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Tag: School

MythBusters: Learning Styles

“If there’s something strange in you neighborhood
Who you gonna call? (mythbusters)
If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call? (mythbusters).”

What the Research says about Learning Styles?

Background:

For the purposes of this assignment, we have chosen to suggest an approach for a school in the Western suburbs of Sydney, with an ethnically and linguistically diverse student body. Being engaged in professional development, the school has noticed the discourse of learning styles in professional spheres and wants to investigate before adopting it as school practice. The following is a paper evaluating the research on learning styles, and suggests an approach for the school to take.

Introduction:

The term “learning styles” is the constructed concept that “individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study that is most effective for them”. Over the last fifty years, the myth of ‘Learning Styles’ has become one of the most popular aspects of educational theory, with it gaining traction amongst the wider academic circles. Pashler et al., states this education theory is very alluring because it presents an easy solution to the paradox of teaching inherently different students within a mass production system. However the popularity of this myth ventures into the field of pseudo-science as its catchy narrative is overwhelmingly unsupported by the current research. Furthermore Pashler et al. states that with the constant active promotion from vendors offering different tests, assessment devices and online technologies, it has allowed educational institutions to easily identify students learning styles, and adapt their instructional approaches accordingly.

It cannot be denied that it is important to recognise that students are diverse and learn differently, whether it is culturally, linguistically or cognitively. The concept of learning styles may seem like a credible approach to cater for this diversity, however there has been limited evidence supporting it. There is some evidence of neural correlation with a preferred learning preference, for example Kraemer, Rosenberg & Thompson-Schill (2008) had the first set of data that showed a neural correlation with a stated style preference, which suggested that those who are associated with the verbal style have a tendency to convert pictorial information into linguistic representations. However, in the majority of the research on learning styles, students who used their preferred learning styles did not fare significantly better than students who were prevented from using their preferred style. It is therefore important that educators are aware that learning styles are not reliable predictors of the most appropriate learning style for any given student.

Alternatively, Huebner suggests the use of “differentiated instruction to effectively address all students’ learning needs”. It cannot be denied that students come from complex backgrounds with a diversity of language, ability and prior knowledge in any given area. They will also have a preference with the way that they learn and retain information. However, evidence suggests that implementing differentiated instruction, rather than teaching to a single style or ability, proves to be the most effective when addressing diverse student learning needs. Instead of grouping students into learning styles, understanding how to promote student engagement and motivation, assessing student readiness and having effective classroom management procedures can enrich the student learning process. Huebner further affirms this statement by stating it is important to understand that with differentiated instruction, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model, instead it builds upon the prior knowledge, interests and abilities that students bring to the classroom.

The Myth of Learning Styles

Massa and Meyer’s study was very effective at highlighting the wide divide between what is the popular narrative and what is academically supported. Altogether Massa and Meyer performed three separate experiments to test whether or not ‘visual learners’ and ‘verbal learners’ excelled when multimedia instruction was given in their respective fields, in a total of 51 cases, 49 showed little or no evidence, for learning styles, with some even showing evidence against.

When Massa and Meyer’s first experiment involving 52 participants showed no evidence to support the learning styles education system, they attempted the exact same experiment in a different context. In the first experiment, the mean age was 18 years old with all the participants coming from the Psychology pool at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In experiment two it, the participants were non-college educated adults, with 15 out of the 61 having high school as their highest level of education. However despite the shift in demographics, the results to experiment two were very similar, with no significant increases in academic scoring in 14 of the 15 experiments.

Out of the 51 cases, 52.94% (27/51) of the time, the results showed a minute leaning towards the expected direction (visual learners getting slightly better results on visual instruction), whilst 47.05% (24/51) the results headed towards the opposite direction. These scores highlight how inconsistent this educational theory is and that there was close to an equal chance of a person either benefiting or not benefitting from learning styles classrooms.

Instead it was found that adding images to aid any form of instruction was a benefit to both ‘visual’ and ‘verbal’ learners, further discrediting the notion that people can be cleanly categorized into either element. This has been validated by studies such as Mayer and Moreno (2002) and Austin (2009) who found multimedia which incorporated animation and narration were consistently shown to be the most effective when it came to student’s retention of knowledge and academic scores.

