Dr Steve Rayner (School of Education, University of Birmingham) explores recent criticisms of the use of learning styles in education, arguing that they are, when used in well-considered ways, an essential feature of personalised learning.
The idea of a personal style in learning has clearly spread across the globe during the last decade to occupy a prominent place in professional discourse about learning and teaching (Rayner, 2001; Coffield, 2005). Do learning styles matter in supporting learning? Recent work by Cheminais (2002), Reid (2005) and Burnett (2005) identify learning style as an important idea for inclusive learning and teaching in the classroom. Indeed, Cheminais (2002) foregrounds the concept in an approach to school improvement and writes that effective and successful teachers will:
- show respect for pupils’ individual learning styles and differences
- be responsive to pupils’ different learning styles
- use different levels of tasks and activities.
Should the SENCO want to know more about research and work in this area?
Critics of learning styles would say no. In a recent wave of publicity for their own research, some educationalists have set a particular tone and stance with cleverly delivered put-downs to rubbish work in the field. For example, learning styles has recently been called educational snake oil and a teaching elixir (Hargreaves, 2004) and in what might be tentatively described ‘a style of plain speaking’ adopted by Coffield (2005), clap-trap that should be binned. I would argue that all teachers should want to know more about this debate.
The LSDA Report
A major debate has been triggered in the field of learning styles in response to Coffield and his colleagues publishing two reports for the Learning and Skills Development Agency (Coffield et al, 2004a, 2004b). What this review, originally tasked to examine the relevance of learning styles in the English context of further education, provides is a useful description of a wide selection of learning style models. It is difficult, however, to read either report without being affected by its tone or the partisan perspectives of the review team. Notwithstanding a vehement criticism of style, their review identifies the following key points:
- Consistent psychometric failings in models and measures developed in conjunction with theories of cognitive and learning style
- No consensual theory and ‘incestuous research’ in what is perceived to be a self-containing loop of replication
- Commercial conflicts of interest that result in affirmation rather than genuine confirmation of proof for empirical research and in some extreme cases reveal a messianic drive for field domination
- No clearly established evidence of positive effects related to the application and practice of learning styles
- Disregard of a so-called ‘gold standard statistic’ used in evidence-informed methodology (effect size)
- Competing theories and explanations of the learning process in social psychology and sociology that are seen to offer a better prospect of return for resource investment in the educational setting.
There is no doubt that a psychometric tradition clearly dominates the research of cognitive and learning styles and in part reflects a concern for psychological assessment as a means to an end – that is, the generation of evidence or proof by use of a test that a theory is valid. A further consequence of this approach has been the development of work on reliability – that is, the generation of proof that an instrument is accurate and can be safely and repeatedly used to measure a construct in psychology.
Coffield and colleagues are correct to say too that the learning styles field has most certainly not identified nor produced definitive proof for any single measure. It is disingenuous, however, to criticise learning styles for failing to offer a single explanation for structuring or understanding learning. Learning in its various forms as applied to formal education is complex and wide-ranging. To claim learning styles assessment as a single approach for all learning teaching is neither intended nor claimed by researchers in the field.
Learning styles research is not unique in this respect. Consider work in the psychology of self-reference, which for most teachers will always reflect a vital set of constructs in teaching and learning (self-concept, self-esteem and self-efficacy). The field of self-reference has seen academics calling for greater coherence and a consensual theory to help make sense of a disparate theory (see Byrne, 1996). Most fields of specialist knowledge or theory reflect a similar story, often frustrating a practitioner or policy-maker seeking one-size quick-fix expert advice.
So, given the Coffield Report, do learning styles matter and should the SENCO be at all bothered? I would still suggest yes and that the relevance of this debate and future research into learning styles – which in my view is a continuing story of work in progress and as it currently exists a ‘science for best fit’ – should not only interest the SENCO but involve them in an applied development of learning styles and a differential pedagogy.
The way forward: SENCOs and learning styles
I am convinced that research in the field might benefit from a new emphasis upon an applied educational research utilising practitioner enquiry and mixed research methodology. The DEMOS Working Group led by Hargreaves (DEMOS, 2005), in a useful response to the question of what constitutes learning and learning styles, advises us that ‘Many teachers are successfully using learning styles as a means of getting students to reflect deeply on their learning and thus develop their meta-cognitive capacities. If there were more substantial practice evidence and scientific evidence, the evidence base for learning styles would provide a guarantee of sound professional practice.’ (Demos, 2005)
This is exactly the kind of approach I argue when talking about learning styles and the need to consider developing a ‘best-fit pedagogy’ as part of the expansion of ‘personalised education’.
The extent to which an awareness of learning style or the self as a learner is currently considered and managed within the educational context raises key questions for the design of instruction and pedagogy, including a consideration of:
- an assessment-based approach to learning and teaching
- differentiation within the learning process of the curriculum
- developing a theory of differential pedagogy
- re-emphasising learning how to learn – strategies and routines – in the curriculum
- continuing professional development in the area of a differential pedagogy.
Exploiting learning styles as a teaching device and utilising the theory means developing a broad-based approach to the idea of a process curriculum and the theory of differential psychology.
Building a best-fit pedagogy: assessment, learning and teaching
One of the most frequently asked questions is ‘What model of style should be adopted?’ The Coffield Report provides a useful summary of many models of learning style to be found on ‘the shelf’. What I refuse to supply is a simple recommendation that an existing off-the-peg style measure can be used in every context. It is worth remembering that assessment is a tool and not an end in itself. Style-led assessment is intended as a formative assessment in the context of school and instruction. Doing this can result is new forms of understanding about the nature and utility and use of assessment in the curriculum and pedagogy (see Black and Wiliam, 2003).
Notwithstanding the recent ‘academic conflict’ generated by one study, there are grounds for the research practitioner to move forward with the idea of learning style (Prashnig, 1998; Mortimore, 2003; Reid, 2005). Work related to such development includes a consideration of ideas associated with the learning how to learn field, curriculum process, differential pedagogy and meta-cognition. All these aspects of the learner and learning are part of a belief in the notion that moving toward a better-fit pedagogy can and should work.
The search for an assessment-led component in developing a pedagogy that will help practitioners better meet individual learning needs in the classroom is part of an approach that argues for building a process-centred curriculum. It should not, does not and cannot preclude other aspects of learning, teaching and the content of a curriculum. It must not be perceived as a substitute for knowledge or a way of reducing the learner to a label or category. To interpret or apply learning style in this way is a travesty.
In the field of learning styles, there is a need to further integrate the conceptual basis of diverse sets of theory in an applied context. Such a development is over-due. There is an already identified need for consensual theory (see Rayner, 1998, 2000; Armstrong and Rayner 2002; and Peterson, 2004), and the recent emergence of new literature looking at the research-informed applications of learning styles is welcome (see for example Reid, 2005). I hope the SENCO can lead in an approach involving practitioner enquiry contributing to this as work in progress, adding to an authentic personalising of education.
Dr Steve Rayner lectures in special and inclusive education at the University of Birmingham.
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