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Learning styles and education: good practice requires good science

February 25, 2010

Cedar Riener has a terrific article on learning styles and cognitive science in the latest Teacher Magazine. The piece, Learning Styles: What’s Being Debunked, concerns Hal Pashler and colleagues’ recent review of the lack of evidence for learning styles, which was published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest and which I’ve talked about before.

Cedar’s piece is a rebuttal to a critique [subscription required] published in Teacher. In it he does several important things. First, he clarifies what the theory of multiple learning styles is, and he makes clear how that theory is different from other perspectives on individual differences in how students learn (such as theories that posit multiple ability domains, or student diversity based on cultural background). He restates Pashler et al.’s central arguments and findings — in short, that there is zero empirical evidence for the existence multiple learning styles.

Second, he discusses the real costs of building one’s teaching practice around a theory of learning styles. Teachers have finite time and resources. If they focus their efforts on teaching the same content in multiple sensory modalities (as learning-styles advocates tell them they must), they will necessarily have less time and energy to do other things that might have real benefits for students.

Third, Cedar makes a broader case for the critical role that cognitive science can and should play in shaping classroom practices. The critique he is responding to is disdainful of science, preferring an individual teacher’s idiosyncratic observations and pet theories over practices supported by real evidence. Educators need to embrace the science of learning; but Cedar also calls psychologists to task for not doing a better job of speaking to policymakers and practitioners:

We must also dispel myths, and we in psychology have a larger set of myths to dispel than others. When these myths exist, they are corrosive to science, because while seeming to represent science (“well, it says it’s a theory”) they do not provide the measurable, reliable results that science demands. These myths are perpetuating identity theft of science, calling themselves science and wrecking havoc on our credit scores, yet many scientists don’t connect the bankruptcy of public trust in science with the myths that we let roam freely… As scientists we must take greater efforts to rein in this misapplication of science.

In this vein, I’d say psychology has an important but difficult task ahead of itself. If you look at the applied domain where psychology has traditionally been the most involved — clinical treatment of mental disorders — the shift toward evidence-based treatment has been slow, though it is finally picking up momentum and having real benefits. Hooray for those like Cedar, Hal Pashler, and Daniel Willingham who are pushing for the same in educational practice.

UPDATE: If you want to read Heather Wolpert-Gawron’s critique (the one that inspired Cedar’s article in response), you can read it on her blog, no subscription required, at TweenTeacher.com.

3 Comments
  1. February 25, 2010 7:43 pm

    Hey Sanjay,
    Thanks! I’d like to add that in terms of implementing an evidence-based practice of education, I think it should actually look a lot different from what an evidence-based clinical psychology would look like. From what I know about the current controversy incited by the piece in PSPI, there is a fair amount of evidence as to what kinds of therapy works with what kinds of symptoms in certain disorders. It seems like outcomes in those cases are relatively measureable, and the treatments relatively easily defined and quantified. In education, I think we are a little way off in terms of the level of prescription that cognitive science, social psychology and education research can offer.
    For that reason, I personally would suggest giving teachers the best graduate education we possibly can, with cognitive science, education, etc, and then… actually give them some time and freedom to learn about teaching their own subject, to the particular students they have in front of them.
    The level of scapegoating teachers that is going on right now truly frightens me. The democratic party line on education reform used to be smaller class size (which I agree with, but is obviously too simplistic), but now they (Duncan, Obama) have simply adopted the Republican/business model of charter schools and accountability. Everyone is attacking teachers unions, not really concerned that they also seem to be attacking the very notion of the profession of teaching and the complexity of education.
    Do we fire all the psychiatrists in the military because of the high rate of depression and anxiety? Would we fire all the dentists because of unhealthy levels of tooth decay in the population they serve? Do we fire clinical psychologists who work with severely depressed patients for high levels of suicide? No, we see all of these as very complex problems with no simple solution, in which the professionals treating the problems are somewhat responsible, but so is the situation, as well as the people who are having the problem (mostly with the tooth decay). But somehow it is ok to fire every single teacher in a school because the school is “failing” because half of the kids drop out of high school. The biggest and most frequently used tool in Arne Duncan’s very limited bag of tricks is closing schools.
    As I am sure most social psychologists would agree, the people are not the problem. Very rarely do you get an entirely different situation by changing the people in it without changing anything else. Anyways, don’t get me started. I wish we could find some science to tell the urban superintendents (and the politicians that support them) that we can’t “solve” education by firing veteran teachers and hiring smart young Ivy-league grads.

  2. Sanjay Srivastava permalink
    February 26, 2010 12:12 pm

    I really like your overall philosophy that cognitive science should be used to empower teachers, rather than to browbeat them. An understanding of scientific methods and findings would allow them to critically evaluate new techniques and tools and figure out which ones might be helpful in their classroom. Science and individual judgment should go hand-in-hand.

    And requiring empirical support cuts all ways. Given the enormous stakes, a very high burden of proof should rest on Duncan’s shoulders to show that the heavier-handed tricks in his toolbag are improving long-term outcomes in ways that less-drastic steps could not do.

    In Duncan’s defense though, I have a friend who works in the Chicago school system in their internal evaluation group that Duncan created when he was there. Basically, their job is to work with people who are developing programs to define the outcomes they want to achieve, and then they help them assess the effects of the programs. And they way she’s described their work sounds a lot more constructive and empowering than some of Duncan’s higher-profile, infamous stuff. If you create a program to improve attendance or safety or whatever, the evaluation office helps you set concrete targets and show whether it actually works; and if it doesn’t, they work on figuring out why and seeing if it can be improved. Obviously, the success of that kind of evaluation depends on the measurability of what you’re trying to do. Some goals (like, say, improving attendance) are pretty well defined; I’m sure others aren’t. But they put a lot of energy into trying to do outcome assessment well.

    P.S. I won’t disagree that psychotherapy is farther along than education, and that education might appropriately take a different path given the different issues involved. But I don’t think that psychotherapy is quite as well-understood or well-structured as it sometimes seems. A casual reading of the empirical literature might make it sound like there are very well-defined outcomes and very clearly supported practices. But therapists I’ve talked to, even ones who work within the most strongly evidence-based traditions (like CBT), say there’s still a lot of art, intuition, and personal insight involved in being an effective therapist.

  3. February 26, 2010 12:45 pm

    Those are good points, and I didn’t know that about Duncan in Chicago. I will say that when I have heard him speak, he does seem reasonable, and he seems to appropriately value the complexity of the situation. But I think when push comes to shove, there is an enormous pressure to “solve” the neverending crisis in education, and to find very simple metrics on which to base improved accountability. The office you describe sounds great to me, but I am sure that such an office will be of little use (or perhaps an obstacle) to someone pushing for extreme accountability, and political use of outcomes (say, in terms of branding a certain superintendent’s tenure as a “Miracle” which was done in Chicago for Duncan, and even in Texas under Governor George W. Bush). Assessment for improvement is often a lot more thorny, because it is more honest. Whenever a superintendent leaves an urban public school system (and I have paid attention to DC, but I think many are very similar) they declare victory, and leave everyone else to pick up the pieces of their “success”. A year or two later, the data crunchers take all the real data and find out that not much helped. We have had twenty years now of the business model and charter schools, and are they the panacea that people thought they would be? Of course not. I would love to see teachers given resources like your friend’s office, and actually be left alone for a little while.
    Interesting about the therapy. Although I would love to say that science helps, and in clearly delineated ways, I am sometimes at a loss to say when you should go with intuition and when with science. And, if you are essentially using your intuition to decide when to go with science… well, you aren’t really using the science.

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