The Argument for Learning Styles

One of the most significant reasons that the learning style theory gained momentum was due to educators realising that each child is different in the way that they learn and process knowledge. In their book “The Importance of Learning Styles,” Sims and Sims assert that learning opportunities need to be designed with the strengths and weakness of the child in mind. This is an argument which stands true to this day, even though the nuances of the words ‘strengths and weaknesses’ have evolved since then. In Sims and Sims’ time, the goal of learning styles assessment was to “make distinctions that lead to meaningful differences”. This was carried out through theories such as the Experiential Learning Theory presented by Kolb and the Learning Styles model proposed by Grasha-Reichmann. Both of these researchers were making nascent responses to the dilemma which arose from the acknowledgement of individual differences, or perhaps preferences, for perceiving and processing information. Since then, research on differentiated instruction by ability level and all forms of expression have developed these ideas.

The preconceived notions of some researchers have inhibited the critical analysis of data leading some to believe that what was measured was an indicator of different learning styles. Sprenger states that differentiation strategies such as tweaking the content or making instructional changes, need to be implemented after analysing the student’s “learning profile” or style of learning (2008, p.xvi). For qualitative researchers such as Sprenger (2008), who work with small scale case studies or take part in action research in their own classrooms, the idea that a child’s behaviour can indicate the child’s cognitive processes would have been almost self evident as it would have been observable evidence.

Massa and Mayer (2006), although critical of the learning style theory, acknowledges that in their study a correlation between cognitive style measures and processing measures were found where an individual’s professed learning style (visual or verbal) matched with how heavily they relied on help represented through the two styles. However, these findings are few and far between. Given the dominance of the learning styles discourse, it is very possible that researchers and participants alike were unwittingly primed to form these conclusions.

Conclusion

The basic idea of cognitive styles, that different individuals process certain types of information differently, has appeared in many forms and has been part of many theories in various avenues of psychological research. Despite this widespread interest, however, a precise description of what constitutes a cognitive style, both from a behavioral and from a biological perspective, remains elusive.

Although many schools are still inclined to adopt the concept of learning styles into their pedagogy, we would advise not to use it as a basis for teacher practice due to the lack of evidence for it. An overwhelming proportion of the evidence is based on ‘preferences’ instead of an assessment of cognition, or contain flawed and insufficient methodology. Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that in fact, what can be described as ‘learning styles’ has no significant impact on achievement.

Given these findings, we encourage the school to adopt the approach of differentiation, where pedagogy is designed to treat students as individuals based on their ability, prior knowledge, literacy and appropriate forms of engagement and management.

This was written by Gi Eun Lee, Kasturi Murugavel, Erica Sung and myself; SC. Thank you for being an amazing team, even if it was for a short period of time.

Praxis: An Ingrained Habit

 

“Elaborate upon the relationship between research and practice in education.”

“Action research as a critical social science… As a way of understanding the interplay of theory and practice.”

  • Wilfred Carr and Stephen Kemmis

As information and data becomes more easily available, the institution of education has experienced a considerable shift in its approach towards the discipline of teaching. It could be argued that in today’s climate, statistics and facts have been fetishized and have too much influence, dehumanising an occupation which is predicated and built upon human relationships. ‘Praxis’ is a counter-movement to this rising trend of placing data and quantitative data on a pedestal, as it also stresses the importance of personal experience, pedagogical knowledge and being contextually aware of the environment before implementing teaching practices. As every school, classroom and student is inherently different, it is important to foster a healthy sense of scepticism in order to use research to its fullest extents.

The rise of Neo-Liberalism has drastically altered societies’ and government’s approach to public institutions and services (Wilkins, 2006). Under the influence of this growing school of thought in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, educational decision-making has been increasingly underpinned by economic rationale more than social values (Welch, 2016). However, this focus upon statistics has its foundations in the 18th century with the rise of the French Enlightenment which looked towards science and ‘empirical evidence’ as the answer to all questions; natural or social. Goldacre’s essay titled ‘Building Evidence into Education’ (2013) symbolises Australia’s shift towards this ‘empirical’ and ‘factually sound’ education system, where quantitative data is unquestioned as the only source of ‘truth’. As a medical doctor, Goldacre’s desire to increase the amount of randomised testing in the subject highlights his lack of experience within the classroom; as students are simply not chemical reactions.

