Learning styles and education: good practice requires good science
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.