The Learning Styles Zombie


Learning Styles Zombie: Adapted from user cipionhabla on flickr:

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.


So, I was invited to the White House…


In late November 2016 I was invited to a summit in Washington D.C. that was organized by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology and focused on educational technology in teacher preparation.  The summit took place in mid-December with one day of meetings hosted at the offices of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and a second day of meetings at the
Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House. It was an honor to be included on the invitation list to this event, and I was very happy to be able to attend.

The second day of the summit coincided with the release of a policy brief, Advancing Educational Technology in Teacher Preparation. The brief, and our summit, focused on four guiding principles:

  • Focus on the active use of technology to enable learning and teaching through
    creation, production, and problem-solving.
  • Build sustainable, program-wide systems of professional learning for
    higher education instructors to strengthen and continually refresh their capacity to use technological tools to enable transformative learning and teaching.
  • Ensure pre-service teachers’ experiences with educational technology are
    program-deep and program-wide, rather than one-off courses separate from
    their methods courses.
  • Align efforts with research-based standards, frameworks, and credentials
    recognized across the field.

During the summit experts from around the country were asked to share descriptions of their work that align with the principles. The list of presenters included: Dr. Teresa Foulger (Arizona State University) who discussed the work her team is doing to develop teacher education technology competencies and how educational technology is being integrated into the ASU teacher preparation curriculum; Dr. Jeff Carpenter (Elon University) who described his work using Twitter to develop community in Elon’s teacher education program; Dr. Royce Kimmons (Brigham Young University) presenting about the work he and his colleagues have done with technology in teacher preparation, including PICRAT; and Dr. Kyle Peck (Penn State) and Dan Randall (Brigham Young University) who discussed their work on badges and microcredentials. There were other presenters, but the ones I have listed here are working in areas that most closely align with my work context and/or research interests.  The summit attendees also heard remarks from Mario Cardona, Senior Policy Advisor for Education to the White House; Dr. Ted Mitchell, Under Secretary of Education; and Dr. Joseph South, Director of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology.

Teresa Foulger, Jeff Carpenter, Royce Kimmons, Kyle Peck, and Dan Randall are all doing important work, if you are a stakeholder in teacher preparation and/or educational technology.  I encourage you to give their work an in-depth look.  The work with badges and microcredentials may be new to you.  When I talk to people about badges in education I often sense a lot of skepticism, but I believe this topic especially has the potential to change a lot of what we do in Education in terms of pre-service and in-service teacher education.  You may see me write more about this topic in another blog entry soon.

As the summit was concluding we were given the opportunity to join affinity groups around the four principles from the policy brief.  Thus, we will all hopefully hear more about these efforts from the affinity groups rather than having the principles buried in a PDF document in some archive of government documents.  I agreed to work with the group focused professional learning for higher education instructors (the second bullet in the above list).  Our work is just getting organized, but at least one of the groups is already quite far along in their work; Teresa Foulger’s group working on technology competencies will report their work at the March 2017 SITE Conference.

Locally, I am curious about the implementation of educational technology experiences for pre-service teachers that are program-deep and program-wide, rather than one-off courses (bullet three in the above list).  I have already had some information conversations with my Dean about how this could be done in my College and I hope the conversation continues. The program-deep and program-wide goal is admirable, but many of us work in environments where student credit hours are the coin of the realm and having designated courses for educational technology makes those hours easy to count. Similarly, those of us who are faculty members in Educational Technology or Instructional Technology programs do not want to become support personnel to others implementing technology in their classes.  Implementing program-wide and program-deep experiences for pre-service teachers will take some creative thinking to ensure it works within systems that have been built for decades around the concepts of classes and semesters.

Dr. South and his staff from the Office of Educational Technology did a great job organizing and facilitating the summit.  I hope that the work of his office and the work growing out of the summit is able to continue through the transition to the next President’s administration.