Dr. Stat

Dr. Stat is a Statistics Professor. This blog is his opportunity to share ideas and opinions about education (especially math education), politics, and whatever else comes up.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Learning Styles

What are "Learning Styles" and why do they matter?

According to some education theorists, "learning styles" are distinct categories of behaviors within which individual students have various "preferences," which may roughly correspond to "efficiencies" in terms of educational achievement. David A. Kolb developed a theory of learning styles which is common in education textbooks today. He actually is said to have believed that learning styles are on a "continuum," but in practice the theory leads to a discrete classification scheme. A reasonable short summary of these ideas may be found here. However, the thing that is most clear about learning styles theory is that there is no agreement on what learning styles are. Most of us in the "Ed Biz" more or less intuitively believe that there are, in fact, "visual learners," "hands-on learners," "book learners," etc. We may have other ideas or labels. We also recognize that some people like to work in groups, and some people like to work alone. Furthermore, I think that good teachers have recognized things like this for a long time, independent of what any theorists said. So what good teachers have been doing, with or without David Kolb, is creating learning activities that cater to different learning styles, whatever they may be.

I don't claim that it has always been like this. I am quite sure that there were times and places in which teachers simply assumed there was one way to teach (the right way) and all students had to adapt or suffer the consequences. But it would be a mistake to assume that such an attitude was universal in any period in history. The balance between rigidity and flexibility may have shifted, but both approaches were in existance. And I claim that it has always been a mark of a good teacher to try a variety of techniques in the educational process.

Now, this is not to imply that nothing further can be gained by scientifically studying "learning styles" and attempting to develop verifiably effective methods of exploiting them. Such efforts may be fruitful and worthwhile. On the other hand, if such ideas are not empirically based, and the research is unsound, we will have gained nothing but jargon (more of a loss than a gain, really) and we will still know nothing more about using learning styles than the good teachers of yore.

I want to make a point here: I don't view learning styles in the same way most education textbooks do. Their emphasis always seems to be on how the teacher must adapt to the learning styles of the students. By suggesting that good teachers have always used techniques that play to different learning styles, I have not meant to imply that they did so primarily to adapt to their students' needs. In some cases, particularly when students are having difficulty, that is precisely what good teachers do. But not always. I would like to turn this around, in a way that I have never seen it done in an education textbook (of course I have not read them all). We make much of the phrase "learn how to learn." This supposed to be a primary purpose of modern (postmodern?) education--because knowledge changes so fast we must be lifetime learners. Yet, the "learning styles" dogma suggests that we meet students where they are, and adapt teaching to the student's currently preferred method of learning. This is not "learning how to learn," it is "learning how to stay in a rut."

My proposal is this: There are many ways to learn. If we are to be lifetime learners, it is best that we get as good as we can at all of them. We should not, however, focus on all of them equally. It is quite clear that some methods of transmitting knowledge are more efficient than others. Efficiency, here, has several components. To evaluate efficiency, one has to have some idea of costs as well as outcomes. While most of the research on educational methods is done in schools, it behooves us to look at the situation in business, where efficiency is forced to count most (far more than in schools.) Costs there include materials, equipment and facilities, but the largest components are often labor--specifically the teacher's labor (an expert whose time is particularly valuable and must be minimized) and the time of the learners before they become productive. The primary method of transmitting knowledge in business is still the lecture with visual aids. If a skill is to be transmitted, there is some variation depending on the situation, but for the most part the method is demonstration followed by guided practice until proficiency is attained, as measured by some objective and immutable standard. Hardly ever do we see business employ a "discovery method" or "constructivist approach." Independent reading may be involved, but cooperative learning and games are examples of activities that are less common in the business world. I argue that, because business places a premium on efficiency, the practices of business are an excellent indicator of what learning activities are most efficient and most useful as life-long skills. The free market forces inefficient practices out. Of course, we cannot ignore the differences between (motivated, mature) adults in the workplace, and children, whose motivations may be elsewhere, and whose maturity, by definition, is not at the same level.

The proper use of learning styles, therefore, is threefold: 1) To take into account differences in maturity and motivation among students at various ages and social stages, 2) To overcome individual difficulties in learning, and 3) To prepare students to be efficient life-long learners as adults. I believe that the first two uses are necessary, but the third is the most important. I believe that we should actively, intentionally, and directly teach students how to learn effectively from lectures. I mean by this that we should do much more than just use lecture as a tool to teach. I am aware that some teachers (and counsellors in study skills, etc.) teach students note-taking and organizational skills. These are important and valuable. However, I am reminded of stories about the "ancients" who are said to have been able to repeat long speaches or poems after hearing them once. I don't know if this is true, but I do think that people in the past have been much better at repeating what they have heard than we commonly can today. In fact, I am convinced that our children are capable of doing this much better than they do, because they can often retell large portions of television shows, or give detailed renditions of inane conversations that they have had. Frankly, I don't think they ever consider the possibility that they might be able to recall a lecture, or a story read to them, in the same way, and they are seldom or never challenged to do it.

There are probably a number of reasons that we don't encourage this kind of activity in school. No doubt one of them is that this is a difficult task and there is no sense, in the current educational literature, of its importance. There is also too little emphasis on the need for accurate and complete recall of facts relevant to a discussion, because the prevailing notion is that knowlege can be "looked up" so easily that we don't need to remember it. This is a profound fallacy. In truth, it is impossible to process information unless it is available in memory, and reasoning and critical thinking require instantaneous access to enough relevant information to be able to evaluate ideas and determine what new information should be sought out. This is why political campaigns run on soundbytes--people can't remember enough of the content of a speach to rationally evaluate it anyway. And they can't remember enough because they've never been taught that it's important to remember.