Learning Styles Or Learning Preferences In The Classroom?

One of the first inquiry units we have on the planner for 2009 is called ''Myself As A Learner". All classes are meant to be exploring this theme in the first fortnight and as part of our professional tuning in we had a couple of staff members run us through a "Learning Preferences" survey which we shared informally.  This one came from the John Joseph book ''Your Amazing Brain" which charted preferences on a four way axis that listed the following - Dynamic Learner, Innovative Learner, Procedural Learner and Analytic Learner. I remember doing a similar exercise quite a few years  ago at a Julia Atkin workshop - it would be interesting to see how that diagram stacks up against my latest version. Anyway, the teacher running the session pointed us towards some more of these surveys available online.

It shows how much this concept of "Learning Styles" is unconsiously accepted as gospel by teachers when my learning team colleagues decided that getting students to do some of these online surveys and analyse themselves as learners would be a great idea. So, today I started to look at some of the links and to bookmark a number  of them when I found my own delicious bookmark to Professor Dan Willingham's video "Learning Styles Don't Exist". This was one of those I'll-get-back-to-it-when-I-have-time bookmarks so I watched it through and pondered its perspective with what I was planning to do with my new batch of students. Now the video is very thought provoking (and I know it had been discussed at length by many of  the edublogosphere's deepest thinkers about six months ago) but the good thing about the internet is I don't have to only listen / view  /read / experience to just one perspective.

I found Chris Craft's post which led me to Matthew Tabor's thought provoking post which critiqued another perspective which was well worth the read. This gave me the chance to read some varying educators' opinions going beyond the "you must cater for learning styles in your classroom" mantra that I see blindly accepted in many classrooms. (Mine included for much of my career but truth be known I think that I tended to operate on the common sense approach rather than formally set up learning approaches catering for a particular learning style.) Students give varying abilities and skill levels into their classroom and we all have activities we prefer over others in terms of learning but to state that a particular learning style is the best way any one student can learn does not gel with what I've seen in my twenty plus years in the classroom. I recall a big push on learning style analysis a few years ago back when my then school was part of the Blackwood Hills Middle  Schooling Cluster. We were given a number of paper questionnaires and surveys in order to identify our middle school students' learning styles with the hint that we would use this information to customise a relevant curriculum for young adolescents. What  I tended to find was that these surveys were informative for the individual in recognising their learning preferences in both formal and informal circumstances but not once did I cluster the learners of one style into one group and design learning activities and curriculum around that identified style. I have a feeling that back in 2000/01, that was what the leadership driving the Cluster were after. Plus my thoughts at the time were along the lines of if we spend all our time tailoring teaching and learning to kids' strengths, then how do they develop competency in their areas of weakness?

I know it paints a picture of a sheep like teaching force but generally we tend to accept methodologies and approaches without too much question as long as we hear the phrase "the research says." Why else would consultants who merely collate and present the pockets of thought and research become known as "brain experts" or "learning styles gurus"? And then there is the disconnect as described to me by a local education researcher between a teacher's stated beliefs about education and their actual classroom practice. Which is exactly why it is important for people like Dan Willingham to challenge our automatic mindset - even if we disagree, it sends readers searching for what they actually believe happens in the process of learning.

So back to the unit. My tandem and co-planning teaching partners and I are going to strategically use a number of these online measurement tools with our students. The goal is have them take a reasonable sample, collect the results via screenshots and look through them for an overall picture of their learning preferences (note the careful choice of terminology) in a bid to help them gain more insight into their own perception of "Myself As A Learner." The accumulated results should also give me some insight into the group as a whole and help the students to appreciate each other's differences and contributions as we start build the 2009 LA20 learning community.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

9 thoughts on “Learning Styles Or Learning Preferences In The Classroom?

  1. Tomaz Lasic

    Hi Graham

    Thanks for the neat collection of online tools. I’ll give these a judicious go over the next few days/weeks as the school starts.

    I find these sorts of things more useful not in the prescriptive method of “how we should teach each student” (near damn impossible with seeing about 100+ different faces in an average school day) but to help the kids work out what works best for them and give them a chance to take responsibility to play their strengths to achieve their goals and be aware of their weaknesses. In short, these are more student’s tool than teachers’ tool.

