Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Do styles of learning exist? (UKPSF: K3,K5)

I recently attended an interesting  talk  by one of the third year student's at Plymouth. The talk was based on her experiences on a placement teaching in a school.
She used some ideas of "styles of learning" in her teaching. This was impressive, because I don't believe that there is any theory taught in that module.

I have a book called "Martial Arts Instruction" by Lawrence Kane. He uses the Myers-Briggs MBTI indicators to classify students. I am a bit doubtful about this, because the underlying basic idea came from psychoanalysis such as Jung. In the first chapter he breaks learners into auditory, kinesthetic and visual learners. However, he doesn't provide any references, but just assumes that this classification is true.

For example , a kinesthetic learner prefers to learn by touching. It might be clear how to teach elementary mathematics by a tactile method. For example a student could count out objects when they are learning about addition. It is less clear how to learn about more abstract topics, such as complex numbers and partial differential equations. In the book "Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom," by Daniel T. Willingham, he points out that given  that the idea is
for the student to convert a concept into an internal cognitive schema,  then the learning style may have little influence on learning of abstract concepts.

There is paper called:  should we be using learning styles  which reviews the evidence for learning styles. It is a long paper, but seems to be a comprehensive review. It is also very readable. The key points I got out of it were:

  • If students do learn with different learning styles, then because Plymouth University is  committed  to teaching a diverse range of students, then this should be taken into account.
  • There are a wide range of different theories about learning styles to choose from. It is not clear which theory is best, or even if a theory is correct.
  • There are no good empirical studies which test the different learning style models.
  • One way to determine your learning style is to take a questionnaire. There are commercial companies, which create these questionnaire. There is a lot of money to be made. Particularly, if these methods  are used to hire people.
  • It can be a problem, if student is "diagnosed" as one type of learning. For example, if they decide they are a kinesthetic learner, then they may just assume that they will learn nothing from a set of lectures.
  • Even if a teacher finds out that a class of students has many different learning styles then somehow the teacher should teach the same material in many different ways to appeal to the spectrum of the classes learning styles.
  • Rather than focusing on what learning style a student has, it is probably much better to get the student to think about the way they learn -- to try and optimize the process. 

My conclusion is that there needs to be much better studies of the effectiveness of the different learning style models, before I need to use them.