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Some say learning styles are myth, others say they're magic

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By Jay Mathews
Thursday, February 11, 2010

If you are in a mischievous mood and want to get a rise out of your favorite teachers or principals, send them a copy of "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence," in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Volume 9, No. 3, December 2008. (Actually, it came out in December 2009, but for a reason understood only by academics in the timeless search for truth, its official publication date was 12 months previous.)

Here is my summary of the 15-page paper: Learning styles are hogwash.

It's not quite that bad. The four authors agree that "people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information." Some of us consider ourselves visual learners. Some of us think we learn best if we use our hands: draw, make models, stack coins. The authors conclude, however, that "at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice."

Many Washington area educators believe in the power of learning styles. Some don't. When University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham saw a reader of Valerie Strauss's The Answer Sheet blog say the influence of learning styles was obvious, he noted that "for a couple of thousand years it wasn't obvious to physicians that bloodletting didn't work." Former Virginia state school board member Andrew Rotherham said the study doesn't mean that all students should be taught the same way, but "it does sadly illustrate how often many things that everybody knows in education turn out to be less certain or bulletproof."

That clicking sound is me going through many unhappy e-mails from organizations that make money from the wide acceptance of learning-styles theory. I found a large assortment of learning-styles Web sites: http://success-in-mind.org, http://expandingyourhorizons.org, http://funderstanding.com and http://mindtools.com. One promised to determine my style in two minutes. When I refused to pay $8.95 for the result after I took the test, I got an e-mail saying I could still get it for $4.95.

The problem with learning-styles theory, the psychologists who wrote the paper say, is that it has rarely been tested in a randomized, scientific way. Hal Pashler of the University of California at San Diego; Mark McDaniel of Washington University in St. Louis; Doug Rohrer of the University of South Florida; and Robert A. Bjork of the University of California at Los Angeles, examined several studies, looking for those that followed this routine: Divide students by their learning styles and randomly assign each to a teacher using one of a number of teaching styles. After the teaching is done, have each student take the same final exam. Teaching aligned with specific learning styles is deemed to be effective if students of a certain style learn more under instruction targeted to that style.

The authors found that studies that claimed certain learning styles benefited from similar teaching styles were not rigorously randomized, and studies that embraced the scientific method showed no significant advantage for students taught by their preferred teaching style.

Still, the authors said, many of us find the theory irresistible because we like "to be seen and treated by educators as unique individuals." And when study areas differ, learning-styles theory has merit. "For instance," they said, "the optimal curriculum for a writing course probably includes a heavy verbal emphasis, whereas the most efficient and effective method of teaching geometry obviously requires visual-spatial materials."

The real quandary is, if the authors are right, we have lost a precious excuse for our own incompetence. Prepare the tax form? Fix that light switch? Well, you know, dear, I was never taught in the proper way to do that.

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