Learning styles and education: good practice requires good science

Cedar Riener has a terrific article on learning styles and cognitive science in the latest Teacher Magazine. The piece, Learning Styles: What’s Being Debunked, concerns Hal Pashler and colleagues’ recent review of the lack of evidence for learning styles, which was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest and which I’ve talked about before.

Cedar’s piece is a rebuttal to a critique [subscription required] published in Teacher. In it he does several important things. First, he clarifies what the theory of multiple learning styles is, and he makes clear how that theory is different from other perspectives on individual differences in how students learn (such as theories that posit multiple ability domains, or student diversity based on cultural background). He restates Pashler et al.’s central arguments and findings — in short, that there is zero empirical evidence for the existence multiple learning styles.

Second, he discusses the real costs of building one’s teaching practice around a theory of learning styles. Teachers have finite time and resources. If they focus their efforts on teaching the same content in multiple sensory modalities (as learning-styles advocates tell them they must), they will necessarily have less time and energy to do other things that might have real benefits for students.

Third, Cedar makes a broader case for the critical role that cognitive science can and should play in shaping classroom practices. The critique he is responding to is disdainful of science, preferring an individual teacher’s idiosyncratic observations and pet theories over practices supported by real evidence. Educators need to embrace the science of learning; but Cedar also calls psychologists to task for not doing a better job of speaking to policymakers and practitioners:

We must also dispel myths, and we in psychology have a larger set of myths to dispel than others. When these myths exist, they are corrosive to science, because while seeming to represent science (“well, it says it’s a theory”) they do not provide the measurable, reliable results that science demands. These myths are perpetuating identity theft of science, calling themselves science and wrecking havoc on our credit scores, yet many scientists don’t connect the bankruptcy of public trust in science with the myths that we let roam freely… As scientists we must take greater efforts to rein in this misapplication of science.

In this vein, I’d say psychology has an important but difficult task ahead of itself. If you look at the applied domain where psychology has traditionally been the most involved — clinical treatment of mental disorders — the shift toward evidence-based treatment has been slow, though it is finally picking up momentum and having real benefits. Hooray for those like Cedar, Hal Pashler, and Daniel Willingham who are pushing for the same in educational practice.

UPDATE: If you want to read Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s critique (the one that inspired Cedar’s article in response), you can read it on her blog, no subscription required, at TweenTeacher.com.

Do learning styles really exist? Pashler et al. say no

Do different people have different learning styles? It has become almost an article of faith among educators and students that the answer is yes, in large part due to the work of Howard Gardner (who recently went so far as to suggest that computerized assessment of learning styles may someday render traditional classroom teaching obsolete).

But a new review by Hal Pashler and colleagues suggests otherwise. They find ample evidence that people believe they have different learning styles — but almost no evidence that such styles actually exist.

When I first encountered Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as an undergrad, I found it fascinating. But I’ll admit that the more I teach, the more I’ve become skeptical when people invoke it. In principle it could lead to an optimistic, proactive attitude about learning: if a student isn’t making progress, let’s try teaching and learning in another modality. But in my experience, people invoke learning styles to almost the opposite effect. “I [or you] have a different learning style” has 2 problems with it. One, it’s an attributional “out” for somebody who isn’t doing well in class — it’s kind of a socially acceptable way of excusing poor performance by both teacher and student. And two, it’s an entity-theorist explanation (in the Carol Dweck sense) that can lead students to disengage from a class.

But skepticism about how people invoke it isn’t as deep as skepticism about the very existence of the phenomenon, which is where Pashler et al. are aiming. They acknowledge something well known among intelligence researchers, that there are subdomains of intellectual ability — e.g., in comparing two people with the same general IQ, one might be better at verbal tasks and the other better at visual-spatial tasks. But that’s about ability — Person A is better at one thing and Person B is better at another. Learning styles suggest that Persons A and B could both be good at the same thing if it was only presented to each in a custom-tailored way. Pashler et al. call this the “meshing hypothesis” and they say that well-designed, controlled studies find no support for it.

I don’t think this is the death-knell for multimodal teaching. When I teach statistics, I try to present each concept in as many modes as possible — a verbally narrated explanation, a visual depiction, a formal-symbolic representation (i.e., words, pictures, and equations). I still think that is a good way to teach. But the surviving rationale is that any one student will benefit from seeing the same underlying concept represented 3 different ways — not because the 3 modalities will reach 3 different kinds of students.

Of course, I’m sure this won’t be the last word. I expect there will be a vigorous response from Gardner and others. Stay tuned.

UPDATE: In re-reading this post, I realized I should probably clarify my references to Gardner. Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is centrally about abilities, not learning styles; in that sense, it is not directly challenged by this research. However, I think Gardner is relevant for two reasons. One, I think a lot of people who discuss learning styles look to him as a role model and a leader. Multiple intelligences is often mentioned in conjunction with learning styles, and they both fall under a larger umbrella of proposing that we need to respect and work around cognitive diversity. Two, Gardner himself has discussed the idea that different students learn in different ways — not just that different people are good at different things. So even though MI theory is more about abilities, I think Gardner is an important influence on a set of related ideas.