This elevation of research and statistics as universal markers of truth in contrast to personal experience, which is often seen as limited and context-specific, was evident in the forum posting of week two, where the concept of critically questioning research was foreign to many of my peers. Lee’s (2016) forum post highlights this passive mentality of blind acceptance, “I tend to straight away read the aims, findings and the conclusion as I rely [on] the researchers to be correct and [I] don’t question their reliability.” Likewise, it was very surreal to have to dismantle the ‘Learning Styles Myth’ with my EDUF4044 group; a piece of pseudo-science which had been so ingrained into ‘popular education theory’ yet was supported by flawed research. It was uncomfortable having to waddle through a theory which was underpinned with conflicting pieces of evidence, further highlighting how dependent I was on research to simply provide me an answer and how I needed to be more critical.

There has been a cultural divide between the researchers and the actual practitioners; I personally experienced this sense of mistrust at both of my practicum schools, with many experienced teachers telling me that theory was purely just abstract knowledge with no practical merit. A big reason for this tension between the two parties is that quantitative research often championed in Evidence Based Policy, tends to portray itself as universally relevant and an unquestionable authority on ‘truth’. But only by removing the empirical filter of objectivity which is often associated with quantitative data, teachers can instead explore the deep structures of privilege which significantly impact the learning abilities of students. A ‘fundamental’ interpretation of the text leaves no room for interpretation and thus approaches the classroom like a complicated mathematic problem, devoid of emotion and without accounting for teacher experience. Teachers are not simply the transmitters of knowledge or educational policies; teachers must use their agency in order to tailor their teaching in a way which is still pragmatically functional. By trying to understand the reasoning behind data instead of blindly applying it, teachers can develop better praxis, using scepticism to comb out research and advice which is inapplicable to their field.

In order to counter this fetishisation or empirical data, action research has been a growing pillar of good praxis. Zeni (1998) calls action research as an effective way to mesh the two perceived worlds of research and practice, advocating for the personal testing of theory and research. Action research places emphasis upon individual experiences and interactions whilst ‘demystifying’ the theortical. Action research also calls for the creation of a ‘communicative place’ shared by all teachers to collectively learn from their peers and their own personal insights and research. Such an environment would effectively combine the best of research and practices. By having multiple teachers implement a certain tactic, this can produce a more accurate indication of whether the research is beneficial or not.

Whilst research and practice are often portrayed as two different categories, usually on the opposite sides of the spectrum, a good teacher dedicated to their craft stands within the intersecting circles of the two venn diagrams. Without research to guide a teacher’s decision, their classrooms would be informed by urban myths, however without physical experience, the research merely stays as hypothetical knowledge. Understanding the inherent links between research and practice, teachers must constantly self-analyse and only from that will they be able to refine their craft, keeping what works and discarding what doesn’t.

Tripp’s (1996) framework of teacher self-analysis also effectively bridges the perceived and real gap between research and practice; requiring teachers to accumulate research to find a ‘critical moment’ that represent something more ‘significant’ than normal. If it is a critical moment, then the teacher will come up with a number of solutions to address the problem. After the brain storm they will then design different steps which will be implemented with the effects studied accordingly. This constant cycle of reflection will help uncover the limitations which may not have been mentioned within research. It will also highlight that whilst research may often exude an air of complete objectivity, every classroom is inherently different and the results will vary accordingly.

However, despite the current climate of education being one which romanticises statistics and numerical data, it is important teachers do not slide in the opposite direction and overestimate the importance of their personal views. This can have a negative effect as teachers may not seek to improve their teaching practice, seeing research and new teaching methods as mere deviations from their routine. Low (2016) writes that whilst it is important to distinguish that research is not universally applicable, neither is personal experience.

As someone who strongly believes that Australia’s education system is heading towards the wrong direction with the focus on standardised testing, I often advocated for the need for teachers to foster student creativity; which will be the most valuable commodity in the ‘human capital’ economy. One statistic which encapsulated this need to ‘modernise’ the standard classroom was Randolph’s (2007) finding that “students on average spend approximately 50% of the instruction time being distracted and only 1% of the school day actively responding.” At the start of my second practicum experience, my goal was to implement teaching and learning strategies which would allow students to contribute and participate in ‘embodied learning’. However, many of the students at my second practicum were disruptive and my hardest challenge was getting them to listen to me instead of breaking out into conversation. I had to drastically alter my teaching strategies; incorporating lessons and activities which would advocate individual work so the students could learn how to work independently. This experience really made me question the universal validity of research and the consequences of blindly accepting research. Whilst Randolph’s research does highlight a fundamental flaws still plaguing Australia’s education system, I personally feel like his results were based in affluent socio-economic environments, speaking as someone who came from a private school. Contextualising Randolph’s research was an important part of developing my praxis as it allowed me to refine my teaching approach to something more suited for the environment. This sentiment was echoed in a lot of my peer’s week one forum post, with many stating that their classrooms would have suffered if they have just blindly implemented educational strategies without second thought.

