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What’s the harm?

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by Claudia Civinini

With the debunking of any pseudoscientific theory and practice comes the inevitable question: what’s the harm? Even if learning styles are not backed by evidence, why shouldn’t teachers use them in their classroom if they believe they are effective?

Experts said that learning styles theory uses up time and resources that could be better allocated, and can sometimes become excuses for ineffective teaching or poor student behaviour.

The theory’s premise is faulty: just as we might prefer cakes, even though they are not the best thing to eat for our health, a students’ preferred learning style is not necessarily the best way for them to learn.

And if teachers plan according to their students’ supposed learning styles – which are often measured with unreliable tests – they might make teaching ineffective.

‘It’s the mathemathantic effect, the killing of learning,’ explained Professor Paul Kirschner. ‘Let’s imagine we have a very organised student who prefers information presented in a systematic way. She would learn more from having to organise the information herself, which she would certainly be able to do. By always presenting information in her preferred way, it would kill learning.’

In fact, as Dr Nathalia Gjersoe added, people learn best when engaging with information in a combination of ways and when taken out of their comfort zone.

Professor Dorothy Bishop of the University of Oxford added that the way learning styles are determined is through ‘invalid tests’, which are a waste of time for teachers and could potentially mean that students are taught in a less effective way ‘because of a false belief about what will suit them’.

Experts say that individual differences in how we approach learning are important, but pigeonholing students into a style, just like dividing the whole world population in twelve groups according to their date of birth, may not be the best way to respect those differences.