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Debunked ‘learning styles’ theory still part of gold-standard EFL qualifications

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...But Cambridge English has now pledged to remove the phrase from Celta and Delta syllabuses

by Claudia Civinini

Cambridge English Language Assessment has been referring to the concept of ‘learning styles’ in its Celta and Delta EFL qualifications even though the theory has long been debunked by academics, it has emerged.

The Cambridge English Teaching Framework, which underpins the two qualifications, contains references to learning styles – ‘visual, auditory, kinaesthetic’ – under the competency area ‘understanding learners’.

Teacher trainers have confirmed that trainees on these courses have been required to show an awareness of their students’ learning style, both in their assignments and their teaching practice.

When the Gazette raised the issue, Cambridge English – a department of the University of Cambridge – said it was in the process of updating its course documentation, adding that it would remove the phrase ‘learning styles’ and replace it with ‘learning preferences’. Cambridge English explained its inclusion of learning styles, saying it is ‘a concept which teachers should be aware of, alongside other concepts’, and that teachers should use ‘a variety of teaching methods’. (See response below.)

The theory says students learn best if taught in their preferred style – most commonly visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.

Authors and Celta and Delta teacher trainers Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries told the Gazette that some teachers now openly express their disagreement with the theory in their course assignments, but the majority still believe in it.

According to a recent survey they conducted on 342 teachers across the US, Mexico, Brazil and Canada, 90 per cent of teachers still believe in the learning styles theory, despite it being frequently debunked.

This could be due to the fact that, beyond Cambridge English, many teacher training programmes across the world make reference to the theory.

Professor Paul Kirschner from the Open Universiteit in the Netherlands – a vocal opponent of the theory – compared it to astrology or homeopathy. ‘No one would think that doctors should be trained in homeopathy,’ he said. ‘Urban legends such as learning styles should not be part of the curriculum for teachers.’

In March the Guardian newspaper published a letter signed by thirty educational psychologists and neuroscientists, including four from Cambridge, insisting that there was no evidence to back the idea of learning styles.

Trinity College London removed references to learning styles from its Tesol syllabuses and assessment criteria in 2016. The decision was motivated by the lack of supporting evidence for the theory and by the awareness of its potential detrimental effect on student learning, said Ben Beaumont, Trinity Tesol qualification manager. References to learning styles in the syllabuses have been substituted with ‘ways of learning’ and ‘learning strategies’.


One-style-per-student concept is ‘reductive and limiting’

Evelina Galaczi, head of research strategy at Cambridge English, explained why the concept of ‘learning styles’ was included in their teacher-training syllabuses. ‘In the Cambridge English Teaching Framework and in the Celta/Delta syllabuses, we refer to “learning styles” as a concept which teachers should be aware of, alongside other concepts.

‘We believe that a prescriptive one-style-per-student concept is reductive and limiting. This is reflected in our materials and qualifications, which recommend that teachers use a variety of teaching methods rather than link specific learning methods to specific learning styles. We are currently updating our public documentation and the term “learning preferences” will be used to capture the fact that this concept is not a simple binary dichotomy or a finite set of styles.

‘We see learning preferences as a core idea within adaptive/personalised learning and differentiated teaching. Different learning materials and teaching approaches add value to learners in different ways, and the most effective and efficient learning is achieved through a varied teaching ‘toolbox’ which personalises teaching to individual needs, wants and preferences, without being reductive. Our approach is also based on a belief that learners exist in four intersecting worlds of learning: personal, educational, social and assessment, and the notion of learning preferences provides insights into their personal and educational worlds.’

Pic courtesy: takomabibelo