Time for a Learning Styles post

The POD network (an organization of higher education faculty development professionals) listserv occasionally visits the topic of learning styles, and I felt compelled to weigh in this time. Unfortunately, my response came out terribly formatted, so I will redo it here.

The discussion included the usual back-and-forth between skeptics and not-so-skeptics, and then someone shared a brief essay from Neil Fleming, author of the VARK learning style assessment, questioning the arguments against learning styles. The essay begins:

The most damning criticism, about learning styles comes from researchers in the academic world. Not much comes from those who use learning styles as part of their strategies for learning, training and teaching. It is usually stated in these terms: “There is no evidence that knowledge of one’s learning styles is a benefit to learning.”

My response:

I disagree with the assertion that the strongest criticism of “learning styles” is that “There is no evidence that knowledge of one’s learning styles is a benefit to learning.”

The strongest criticism is that there is no evidence that instructors succeed in improving learning by attempting to diagnose student learning styles, and adjusting instruction accordingly for the individual students. This is what Pashler et al (2009) call the “meshing hypothesis” (p. 108), Coffield et al (2004) call the “matching hypothesis” (p. 121), and Riener and Willingham (2010) label the “critical and specific claim of learning-styles proponents.”

If learning-style proponents wish to argue that the critics are knocking at a straw man, they are, IMHO, willfully ignoring what many K-16 educators have decided that they are supposed to believe about learning styles.

On the question of whether self-awareness of learning styles is beneficial to learning, the critics are less clear. In fact, Coffield et al state (p. 132)

A reliable and valid instrument which measures learning styles and approaches could be used as a tool to encourage self- development, not only by diagnosing how people learn, but by showing them how to enhance their learning.

and (p. 120)

Learning styles can provide learners with a much needed ‘lexicon of learning’ – a language with which to discuss, for instance, their own learning preferences and those of others, how people learn and fail to learn, why they try to learn, how different people see learning, how they plan and monitor it, and how teachers can facilitate or hinder these processes. Through dialogue with a tutor knowledgeable about the relevant literature, the students’ repertoire of learning styles can be enhanced in the hope of raising their expectations and aspirations.

However, the concern is that a shallower approach to self-diagnosis of learning styles can be counter-productive.

Pashler et al. (p. 117):

There is growing evidence that people hold beliefs about how they learn that are faulty in various ways, which frequently lead people to manage their own learning and teach others in nonoptimal ways.

I would like to be optimistic in the vein of Coffield et al, but as long as most student knowledge about “learning styles” is derived from experience with teachers who believe in the matching approach, I think even this is problematic.

What beliefs and experiences do you have about “learning styles?”


Questions about Networked Learning (prompted by #bonkopen)

The discussions this week surrounding #bonkopen have been incredibly rich. So much so that I have perhaps neglected the content a bit. Kind of like a webinar where most of the learning takes place in the backchannel. So the backchannel for me has been Lisa’s blog, Nancy’s blog, and surprisingly, more of Google+ (via George Station, Phil Hill, Laura Gibbs, et al.) than Twitter.


Networked-learning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For me the thing that continues to resonate, which seems so simple and obvious yet profound for me, is the notion of distinguishing between networked learning and group learning when designing the learning environment/experience. Full credit to Nancy White (see links in paragraph above to her and Lisa’s blogs).

I think I’ve thought this way for a long time, and have been familiar with the idea of connectivism … yet actually thinking about how that translates into designs that may be radically different from traditional course design … that is something new for me.

I am going to repost my comment on Nancy’s blog here, because I would love to see more discussion of these questions:

So much to think about. I have long been of the mindset that online education, when done well – i.e. designed to take full advantage of the affordances of a networked environment – ought to be superior to classroom-bound education. I have long worked with educators who would talk about how much better their classroom-bound teaching experiences were once they had experience with teaching well online.

So, is the end game here that all education should move from the group model to the networked model? As devices permeate our classrooms, that will certainly become possible in almost any learning situation over the next decade. Will the average educator be able to make this mind shift? Should they?

How will technology and content providers help or hinder this shift? What would be lost if we made this shift wholesale? What will be the major tensions in our education systems as the networked learning model rises and “competes” with the traditional model? Can those tensions be “managed” so that they are more creative than destructive?

Update 5/5: Both Nancy and Curt Bonk are continuing the dialog on Nancy’s blog, so responses/comments on my questions here are probably best provided over there!

On teaching/learning in the network age

Alec Couros’ talk on teaching & learning in the network age (http://lisahistory.net/mccpot/newpages/courosvideoannotated.html) covers a lot of ground regarding tools and concepts underlying the cultural impact of the emergence of social media. I don’t think I have a problem with any of his major points. My sense of his audience at the conference is that they were very receptive – educators who are interested in technology and innovation. Unfortunately, I think many typical educators would be a bit lost in this talk.

A recent piece in the NYT on “What will schools look like in 10 years?” (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/03/what-will-school-look-like-in-10-years/) featured five “experts” and none of them spoke specifically about social media. Their focus was primarily on content and subject areas. As long as education is driven by outdated (IMO) paradigms based on scarcity of information resources and expertise, and assessment/accountability regimens designed for those paradigms, all the cool tools will have minimal impact on our systems. My fear is that our education systems are so completely intertwined with those non-network paradigms that evolution simply won’t happen. What would a new paradigm look like?

Differences between Instruction Paradigm and Learning ParadigmNote the citation: this is from 1995. Still waiting … and the tools perhaps provoke some to think more about this shift … but pedagogy first!

Dear reader, if you are a teacher, have you made this shift, or are you in the midst of it? What helped you? What made it difficult?