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A lack of evidence is not my style

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Melanie Butler argues that learning styles are not the only problem. Most of British-style ELT needs a stronger evidence base

Howard Gardner is not a fan of ‘learning styles’. The Harvard professor of education confessed in 2013 that the tendency of many people to link the discredited theory to his own work on multiple intelligences drives him ‘to distraction’. Learners have different styles, he agrees, but the attempt to bunch them into neat groups is incoherent. Repeated empirical studies of the systematic use of the theory in the classroom have shown they make no measurable difference to learning outcomes.

In mainstream education in the UK, it is now normal to monitor how well a method or intervention works by setting up a randomised control trial with a statistically significant sample size. You prepare a baseline test, use the method systematically on the intervention group and measure the difference in learning outcomes between the two groups. The Education Endowment Foundation, one of the main sponsors of such studies, has completed one on learning styles. Its finding? ‘Low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence.’

The thirty leading academics who recently signed a letter on the matter published in the UK’s Guardian newspaper are much more damning.

They say the theory of learning styles is not only incoherent and unsupported by research studies but also damaging. ‘Such neuromyths create a false impression of individuals’ abilities, leading to expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning,’ they wrote.

Unsurprisingly, the signatories included four academics from Cambridge, the university whose educational values include, according to its website, ‘the close inter-relationship between teaching, scholarship and research’.

“ We simply do not have enough research on long term learning outcomes ”

What is surprising is that the Cambridge English Teaching Framework says that learning styles, ‘e.g. visual, auditory, kinaesthetic’, should be taught at every level of teacher development (see page 10). If UK EFL has a professional system of training at all, this framework is designed to embody it. After all, it was drawn up by Cambridge English, the ELT section of Cambridge Assessment, a department of the university.

Evidence or no evidence, however, the Cambridge English Teaching Framework has been pretty keen on learning styles. At the time of writing, it turned up in the syllabus for the Teaching Knowledge Test. Teachers taking a Celta were required to teach ‘a class with an awareness of learning styles’ and could use it as ‘evidence of learning in a written assignment’.

On the syllabus for the Delta, the level required for fully qualified status, the term ‘learner/learning style’ appeared three times as often as the term ‘phonology/phonological’. It also appeared rather more than ‘corpus’, which is cited once, and ‘syntax’, which doesn’t turn up at all.

When the Gazette raised the issue with the Syndicate, the body responsible for academic oversight for Cambridge exams, Cambridge English wrote back to us to say it was in the process of replacing the term ‘learning styles’ with the term ‘learning preferences’.

So what’s the difference? In a Google search for ‘learning preferences’, 90 per cent of search results used ‘learning preferences’ synonymously with ‘learning styles’ and made direct reference to Visual and Kinaesthetic learning. Does Cambridge have a new, shiny, evidence-based definition? We shall see.

The problem is that British EFL suffers from being split between the profession and the industry. The former proclaims its commitment to the evidence base, while the latter is in the business of making a profit. Neither seems particularly concerned with looking at efficacy – measuring the effect of the method or intervention over time, weighed against its cost.

“As a result, solid evidence, particularly regarding learner outcomes, is pretty thin on the ground. ”

The industry has no clear commercial interest in reducing the time learners spend learning. Schools do, however, have an interest in differentiating themselves from the competition.

I have no problem with a language school that wants to differentiate itself by offering an approach, such as learning styles, that has a lot of consumer appeal but zero empirical evidence, as long as it makes clear to the consumer what is on offer. There is always a market for alternative products, from the Blood Type Diet to biofeedback, which have little empirical foundation.

I do have trouble with a profession ignoring scientific evidence. If EFL is a profession, its training should be based on evidence, and the evidence needs to be measured in terms of learning outcomes. If Cambridge English chooses to draw up a framework for that training, it should base it on that evidence.

But who is going to pay for the extra research needed? Cambridge English? It seems more interested in spending money researching exams. Oxford University Press? Wrong university. Pearson? Well it does seem to be moving into teacher training, but its profits are under huge pressure. The British Council? It is the real gorilla in the room, generating £800 million a year in non-state-subsidised income. But any profit that it makes in any year has to go back to the government, which makes longitudinal studies a bit difficult. The British government? You must be joking.

As a result, solid evidence, particularly regarding learner outcomes, is pretty thin on the ground. We have anecdotal evidence and we have best practice, which basically means what people approve of. We have teacher research, which is context dependent. And we have any number of masters theses with sample sizes you can count on your fingers. But solid randomised control trials or longitudinal studies? Forget it.
Even where we do have solid evidence we ignore it, especially if it is from the US. The Americans are far too keen on Krashen’s comprehensible input for British tastes, for example.

Even British research that doesn’t fit the mainstream dogma simply gets ignored. Norbert Schmitt, Paul Meara and Jim Milton have all produced strong evidence that, if you want students to read fluently and acquire vocabulary, you need comprehensible input – specifically extensive reading and graded readers. Despite attempts by publishers to sell this evidence, it is largely ignored by a British profession wedded to the benefits of authentic material.

The evidence on teaching according to students ‘learning styles’ is clear: it makes no difference to long term learning outcomes. What evidence does Cambridge have that ‘learning preferences’ are more effective? None. According to their statement on page 10 their approach is ‘based on a belief that learners exist in four intersecting worlds of learning.’ Does this mean that the British system for training Tefl teachers is based, not on evidence, but belief?