The word praxis stems from the idea of embodied learning or theory which is actively implemented, and this is only possible with when a teacher is able to balance and incorporate both research and practice into their classroom. Whilst there has tended to be a shift toward viewing empirical data as most form of reliable evidence, an informed teacher must constantly self-reflect to see if such research can be applicable within their context. Only when the veil of ‘objectivity’ is lifted from research will teachers can begin to experiment with their teaching methods accordingly. It also gives them an opportunity to analyse data from a social-historical view and develop better understanding of the reasons for such findings. However it is also important that teachers do not completely abandon research for the reasons stated above and purely rely upon personal experience, because those experiences can also be generalisation within a certain context. Teachers who see and act like research and practice are separate categories with no intrinsic relation are the ones which are most likely to fall into stagnation, unwilling and unable to shape the research to fit their environment. Research and practice are inherently linked in a cyclical dance and a severe tilt towards either direction will have negative consequences for one’s pedagogy and students.

Teaching from the Heart

Teaching has always been an appealing occupation for me, because teachers have the ability to shape and influence the lives of their students. Whilst a core component of being a teacher involves passing on knowledge about a given subject, the dedication and passion of teachers can often be infectious. For myself, I was greatly inspired by a few teachers from my high school who added humour and creativity to the subjects, they became my role model during my teenage years. Two key aspects which I want to reinforce in my classroom is the need to broaden the scope of English, in a time where multi-modality and flexibility is becoming a greater focus in the workforce. Also I wish to challenge the traditional format of the classroom, allowing students greater freedom to participate in their learning whilst reducing the authority of the teacher in the classroom. For education to remain relevant and accessible it must adapt to the changing circumstances and environment of modern society.

In 2010, ACARA acknowledged the need for English teachers to incorporate different forms of literacies such as ICT, viewing and listening. However, there is a disconnect between the policies and what is being reinforced in the classroom. From my own personal experience, learning in a traditional Christian high school, I felt as if a vast majority of teachers, particularly the older ones, were reluctant to shift from their established teaching style. There was a sense of hostility as if the inclusion of ICT and the move away from essay writing had somehow tainted the purity of English. This outdated view is reflected in a small experiment performed in 2006 with English high school teachers, who were asked to elaborate upon what they defined as ‘literacy.’ Out of 56 participants, not a single teacher mentioned ICT or higher order thinking skills as examples of literacy; instead they only referenced traditional markers of literacy such as grammar and spelling.

English should challenge students and change the way they view texts and society, but it should also adequately prepare them for the work force. The next generation will be disadvantaged if English as a discipline no longer equips them with the tools and flexibility to chart through an increasingly globalized world. I think it’s a shame that most English classes never attempt to divert from essay writing. It wasn’t until I studied education at university did I realise how repetitive my English lessons were, part of me was disappointed that I never experienced the full variety of the subject. Whilst drama is often located at the bottom of the subject hierarchy, it allows students to physically engage in English, in a manner which traditional approaches like essay writing does not. An American Report named Are They Really Ready to Work, published in 2006, found that the average high school employer ranked professionalism, team work and oral communication as the three most attractive qualities in their employees. The collaborative nature of drama pedagogy more accurately reflects the reality of the work place, promoting interactions between students and portraying success as a team effort. However the Australian educational system has yet fully separate itself from ingrained theories such as social Darwinism, thus it still celebrates the success and achievements of the ‘lone wolf.’

Education should be a two way conversation between the students and the teacher, it is important that both parties contribute towards the learning process, allowing students the opportunity to develop a deeper and more personal understanding of their subject. The ascension of the internet has revealed the outdated mentality of Australian high school. Intelligence can no longer just defined by the ability to regurgitate memorized facts because of the widespread access to search engines. Instead the incorporation of ICTs, machinery and the internet has resulted in the workforce shifting towards human capital. Thus it is increasingly important to move away from the outdated teaching format, where the teacher adopts a doctorial style of teaching. The need to foster creativity is a necessary in an age where ideas are more important than physical labour, this can be cultivated by allowing encouraging students to present their opinion to challenge a superficial approach to English.

