Teachers must ditch ‘neuromyth’ of learning styles, say scientists
Eminent academics from worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology voice concerns over popularity of method
Teaching children according to their individual “learning style” does not achieve better results and should be ditched by schools in favor of the evidence-based practice, according to leading scientists.
Thirty eminent academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education, and psychology have signed a letter to the Guardian voicing their concern about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.
They say it is ineffective, a waste of resources and potentially even damaging as it can lead to a fixed approach that could impair pupils’ potential to apply or adapt themselves to different ways of learning.
The group opposes the theory that learning is more effective if pupils are taught using an individual approach identified as their personal “learning style”. Some pupils, for example, are identified as having a “listening” style and could, therefore, be taught with storytelling and discussion rather than written exercises.
The letter describes that approach as “one of a number of common neuromyths that do nothing to enhance education”. It is signed by Steven Pinker, Johnstone family professor of psychology at Harvard University; Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford; and leading neuroscientist Prof Uta Frith of University College London among others.
School leaders say the enthusiasm for learning styles in schools has faded, but research in 2012 among teachers in the UK and Netherlands found that 80% believed individuals learned better when they received information in their preferred learning style. In 2013, research by the Wellcome Trust found that 76% of teachers had used learning styles in their teaching.
As part of international Brain Awareness Week, which starts on Monday, scientists want to raise awareness of these commonly held beliefs about how to improve learning, which is supposedly based on research but not backed up with scientific evidence.
As part of the campaign, an organization called Speakezee is sending neuroscientists into schools to raise awareness among teachers and pupils of the latest research based on established scientific findings, and to flag up the shortcomings of the learning style approach.
“Teachers need to be armed with up-to-date evidence of what has been shown to be effective so that schools are not wasting time or money on unsubstantiated practices that do not help students,” the letter says. “It is hard to establish the cost to the education system of using learning styles. Some schools have it as part of their teaching ethos whereas others bring in external consultants or send teachers on training courses.
“Aside from the cost in terms of time and money, one concern is that learning styles lead to believe that individual students are unable to learn because the material is inappropriate.”
It continues: “The brain is essential for learning, but learning styles are just one of a number of common neuromyths that do nothing to enhance education.”
The letter, organized by Prof Bruce Hood, chair of developmental psychology in society at the University of Bristol, says most people believe they have a preferred learning style – either visual, auditory or kinesthetic – and teaching using a variety of these styles can be engaging.
“However the claim that students will perform better when the teaching is matched to their preferred sensory modality (learning style) is simply not supported by the science and of questionable value,” he said.
According to Hood, a recent poll of more than 100 head teachers of independent schools found over 85% believed in learning styles, and 66% used them in their schools with many sending teachers on courses and 6% paying for external consultants. Amounts spent ranged from nothing to over £30,000 per year, he said.
Geoff Barton, the headteacher of King Edward VI school in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, who is soon to take over as general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he hoped the age of neuromyths was over.
“I think the fad about learning styles faded long ago, and I would be surprised if many schools continued to subscribe to the approach. That said, the notion of making teaching and learning more varied in classrooms is helpful and likely to motivate a wider range of students,” he said.
“Modern neuroscience – rather than some quick-fix version of it – should help teachers and students to develop real learning, real progress, and real success.”
The Educational Endowment Foundation, an independent grant-making charity, has also documented its concerns about a learning styles approach.
It said: “There is very limited evidence for any consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that can be used reliably to identify genuine differences in the learning needs of young people, and evidence suggests that it is unhelpful to assign learners to groups or categories on the basis of a supposed learning style.”
The Department of Education declined to provide a formal comment on learning styles, but a spokeswoman said it was up to teachers to decide what they wanted to use in their classrooms.