Saturday, 16 April 2011

Learning Styles

Kolb's model of learning styles
A bugbear of mine is the concept of "Learning Styles". As a young class tutor I was convinced that it would be useful to children to be aware of their personal way how to do things. So I investigated into the ideas about learning styles and discovered a torrent of theoretical stuff, nifty questionnaires, models and so on. The students mostly were not too interested, linking the paper work and discussions to their personal behaviours and penchants improved their gusto only slightly, they agreed readily on the matters at hand. I never succeeded to employ these insights in my tutor lessons to the extent that it really had any impact on the success of students in school. It just did not catch on.

The scientific base

After a couple of years I made an appointment with the linchpin in the Dutch educational research on learning styles, a university worker. He warily informed me that the whole idea of learning styles had developed as a management tool in private enterprise, that the concept gratuitously had been transferred to education, and that he could not give me a clue how to employ learning styles in secondary education. Nevertheless, learning styles could made sense, but only if you linked them to vocational training or academic fields. Each field entails some learning styles and precludes others. Being aware of that is useful to students at the level of higher education as it can prevent failure. That was all he could offer. He had done a thesis on it. I was very grateful for his answer, because it was plain and unambiguous, and based on years of scientific thinking on the topic.

Meaningless advices

I learned something then. Firstly, do not introduce strategies without content. Your lesson will be meaningless, as there is no base to measure or experience the strategy and thereby it will not catch on. This is a very risky thing to say, as it logically exempts a lot of stuff we are supposed to teach. Just to give an example: a school may be asked by parents or the inspection to show what the school does to teach children not to bully each other. It is quite easy to respond to such a demand, materials galore are to be found to discuss bullying, have the children fill in papers and express their feelings in circle time, just put some lesson in the timetable, a tutor lesson, and have all the tutors go over the material with their class. Everyone will be very happy about it, all students will agree that bullying is bad and their parents will praise the school. However, my law says it will not prevent bullying, and the only way to make clear that bullying is not acceptable, is to quash it when it happens in such a way that everybody gets the message. As bullying is a perennial problem you can be sure that you will be able to show off your results when the inspection team comes to assess your policy in this respect, be sure to archive a report of the proceedings.

Vacuous concepts

Secondly, do not trust concepts, formats or routines that are not related to your subject and that you cannot embed in your own expertise developed in the classroom. A lot of ideas teachers are clobbered with just are fads. Even something claimed in the context of "Evidence based education" may not be evidence based at all. In a plethora of quangos professional educators earn their bread and butter by producing and copying ideas how to advise and train teachers. They have to come up with something in their word processors, haven't they? They get paid for it.
A good teacher will read his background materials, not only pertaining to his academic field but also on education and teaching. It is rewarding to experiment with classroom routines systematically and to implement new insights in lessons, to discover new ways to reach out to the students. But the classroom is decisive, if something does not work at all in the trenches of education, it should be ditched.