High school education in Australia seems to be constantly outdated, sacrificing innovation to preserve tradition, highlighted in the English discipline’s obvious bias towards the technical aspects. The analysis of individual sentences or visual scenes, whilst necessary, often overshadows a more comprehensive approach to the text. In my opinion, university has a more sophisticated attitude towards English and essay writing. By providing broad and open-ended questions and by shifting the focus away from English techniques, it allows for more creative and specialised responses. By diverting away from the repetitive formula of essay writing, schools are tapping into the student’s higher order thinking, giving them the opportunity to tackle an issue or question from multiple perspectives. An example of this flexibility in the classroom situation was the university tutorial where different groups had to create a story about a bird and its victim with cardboard. It was one of the most enjoyable English lessons I have ever experienced, since we were able to personalize the story by embedding our meaning and symbolism in the visual medium.

Aristotle once famously said “those who know; do, those who understand; teach” and this has become part of my teaching philosophy as well. I feel very strongly about this and I wish to become the teacher that encourages inclusive dialectic pedagogy to further increase the students’ understanding. I’ve been tutoring since early 2013; I’ve seen firsthand the importance of trusting your students and giving them the opportunity to voice their own opinion. Likewise most of the teachers I connected with attempted to incorporate the students into their lessons, for an example, implementing the use of response cards or group discussion. The common connection in both teaching methods is the break from the standard and predictable lesson format and both are also widely supported by educational research. Classrooms which employed response cards performed much better than hand rising classrooms, with 62.2% of students receiving a 80% or more on a test, a large increase from 29.7%. Langer and Close also writes that on average, group discussion significantly improved engagement and understanding, though student generated questions had the largest impact.

In the English discipline, the effects and benefits of group discussion is widely known and accepted amongst the teachers, with 95% of teachers recognizing the benefits of formative assessment. Yet despite ACARA and the Quality Teaching Framework highlighting the necessity of student opinion and feedback, 61.1% of classes had no discussion at all and only 1 out of 54 classes averaged more than 2 minutes per day. When there is only one authoritative voice in the classroom it subconsciously promotes the idea that there is a single truth, which cannot and should be challenged. This contradicts the changing nature of the modern work force, where problems often have multiple solutions, team work and higher order thinking are usually the keys to solving such problems. Likewise by only pushing one perspective in the classroom, experimentation and making mistakes, both which are natural parts of learning, become frowned upon, since it deviates from the ‘singular truth’.

Allowing students to contribute to the classroom is important because each individual brings their own set of constructed knowledge, thus giving them a chance to contextually engage a very broad and impersonal curriculum. Research has found that the biggest connection to improved academic results is the increase in active student response, yet nearly all the teachers in my high school spent most of the lesson time on academic instruction. Active student response is different to participation which is simply being present during a classroom; active student response is defined as an observable response to instruction. Yet the average high school student spends approximately 50% of the allocated lesson time being distracted and only 1% of the classroom time responding or speaking.

Personally I wish for students to speak up during my classes because that’s a big motivator for becoming a teacher, I want to continually learn from students who have experienced different environments or perspectives. The continuous dialogue is important because it provides helpful feedback, but also I think forming a connection with the students would stop me from ‘burning out’ or losing my motivation. Because I tutor students one on one, I routinely start every lesson with a few questions about their previous week and then we end the lesson with an exchange of interesting information. The information can be facts, statistics or quotes from influential people, but it allows me to glimpse at my student’s passion and if possible attempt to incorporate their experiences or knowledge as explanations or references in my lesson. I do this because it creates a sense of mutual respect, not only do I value my student’s opinion; I am also willing to learn from them.

Being fluent in English unlocks many opportunities for an individual, it allows them to decipher and decode the world around them. Like every other language, English is a discourse with its own rules and associations, students who are unable to engage in such discourse will be alienated, stigmatized and given less opportunities in life. Thus it is important to rethink how teachers approach education, we have to adapt to the changing environment, technology is now an essential part of life and this must be reflected in education. To promote multimodality, the definition of English must be expanded; teachers need to start asking for homework in the form of videos, podcast and Prezi power points. Instead of normalizing submissive and quiet participants, our students should be encouraged to speak up; because research has consistently showing doing so will result in increased academic results, but also because it is important students know their opinion is valued. I wanted to become a teacher so that I could help make an impact upon the lives of thousands, I wanted an occupation centred around human connection and relationships. Hopefully I can be a teacher that ‘teaches smarter’ rather than ‘teaching harder’, a teacher whose infectious enthusiasm spreads beyond his classroom and into the school.