles we have involves the more approximation to the spectrum. But Learning Styles is only one model amongst many, and is it the 'right' model to use of how we learn?
Even though the proponents of learning styles do say that we have a learning style some of the time, or even most of the time, there are some who think we have one learning style. The Demos Think Tank say " For example, it is sometimes claimed that learning styles are largely fixed and innate" (Demos, 2004). They think that there is a "…current conceptual confusion.. " and " ..in our view the evidence base for learning styles is profoundly unsatisfactory and needs attention".
Learning styles are subject dependent, they are teacher dependent, they are temperature dependent, they are emotion dependent etc. In fact they are dependent on so many things, that they are on a continuum and therefore not measurable, and do not exist. If we concentrate on a few, important ones, to make our life easier, then we have to say most of the time we have a learning style. But because they are dependent on so many things we do not have one learning style, we have many, maybe one for each topic, teacher, temperature, emotion etc. Perhaps we choose a style that is most suitable for the task in hand, and Susan chooses 'better' than Robert. We also, have to ask ourselves are we teaching deeply or procedurally and why do Universities have on their panels outsiders who only teach procedurally or are only interested in people who can follow the procedures? One of the authors failed an SSADM exam because he did not give the answer 'in the book' but thought more deeply about the topic. If he had known that they were only asking procedural questions then he would have answered differently. So, he was not risk-averse (Greenfield, 2008,:p273) but should have been to pass the exam.
We now, consider the arguments one by one.
Learning styles is a measure of how you learn and the forecast is that if you are a visual learner we have to teach you visually, irrespective of the subject. But, we do not, we teach differently for each topic. So, measuring how you learn is a waste of time, it certainly does not make you a better learner, and it is also a waste of time to change the way we teach because you learn in a special manner. So, the forecast is wrong, even though Susan is 'always' better than Robert. Does a one-legged man play for Manchester United? Perhaps Susan has more 'natural ability' than Robert. George Best once said "It is surprising how much kicking a tin can around the streets gives you natural ability". We cannot measure natural ability but that does not stop coaches at Manchester United coaching, nor Universities trying to make Robert more like Susan.
There are so many learning styles that we have to consider many neuro-transmitters for each learning style, which involves getting information in and getting information out. As there are at least 70 different learning styles we could consider 70 different neuro-transmitters of getting information in and, 70 neuro-transmitters for getting information out. We have known for a long time, that there are many neuro-transmitters (Nicholl, 1988) and certainly more than 70 (WiseGeek, 2009). So, it is possible that each learning style is associated with many neuro-transmitters for getting information in and forming indexes, and many neuro-transmitters for getting information out. But, we think that the neuro-transmitters like dopamine, GABA, serotonin, acetylcholine, and norepinephrine are not to do with the information itself but more, what is to be done with the information, or what its function is e.g. move a limb (but we still have to pass the x,y,z co-ordinates), deal with emotions etc. We cannot rule out a learning style being associated with many neuro-transmitters, and then the way we learn is based on how the brain works. But what is more likely is learning is more to do with the memory which is to do with forming more dendrites/neurons to hold more facts, which are held in circuits of neurons, and forming 'associations' or indexes. The more indexes we have, the more deeply we have thought about a subject. There is, most probably, only one mechanism for causing more dendrites/neurons to form (thus using only one neuro-transmitter) and how we form the indexes is not known yet. But, the indexes are associations between facts.
So, we come to the conclusion that learning styles might be based on how the brain works.
Because there are so many ways of measuring learning styles and because we have to align our teaching activities and assessment to how the student learns, the construction of the teaching material according to how the student learns, is not doable. Even if we only have to do it once, in the case of e-learning, the student is not going to stand being tested topic by topic, because learning style is topic dependent. But we can measure a student's learning style for this topic without the student knowing e.g. using quizzes, so, the student will stand it. Is that un-ethical? But if it is ethical, then have to measure a student's learning style for this topic by e.g. a quiz, and s/he will 'wear' it. But, what happens if we want to change a topic? If we assume a static topic and a 'best' static ordering of topics, and we can measure a student's learning style ethically, then teaching one topic might be doable. Topics, and their order, are not static and have to be changed frequently, showing that the teaching is not doable, even if we know a student's learning style.
Because every individual is different there is close to an infinity of different learning styles and hence they are not measurable no matter what they are based on.
Because, we learn differently depending on many things e.g. topic, teacher, room temperature, we have not got one preferred learning style but learn in an infinity of ways. Hence, one preferred learning style does not exist, and so knowing ones own learning style does not make one a better learner, and knowing it can even be used against the teacher.
Because it is waste of time measuring a student's learning style it does not make the teacher a better teacher knowing a student's learning style.
Professor Gypsy Denzine has said that there are 4 assumptions made for the existence of learning styles
· "There are individual differences in learning.
· An individual's style of learning is fairly stable across time.
· An individual's style of learning is fairly stable across tasks /problems/ situations.
· We can effectively measure an individual's learning style. " (Denzine, 2009)
We agree that we are learn in different ways, but we disagree that an individual's learning style is fairly stable across time/tasks/problems/situations and we think that learning styles cannot be measured, as the following arguments show.
An individual's learning style is not fairly stable across tasks etc. It is topic dependent as Curwin showed (Curwin, 1992) or people just assume it is static and not topic dependent "For the purposes of the study, we assumed that learning styles were fixed and non-contextual" (Brown, 2009)
Even a proponent of Learning styles, Dunn & Dunn, says that an individual's learning style is not static "Learning Style changes over time. It is not static. It changes." (SeeChange, 2005).
Snider thinks that learning styles are not measurable "..inability to adequately assess learning styles" (Snider, 1999).
So, 3 out of 4 of the assumptions are wrong and that calls into question the existence of learning styles.
Snook thinks that neuro-scientists cannot teach educators anything about how we learn and so the teachers should not base their lessons on how the students' learn.
1. I seriously question the claim that current research on the brain is highly significant for educational practice and that teachers need to know about brain functioning if they are to promote learning.
2. I also seriously question the claim, (implicit and often explicit in talk about learning styles) that teachers should target their teaching to the learning style of individuals and so improve their learning. " (Snook, 2007), and Rowbotham agrees (Rowbotham, 1999)
So, we do not have to model our learning on how the brain works, but, he does agree with us that Learning Styles are a myth.
For learning styles
· the forecast is wrong
· it might be how the brain works, but we doubt it
· they cannot be measured
· the lessons based on learning styles cannot be done
· a learner knowing his learning style does not make him a better learner
· knowing them does not make the teacher a better teacher
What more do we have to do convince you that Learning Styles are a myth?
Stop doing research on learning styles, stop accepting papers on learning styles e.g. Boström, & Lassen (Boström, 2006), and stop assuming that learning styles exist (Akdemir, 2008). The implication for the institution is obvious. Stop websites telling people to find out their learning styles and stop academics from accepting papers based on learning styles. We said that the implications are profound.
From the 'weight of argument' approach we have to keep quiet, because so many articles have been written about learning styles or assume they exist, but all the authors might be wrong. They might be 'flat earthers' and Learning Styles do not exist, but convincing them takes a long time.
No matter what arguments are put forward for why Learning Styles are a myth, there are some who will not change their mind, because they 'know' they exist or are so convinced of their existence that they will not change their mind.
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