Learning Styles: an epistemic not an empirical issue

There has been some talk about Learning Styles (LS) on BLOG’s recently. I use the concept, myself,  as an example of the pedagogic illiteracy of the ruling orthodoxy of education. Somewhat perversely I think it is a useful concept. The problem of LS begins with it’s empirical roots in the field of Psychology. Many have found evidence of its validity, and many have not found any evidence at all. I won’t list them but there are over 300,000 LS posts on Google scholar many making claims to some efficacy or other.

I think I should be clear that the popular variant found in education, Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic (VAK), has no empirical evidence at all. Or at least I’ve never found any. Although I think Andrew Old found references to it in NLP programmes. Let’s also dispense with LS as a causal proposition. It’s birth in the field of psychology in positivist research sowed the seeds of its incoherence. Quite simply, its not always easy to find evidence for complex constructs. Often psychologists (and others) take evidence of a minor aspect of some issue or other, and socially construct a narrative that is much wider than the actual evidence it is based upon.

In this case, the concept emerged in empirical research but it was David Milliband who enshrined the causal link between LS and the performance of a learner into the field of education. It’s clear that there is no causal evidence for VAK learning styles, however other researchers have found evidence of a causal relationships using “analytical and intuitive” factors and a host of other types of LS. In truth the field has taken many twists and turns, Cognitive Styles, Intellectual Styles and remains, a much used concept both by teachers and others. In fact listening to a neuro-scientist recently, talking about executive functions of the brain (as you do), I was surprised that she endorsed Gregorc’s LS. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been, LS is a useful discursive tool to help us make reference to certain aspects of cognition.

I would argue that the first researcher to really debunk LS (in a big way) was an educationalist Frank Coffield in 2004. Coffield found some empirical evidence for analytical and intuitive LS, using four criteria, based around positivist concepts such as validity, but precious little for other better known types of LS. However I want to ask the question whether the profession should only rely solely on issues of validity to measure the worth of it’s tools.

Clearly LS has found a niche for reasons other than its empirical relationship between a learner and his / her learning performance. There are many other reasons to employ pedagogic tools, discursive, meta-cognitive etc, we work in a complex social environment. It seems to me that progressive methods have foundered on the back of the “stupid of education” but I think it is a mistake to write them off completely.

I think that if you dispense with the causal relationship between LS and learning performance, and consider LS from a more constructivist perspective, then LS can take on a whole new perspective. This perspective sees LS existing external to the individual learner, as a tool to access learning. In other words, it is a way for learners to understand aspects of their own learning in an accessible way. It’s a thought anyway and seems like a way forward for LS.


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