Saturday, March 1, 2014

Learning Styles: The Horoscope-Casting of Modern Pedagogy?

Learning Styles, the idea that people have a learning type that favors one sense or modality over another (such as the belief in Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Styles) may well be the most popular pseudoscience being perpetuated in pedagogy today, and deserves wider criticism.

Upon reading many suggestions and references about how to select homeschool curriculum based on a child's presumed "learning style" and seeing that almost every characteristic of each supposed type, applies to my children, I suspected something akin to the Forer Effect was at work, so I did some digging, and found some scientific criticism of the idea of "Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic learning styles", as one of many myths about learning and the brain, that have become widely accepted regardless of their murky relationship to scientific evidence and the understandings of neuroscience.

Whereas I don't want to discourage anyone from sharing their insights as to what curriculum might work better for a certain child (wouldn't that information be golden, if we could get it except through costly experience?), in the interest of discovering and examining underlying controversy, and inviting discussion, here is an excerpt from the linked article above:

From the article Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers, the following excerpt:

"An example of a neuromyth is that learning could be improved if children were classified and taught according to their preferred learning style. This misconception is based on a valid research finding, namely that visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information is processed in different parts of the brain. However, these separate structures in the brain are highly interconnected and there is profound cross-modal activation and transfer of information between sensory modalities (Gilmore et al., 2007). Thus, it is incorrect to assume that only one sensory modality is involved with information processing. Furthermore, although individuals may have preferences for the modality through which they receive information [either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (VAK)], research has shown that children do not process information more effectively when they are educated according to their preferred learning style (Coffield et al., 2004). Other examples of neuromyths include such ideas as “we only use 10% of our brain”, “there are multiple intelligences”, “there are left- and right brain learners”, “there are critical periods for learning” and “certain types of food can influence brain functioning” (e.g., Organisation for Economic Co-operation, and Development, 2002; Geake, 2008; Purdy, 2008; Howard-Jones, 2010). Some of these misunderstandings have served as a basis for popular educational programs, like Brain Gym or the VAK approach (classifying students according to a VAK learning style). These programs claim to be “brain-based” but lack scientific validation (Kr├Ątzig and Arbuthnott, 2006; Waterhouse, 2006; Stephenson, 2009; Lindell and Kidd, 2011). A fast commercialization has led to a spread of these programs into classrooms around the world."

For an interesting look at the mechanism underlying the extraordinary popularity of baseless ideas, including the Forer Effect, and why VAK and other notions about learning style may just be the horoscope-casting pedagogy of our time, I offer for your edification,  "Learner styles revisited: VAK-uous teaching" from the blog 'Evidence Based EFL'

Before we make decisions about education (whether of our own children, or other people's) based on these ideas, it is important to scrutinize them for their basis (or lack thereof!) in science, rather than relying on anecdote, hearsay, and our own tendency to believe out-of-hand, that which sounds vaguely reasonable. We don't, after all, want to use only 10% of our brains, as another widely believed myth states.