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My Reaction to Articles on Learning Styles

 Blog Week August 15, 2011

My Blog will take some of the most cited negative articles on learning style and comment on them each month. Side-by-side will be a positive research abstract on findings that honor the Learning Cycle. 

First Negative: There Is No Such Thing as “Learning Styles”

This is the opening line of this brief article: “The persistence of the learning style concept is amazing–a testament to the gullibility of even well-informed individuals who ought to know better.”

Take particular note of what is being attacked in this remark. It sounds as if we read on we are to be treated to research on how people do not learn differently. Not so. The article does not deny the existence of learning styles. A cursory reading will make that clear. Then what is being attacked? The author is bemoaning the lack of research that teaching to learning styles makes a difference in student learning results. Admittedly there are not enough published articles to claim cause and effect on this. Then what reason could there be for a professor at a prestigious university to begin his remarks concerning research on learning results with the above statement, when the article is not claiming there is no such thing as learning styles, I can only suggest a few possible reasons: to get our attention, to be outrageous, to make a mark as a disciplined researcher who has read all the research or all of the above?

We need some common sense here. Would anyone deny the fact that some folks are shy and others are outgoing, that some emphasize feeling over ideas and others just the opposite, that some need to do things to learn them, and others must read and ponder first? The history of Jung, Myers-Briggs, David Kolb, Costa and McCrae who are cited in Pierce Howards’ book Owner’s Manual for the Brain, 2000 (well before this article was written) are fine pieces of work. Add Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence differences, the neuroscience work on the uniqueness of each and every brain and so on ad infinitum. So there is and can no longer be any negation that people do not learn differently. Then I repeat by opening question, what is the real attack in this article?

The author cites the ATI research “which attempted to provide a database for adapting instruction to student characteristics found many thorny problems.” You bet! The complexity of teaching anyone anything is based on multiple variables. The author adds, “It is probably fair to say that the popularity of adapting instruction to learning styles is matched only by the utter absence of support for this idea.”

So everyone should learn the same way? How has this worked so far? In citing the 
“thorniness” of the ATI Instruction research (Achievement Treatment Interactions) of which this author was one of the researchers) he answers his own negative.  The complexity of measuring how a teaching strategy effects the complexity of any single learner is difficult: with multiple variables operating any one day: style, place in the family, handedness, socio-economic levels, functional or dysfunctional home life, safety and support in student lives including weather and teacher prowess, and so it goes. 

Do not misunderstand me here.The research proving the causal relationships between  teaching techniques and strategies and using the learning cycle (See 4MAT) that encompasses all four major learning styles, as well as right and left mode techniques needs to be done well and needs to be published. I have no argument with that. But to make the opening statement in this article when so much research is available on the legitimacy of learning styles is suspect. And far worse, affects teachers who need to be concerned daily, even hourly, with the individuality of their students. 

First Positive to the 4MAT Learning Cycle

Research That Honors 4MAT’s Cycle

Cognitive neuroscientist Robert Logie writing in the Association for Psychological Science Journal, University of Edinburgh, has challenged the model of the brain that only one flexible system directs the brain’s focus, suppressing the rest. In other words, he is questioning the notion that we attend to only one thing at a time.

Most psychologists explain working memory with a "controlled attention" model: one flexible system that directs the brain's focus to tasks that are important, suppressing the rest. Working memory, they say, is limited by our ability to attend to only one thing at a time. Logie disagrees.

"We have a range of different capacities, each with its own function, and they operate at the same time" when we perform a task or think about something. Within this "multiple-component framework," working memory capacity is "the sum of the capacities of all these different functions."

The brain’s "workspace.” as Logie calls it, allows us to do something while other functions operate in the background or to apply ourselves to a single task involving more than one function. Reading, requires we both see words and process meaning at the same time. (possibly debunking the phonics or whole language dichotomy.)”The "sum" of the capacities isn't a gross measure, though, because we often tax one function more than another. In reading, processing has its shoulder to the grindstone, while vision takes it easy.

"Imaging data demonstrate that if you ask people to do one sort of task, you get one [brain] pattern, and if you ask them to do another, you get another pattern." Make the same task harder-say, remember word lists faster-and "you see increased activation in the same area." Complicate it-add words to the sequence, and thus processing along with recall-and different networks fire.

The multiple-component model holds great practical promise, says Logie. In education, "if you assume there is a single general capacity," interventions for people struggling to learn are few. Assume multiple components to draw on, and those other resources stand ready for development.

How the brain keeps track of what we're doing (8/9/2011)

Hooray for the 4MAT Learning Style with its multiple components and combinations of words, symbols, images, and hands-on strategies!

Also, could this new research be an answer to the opponents of learning cycle teaching that encompasses learning styles who bemoan the fact that learning results from single techniques have not been measured? Is it perhaps that the brain can do more than one thing at a time, making such research very complex, and that multiple and differentiated instruction works much better? And they are telling educators to stop dealing with learning styles!!