    As far as ‘research shows’ tag goes, the good old Kuhn blew that our of the water in the 1970 by challenging the scientific paradigm(s) as ones competing until the next one comes around (hmm, phrenology [intelligence based on size and shape of a skull] was once a ‘cutting edge’ and ‘latest research’).

    Have a great 2009 (and a cooler one, you poor buggers feeling for you sitting here on ‘mere’ +35).


  2. Artichoke

    Hi Graham,

    It is unnerving when we ferret around the stuff that we adopt into our teaching practice … we mean well but sometimes what we do is not only unrelated to student achievement it can be a distraction.

    I struggled with finding out about learning styles in the summer break a few years back and find that unlike some of my thinking in Artichoke I still hold to most of the thoughts in

    Learning Styles: Are you a Bender or a Fry?

    Learning Styles: Seduction and Gullibility

    Learning Styles: The Kekekkekeke Zerg Rush

    At the moment I am excited by Prof John Hatties meta-analysis “Visible learning A synthesis of over 800 meta – analyses relating to achievement” http://www.amazon.com/Visible-Learning-synthesis-meta-analyses-achievement/dp/0415476186

    The effect size data are fascinating and give clear indicators about where we should be putting our thinking and energy when we work with kids in school. The explanation behind each effect and what it involves make fabulous professional learning … it is a must read for teachers who want to make a difference.

    If you have any money left in your professional development budget I’d buy copies for your teachers

  3. Graham Wegner

    Tomas, I’m glad your instincts mirror my own – the use of these tools is for the students to become more conscious of their own tendencies. Anyway, all of these tests are produced in visual format so someone who is auditory learner might not do too well because it’s not delivered in their optimum learning style! (Insert tongue in cheek for anyone thinking that last sentence was serious.)

    And yes, the heat wave continues for most of this week as well. I don’t know about you but once it gets beyond 40 deg C, it just feels hot to me – there didn’t feel much difference between Tuesday’s 43 and Wednesday’ 45.7 – it’s just stinkimg hot. Cooler weather in WA means we will cool down eventually… thanks for stopping by.

  4. Pam Thompson

    Hi Graham

    We’ve just done some MI tests in the classroom – a paper one from Seven Ways At Once and the online one from the Birmingham Grid for Learning. We’ll compare the two as we talked about how results may differ depending on how questions are asked & interpreted. I also like to point out that not everyone is good at maths or language but that we need to value the other skills & talents too.

    I agree about not pigeon-holing students as per their results. If we cater everything to their preferred learning style or multiple intelligence, as you quite rightly point out, what happens to those other areas that are not their strengths.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

  5. Graham Wegner

    @Artichoke. Thanks for dropping by – glad to see that you’re still reading my flawed thoughts and pointing me towards interesting stuff. I do remember reading some of those posts of yours before but it was great to revisit them and to read the comments as well. I know that I do a lot of things in the classroom that I would struggle to articulately justify – it is a very common thing for teachers to take “expert opinion” as gospel – the reverence of anything Marc Prensky publishes is evidence of that! I will try to order and read Hattie’s book and see where his ideas and evidence lead me. Is he publishing in an audiobook for the auditory learners? ;-0

  6. Bill Kerr

    hi Graham,

    I watched both of the Dan Willingham videos: “learning styles don’t exist”, and, “teaching content is teaching reading”. These are really good discussion starters, thanks for the links.

    Yes, it is strange and perturbing as you note that teaching fads based on “good research” come and go, that teachers go to inservice to hear the latest and then adapt to their classroom reality using “common sense”. Then after a while the education inservice establishment moves onto the next fad, etc.

    So, I agree with your post here in that we should be cautious, there is no unified or “correct” learning theory and there possibly will never be one. I like Minsky, “the trick is there is no trick”, we learn in many different ways.

    One thing I noticed about Howard Gardner (‘Multiple Intelligences’) is that he knows a lot about learning. His theory might be wrong in a broad sense but nevertheless we can learn from him in much of the detail he offers. The danger is mainly uncritical or dogmatic adoption.

    I wanted to mention a post I wrote about Carl Wieman: Optimising Learning since he also debunks the myth of optimum learning and teaching styles.

  7. Pingback:

    Using Learning Styles « Virtual High School Meanderings

  8. Pingback:

    Check it out! 06/10/2009 | Feed for the Brain

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *