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Spring 2017

Defending the Unfashionable: How and Why We Use Learning Styles for Graduate Teacher Education 
By Dr. Mark W. Pleiss and Dr. Preston Cumming, Graduate Teacher Program, University of Colorado - Boulder 

Educative practices associated with learning styles have recently become a popular piñata for commentators from neuroscience, psychology, and education. No better example is a recent letter to The Guardian in which a distinguished group of scholars from psychology, neuroscience, and education argue there is “no evidence to back the idea of learning styles.”

These arguments have repeatedly appeared online, in journals, and in our frequent conversations with graduate students from these fields. Such criticisms repeatedly rehearse that teaching practices developed around the purported three types of learning (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic) or personality types (extraverts, introverts, judgers, perceivers, feelers, etc.) are not grounded in scientific research but exist as “neuromyths,” or false but popular beliefs about the way our brains function. Consequently, they are seen as a potentially damaging misuse of resources.

Admittedly, there is good reason for skepticism. First, learning styles smell of a gimmick. They cost money, and they propose easy solutions to problems that are undeniably complex. Second, one feels that so-called “neuromyths” may align too comfortably with the world of fake news. It is all too easy to believe that learning styles may represent another type of “alternative fact” that poses a threat to the existence of verifiable truths and the fields they represent.

However, the argument that learning styles are damaging is not particularly compelling because it evinces a misunderstanding of how they are actually being used to teach students and train teachers. Our program at the University of Colorado – Boulder, for example, uses learning styles as a tool – one among many others – to create awareness of the need to diversify instructional methods in order to engage a wider array of students in the classroom. Moreover, diagnosing learning styles as baseless offers a potentially misleading understanding of their value and origins.

Theories and indexes of learning styles became fashionable during the late 1970s and 1980s as a way of conceptualizing and categorizing the ways people process information. One estimate found some 71 different learning style models, and two of the most popular are the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory.

Today, Myers-Briggs and Kolb are profitable industries. They are staples of the corporate world and are regularly used for onboarding retreats and mandatory team building activities. They also commonly appear in teaching and counseling workshops, pedagogy textbooks, five-step lesson plans, and even in a teacher observation template my program pays to use for consultations with graduate student instructors at CU-Boulder.

Both models employ self-reflexive surveys that inquire into how people retain and process information. Kolb, for example, asks participants to rank (1-4) the phrase that is most true for them: “When I learn: a) I am open to new experiences b) I look at all sides of issues c) I like to analyze things, break them down into their parts, d) I like to try things out.” Myers-Briggs asks similar questions about how people understand information, interact with other people, and make decisions, all with the goal of identifying “types” who think and behave in specific ways.

First, many reject the legitimacy of self-reflexive data produced vis-à-vis a short questionnaire. The questions are notably ambiguous – something like a horoscope – and thus one could interpret the questions differently each time they take the test and end up with different results.

Second, no evidence-based studies purportedly reveal that students learn more when someone teaches toward their learning style. For example, Doug Rohrer and Harold Pashler argue that no convincing study shows that learning styles exist, and that education should dump such models and follow the same types of “evidence-based” procedures that doctors use to treat patients. Moreover, they recommend, “combining different forms of instruction, such as diagrams and words, in mutually reinforcing ways.”

But the criticism is limited. First, teachers might wonder if treating a patient is truly analogous to teaching a class. Secondly, the idea that learning styles are baseless or not founded in evidence is misleading. Myers-Briggs was developed as a practical application for the work of Carl Jung, while Kolb is an application of John Dewey’s theories of experiential learning. Many fields have long distanced themselves from psychoanalysts like Jung and Sigmund Freud, but their impact on the humanities, education, and critical theory is undeniable.

While dated, the writings of Dewey continue to guide entire school systems and are required readings for any student of pedagogy. Indeed, learning styles are not founded in a set of quantifiable data, but to say they are baseless is to make a much larger and more spurious claim about the methodologies of other fields.

Third, it isn’t clear if Roher and Pashler’s idea about “combining different forms of instruction” is in fact an evidence-based practice and if the claims of “evidence-based” practices are more trustworthy than other models. The lack of clarity and detail is important because their recommendation is conspicuously similar to what learning styles have helped teachers to do for decades: conceptualize new ways of teaching that engage more students.

Theories of learning styles, like all theories, are not undeniable truths about our existence. They are a tool, one among many, that helps teachers think of new ways to teach lessons, to theorize why students behave in ways that we never did, and to engage students who otherwise might not participate. To understand them as anything more is to put faith in a belief that is not a fact, but to understand them as less is to ignore all beliefs with a suspect devotion to certain types of facts.

Our program uses Kolb as one of many options for graduate instructors who are observed through our Graduate Teacher Program. We have several protocols that guide consultations about teacher-student interactions, threshold concepts, and methods used during class, and Kolb helps lead discussions on student engagement and participation. In addition to this tool, we videotape teachers, take notes, and then use other frameworks to analyze student-teacher interactions during class.

Inexperienced teachers often find Kolb useful in understanding why some students sit quietly in the back while others constantly talk. It also helps instructors understand that some students are not questioning authority but becoming engaged through debate, and others are paying attention even though they quietly sit in the back. Whether or not these analyses of their class are empirically true, teachers leave with a productive way of understanding students and producing lesson plans that get more people involved.

Given their potential as a tool, it is concerning that commentators are trying to eliminate learning styles without providing a reasonable alternative. Indeed, if you are going to repeal something, you should have some idea about its replacement. Such a new theory must be able to surpass learning styles’ ability to invoke self-reflection and consciousness in teachers toward students, daily lesson plans, and even entire curriculums.

In truth, one wonders if “evidence-based” methods are in fact the best methods for producing mental flexibility and interpersonal communication, two key skills for teaching and creating dynamic lesson plans. Furthermore, one wonders if effective teaching and learning is always best monitored by a test score, a data sheet, or a brain scan. In the meantime – rightfully or not –learning styles will continue to affect education and the ways people understand others and themselves.