All Style and Dense Substance: Learning Style – Theory & Practice

Many who seek to dispel the myth of teaching to learning styles focus on summarizing contemporary studies showing a lack of its effectiveness. This is a good thing and many do it well, but I take a different approach: I critique classic studies and references to which learning style theorists look for support. By (hopefully) pointing out the cracks in the theoretical foundation, support for the practice will crumble. My first foray is the book Learning Style: Theory and Practice by James W. Keefe. This curious 1987 paperback publication, published by the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), has 42 pages of content, not counting the references, cover pages, and the like, yet has been cited, as of this writing, 634 times according to Google Scholar.

The vehicle of the book is seemingly based on the NASSP definition provided in the first chapter: “Learning styles are characteristic cognitive, affective, and physiological behaviors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment”. It goes on to describe 32 different styles based on the cognitive, affective, and physiological domains. While some of these “styles” are at least somewhat conducive to the classroom environment (such as curiosity), there are others, such as degree of self-actualization (succinctly put: a state in which one has achieved their fullest potential), that do not have a parsimonious connection to how to how a teacher should give instruction. The author does admit that some styles are of lesser importance than others while some are rather abstract.

The second chapter describes learning style assessment. In some ways, it extends the first chapter by identifying the styles of importance (at least to those who subscribe to learning styles theory). These assessments vary in terms of procedure and results, with some being more of a personality assessment. One measure described is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is known for identifying an examinee as one of 16 personality types using a four-letter code (e.g., ISTJ). Though popular in schools, workplaces, and on social media websites, the validity of the MBTI is dubious, at best. Finally, the chapter seems to push the NASSP’s own learning styles assessment, which claims to identify 23 different styles/preferences. I wanted to see its content, but a WorldCat search revealed that the nearest library having a copy is 500 miles away. Unlike the Proclaimers, I am not willing to go that distance.

The third chapter explores brain research in support (if only indirectly) of learning styles. The crux of their contention is grounded in brain hemisphere research, in which each of the two halves of the brain have certain specialities (suggesting that there are “left-brain” and “right-brain” learners). While there are certainly differences between the two hemispheres, the idea that this creates notable differences in information processing, memory, and phenomenology is simply not supported by research.

The final chapter is dedicated to the applications of learning styles. While it had the most substance being the longest chapter, it was also the most frustrating to read through. Most, if not all, of the recommendations are built on speculation. This is most observable through its suggestions for schoolwide implementation:

Remedial Approach: Identify the styles of students who struggle. Determine whether there is a trend among them, e.g., most struggling students may have the same styles that are incongruent with the school’s way of teaching.

Diagnostic Approach: Discover the learning styles of incoming students. Use for course placement, counseling, and other parts of the school process. The author cautions that this use requires special knowledge and training of learning styles. Included is a subtle plug for the NASSP Learning Style Profile Workshops and Training Seminars.

Personalization: By personally identifying the styles of students, there will need to be special advising by counselors and other trained staff to best suit the needs of learners. As the book claims: “The only solid foundation for a responsive learning environment is careful diagnosis of individual learner traits followed by flexible instruction and systematic evaluation” (p. 38).

My Overall Take

I was hoping to find solid claims based on evidence that there are styles that have been shown 1) to play a direct role in the learning process, and 2) to effect better learning when teaching is catered to them.  This book provided neither. Rather, it read as a dense literature review of personality and perceptual differences that are assumed to create taxons of learners without providing any substantive evidence. From there, it tried to support its claims through brain research, of which the supposed applications have been discredited. Finally, instead of making suggestions for future research, it makes recommendations for what schools need to do to improve, yet gives no evidence that they could actually work.

In some ways, the book is a reaction to the misguided notion of one-size-fits-all curricula and pedagogies that were part of an earlier educational Zeitgeist. We are all different, and teacher should be aware of that. Students’ backgrounds, such as their prior education and socioeconomic status, can impact their readiness to learn. Any reasonable educator would agree, but the implication that they are styles of learning to which a teacher must cater is simply unconvincing.

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