Snake oil is dead, long live snake oil: on the use of collaborative pedagogic tools as an antidote

There has been some talk about snake oil on eduBLOG’s recently. It is usually followed by a denigration of learning styles and Brain Gym. The former I have used, myself,  as an example of the pedagogic illiteracy of the ruling orthodoxy of education.The latter I have seen in Tesco but not so much in education.

Learning styles emerged in the fields of Education and 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 learning styles posts on Google scholar many making claims to some efficacy or other. Brain Gym on the other hand has less posts but still over 3,000, which was a surprise. However I doubt that Brain Gym has ever been that serious a proposition in education. On the other hand learning styles has been a serious proposition not just in education but it’s also used in business organisations.

Learning styles emerged in empirical research but it was David Milliband in 2004, then an under secretary in education, who enshrined the causal link between learning styles and the performance of a learner. 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 learning styles.

The interesting thing about learning styles is not whether it has any efficacy or otherwise but that it has stuck. The profession has bought into it. This poses the question as to whether the profession is completely stupid in its entirety, and let’s be honest it often does its best to portray that image, or learning styles serves some other purpose.

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. Let’s also dispense with learning styles as a causal proposition, it’s not. I would argue that the first researcher to really debunk learning styles (in a big way) was an educationalist Frank Coffield in 2004. Coffield found some empirical evidence for analytical and intuitive cognitive styles (a variant of learning styles), using four criteria, based around positivist concepts such as validity, but precious little for other better known types of learning styles.

So is there any point to learning styles and more to the point why has it lasted so long, with such an unpromising pedigree? In the discourse of eduBloggers the stock of learning styles is such that the general feeling is that teachers have been duped into the “snake oil” of education, and that the profession, must be liberated from the shackles of such dull witted thinking. The problem is, that often this is followed by a jumping onto AN other band wagon of what looks like, to any normal teaching professional, another brand of snake oil.

Only this time the salesman are lauded as the new prophets of the classroom.  I won’t name them but apparently they “teach like champions” or have “growth mind sets” . Our role as educators seems to be to buy the oil and rub it in….vigorously. And it’s quite possible that some of it does actually have some purpose.

And yet learning styles remains, and clearly, has found a niche for reasons other than an empirical relationship between a learner and his / her learning performance. There are a number of reasons to employ pedagogic tools, discursive, meta-cognitive etc we work in a complex social environment. It seems to me that teaching approaches have foundered on the back of the “stupid of education”, in other words learning styles also became used simply to evidence practice that often could not be evidenced using learning styles.

Even so I think that if you consider learning styles from a more constructivist perspective, then learning styles can take on a whole new perspective. This perspective sees learning styles existing external to the individual learner, as a tool to access learning. In other words, it is a way for both learners and practitioners to understand aspects of their own learning in an accessible way. Perhaps rather than visual, auditory and kinesthetic we could describe learning styles as; perceptive, linguistic and embodied. Each has a complex research tradition.

Research evidence is generated in disparate scientific fields, Evidence of how we learn visually in one field, embodied or kinesthetic learning in another and so on and so forth. So how do practitioners manage complex evidence? At ResearchEd14 Dylan William  stated that he didn’t believe education was an evidence based field.  I would disagree. I think he meant that it isn’t a field that will ever be evidence based from a scientific perspective. Evidence therefore becomes an epistemic proposition.

How do we know that the evidence we are accepting as purposeful is in fact not “snake oil”. Some would argue that Wiliam’s own work on formative assessment could be purposeless, in the hands of inexperienced practitioners, little more than spoon feeding. It seems entirely likely that context is an important factor in developing an evidence base. Assessment can be useful but it can also be purposeless, as well. John Hattie’s work is increasingly being criticized from that perspective. Can you really exclude context simply by swishing a statistical wand?

It may well be useful to bring the concepts together in an “umbrella term” such as learning styles to make them accessible to practitioners. It seems self-evident that the profession, as a whole,  may well not become  consumers of research. It’s not possible.

How then are professional’s to interact with complex research fields? We may well need pedagogic tools to inform practice but avoid the worst aspects of practitioners believing in something that has no evidence base at all. It seems to me that interim collaborative pedagogic tools are a way of bridging the research-practitioner gap. Until we accept that fact it will be a case of,  “snake oil is dead, long live snake oil”, as the profession lurches from one pedagogic placebo to another.


This BLOG is an updated version of one published in February


6 thoughts on “Snake oil is dead, long live snake oil: on the use of collaborative pedagogic tools as an antidote

  1. I don’t believe talking about learning styles does much harm. In fact providing lessons which address different senses can make lessons more interesting I think.

    If brain gym allows teachers to have a little break from the relentless grind of talking, assessing and behaviour management then maybe that is a good thing. It may reduce (may) the efficiency of learning over a day or a week but maybe not.

    I would be interested to know how many teachers actually believe that brain gym directly influsences the brain and learning. I would be interested to know how many teachers believe that teaching to a learning style actually improves learning. My guess is few on both counts.

    Why these things are popular may be simple, maybe they bring benefits for the teacher. Maybe

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