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Going Out Of Style

people talking

By Claudia Civinini
What does an alligator lost in NYC sewers have in common with the theory of learning styles? They are both urban legends, according to a 2013 article by Dr P. A. Kirschner and Dr J. G. Merriëboren. The article argues that education is pervaded by beliefs that ‘do not really concur with the body of research in educational psychology’, the most important one being that ‘learners always know best’. Various myths were explored.

Among them, the ever-debated learning styles hypothesis – which holds little to no scientific validity, the article explains. There are many issues connected with the ideas underlying the hypothesis. Firstly, the classification of learners into fixed groups is an oversimplification, as the ‘assumption that people cluster into distinct groups’ lacks evidence. This is ironically shown by the varying – and usually high – number of learning styles identified. Secondly, the adequacy of the assessment tools used to determine the student’s learning style is questionable. Often, this relies on self-assessment. And here comes the bottom line again: learners do not always know best. Studies have shown that, actually, learners’ reported preferred learning style is often not the one most conducive to effective learning – and sometimes it is downright counterproductive. Also, it is worth noting that a style which might be desirable in one context could be useless in another due to the nature of the skill being learned.

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Let’s not forget that Howard Gardner felt the need to distance his multiple intelligences theory from the learning styles hypothesis, which he defined ‘one unanticipated consequence [that] has driven me to distraction’. But it seems that the myth still enjoys popularity. A 2012 survey showed that 95 per cent of teachers in the UK, the Netherlands, Turkey, Greece and China believed that students learn best when taught in their preferred learning style, and many research papers still endorse the hypothesis. This must have driven Dr Kirschner to distraction, too. At the end of 2016 he published another article along the same lines, with the telling title: ‘Stop propagating the learning styles myth.’ His ‘evidence-informed plea’ urges educators and school leaders to consider the evidence behind the hypothesis, and researchers to ‘guard against the spreading of pseudoscience, myths and outright lies’. A topical staffroom read.

Kirschner, P.A. & Van Merrienboer, J.J.G. (2013)
Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in
Education Kirschner, P.A. (2016) Stop propagating
the learning styles myth