The Learning Styles Zombie

zombie-blog

Learning Styles Zombie: Adapted from user cipionhabla on flickr: https://goo.gl/jmOeMv

The learning styles zombie just will not die.  If you follow me on Twitter (@hodgesc) or other social media platforms, you have seen my posts of disappointment and frustration over the years regarding the never ending stream of nonsense regarding learning styles in Education.  If you need a refresher, flip through the collection of expert opinions I have been maintaining here: Learning Styles and Expert Opinion.

A few things have converged for me lately that have made me think that I am approaching the problem of stamping out the learning zombie incorrectly.  First, I was thinking about the recent discussions of alternative facts in our news media (e.g. Conway: Trump White House offered ‘alternative facts’ on crowd size) and the recent U.S. election process in general, and how differently people look at facts and information. Despite quite clear evidence about various topics and individuals in the election, people continue to believe and promote things that (to me) are clearly wrong. Next, I have come across some recently published examples of learning styles research in academic journals, which resulted in me having some exchanges with Dr. Paul Kirschner on Facebook and Twitter.  Paul has a long record of fighting this zombie.  Mostly recently, he was a coauthor of the book Urban Myths about Learning and Education (reviewed here by Dr. Barbara Lockee in the journal TechTrends ) and an invited editorial in the journal Computers & Education titled “Stop Propagating the Learning Styles Myth“. Finally, I was re-reading the book What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain and I was reminded about the work of Halloun and Hestenes (1985). Here is their abstract:

An instrument to assess the basic knowledge state of students taking a first course in physics has been designed and validated. Measurements with the instrument show that the student’s initial qualitative, common sense beliefs about motion and causes has a large effect on performance in physics, but conventional instruction induces only a small change in those beliefs.

Basically, Halloun and Hestenes discovered that despite their best efforts at teaching a beginning, college-level physics class, students often left the class with the same misconceptions that they brought with them into the class.  I have the same problem in the graduate-level Instructional Technology classes that I teach with respect to learning styles.

My classes often wind up touching on learning styles one way or another.  If the myth of learning styles is not on the course outline, it frequently comes up as part of a class discussion, and I take some time to try and correct the misconception.  However, I have the strong sense that I do not change many minds, at least for very long.

My strategy to dispel the learning styles myth has so far been in the form of providing information.  I give students the link to my slide deck linked earlier in this post.  If there is something new on the topic, then I send that along too.  Many of my students are teachers and they usually resist this information.  The will claim that they have “seen” learning styles in their classrooms.  On top of this experience in their classes, learning styles are often actively promoted to teachers as useful information, so my voice is just one data point on the topic for them.

This recent thinking about the learning styles zombie has led me to some interesting reading about epistemology, conceptual change, schema theory, and the nature of facts and opinions.  There is so much to read and consider that I could stay engrossed in the literature probably forever.  However, fulfilling my desire to learn more will do nothing to kill this zombie. I am approaching this problem incorrectly, or maybe just insufficiently.

Simply providing information to my students, no matter how expert the source, is not enough.  I need to create a learning activity that has a good chance of correcting the misconceptions about learning styles.  I need to find out where it can fit into my classes. Ideally I would like to see a professional organization take up the fight too, but there are many good causes to support in Education, and this one is probably not high on their lists.

Why is killing the learning styles zombie important?  Think about the number of hours teachers spend addressing learning styles or learning about learning styles.  Think about the number of dollars spent on materials marketed to help learners with varied learning styles.  Teachers do not need to waste their time and schools do not need to waste money on materials that have no solid footing.

Do you have a good model for designing instruction to address conceptual change?  Do you have an activity for students that fights the learning styles zombie?  I would love to hear about your successes in this battle. We need to create and test these activities and then share them widely.

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