Trying to explain something is never as effective as seeing the actual thing you're trying to explain. With that in mind I recommend everyone rush over and listen to KKCL's new TEFL podcast in particular their latest episode in which they decided to tackle, -yes you guessed it, -learning styles. I recommend it not for the high production quality, friendly style and soothing tone of host Phil Keegan, but rather as a fantastic insight into why learning styles are so popular.
Me me me!
One reason for its popularity is that it's about our favourite topic, namely us. Everyone likes to think they are unique and special, when the truth is, we share a lot of characteristics. However, subjective validation means it's possible to see something personally meaningful and accurate in statements which are neither. Nowhere is this clearer than in episode 5 of KKCL's podcast.
Guest Marjorie Rosenberg starts off with an anecdote about her learning experiences and how teachers in high school French class destroyed her motivation by not letting her visualise vocab. she then talks about how learning German was aided by carrying a dictionary around and looking at the words.
Next host Phil jumps in to let us know he's a auditory learner and is very excited to learn it's the minority 'style'. He then tell us about how his students used to complain because he didn't write vocab on the board, as he was an auditory learner and so didn't need to see the words.
When Marjorie tells us about a further four styles of learner (in total she lists 2x4x4 possible types), and describes one of them as being someone who hates reading instruction manuals, to which Phil excitedly notes "that's like me!"
Later the hosts of the podcast talk about what kind of learner they are and one recounts his experience learning Japanese with a book which showed the characters being related to pictures.
Finally although not strictly in the podcast, commentator Anna perfectly exemplifies how learning styles can have an attractive personal significance. After thanking Phil and his crew for the podcast she notes "I’m personally visual, analytic and definitely paying lots of attention to emotions and raport in the classroom".
Subjective validation goes hand in hand with confirmation bias which leads us to look for evidence that backs up our beliefs and dismiss evidence which contradicts them. Every single human being instinctively does this and it's why the scientific method, which seeks to falsify things, is so valuable. In the examples above we can see Phil and Marjorie finding confirmation of their beliefs in learning styles, but then they're not looking to disprove them.
One example of confirmation bias is that Phil believes not writing words on the board is evidence he's not a visual learner, but many teachers don't write words up on the board either and this has nothing to do with learning styles -it might just be inexperience or plain laziness. He also thinks not reading instruction manuals makes him a certain type of learner but could it not just be that manuals are dull? After all, research suggests no one reads them.
Phil also manages to find confimation of learning styles in his messy office. He's not visual so he doesn't see the mess. Oddly he later claims he's a bit kinaesthetic as walking around "helps [him] to think".
Similarly Marjorie ascribe her failure to learn French to the teacher not allowing her to visualise words, and similarly her success in learning German to carrying a dictionary around and being able to look at the words. Now call me a dirty old cynic but is living and working in a foreign country really comparable to taking a language class in high school? If I were looking at the possible factors that made a difference, "the right learning style" would be pretty low on my list.
Another example of confirmation bias at work is demonstrated by the commentator Anna. The total lack of evidence supporting learning styles is characterised by her as "supposedly limited scientific evidence of their efficacy". She found the podcast very enjoyable presumably because it reinforced her opinion. If you believe in learning styles, then you can find anecdotal evidence for them everywhere.
Finally Learning styles can be a great way to excuse failure. As with the example above, it wasn't the fact that hardly anyone masters a language in high school that caused the problem but not being allowed to learn in the right way. It would be nice if there was a secret method that could 'unlock' learning and make our students better at languages, but sadly life doesn't work like that.
If someone wants to believe in something they will believe in it, damn the evidence. This was brought home to me again this week by the story of a woman who (it seems) sincerely believes she can live off sunlight. As long as there is Breatharianism the battle against learning styles will be a tough one.
It's clear from the get go that the host Phil and guest Marjorie are friends, so perhaps it's not surprising that there are no tough questions, (like how kinaethetic and audio style teachers are supposed to deal with Marjorie's book which is clearly visual-centric with its words and pictures and stuff, tsk tsk!) . The only time any criticism are broached at all is when Marjorie defends learning styles against the claim that they pigeon-hole students. It's really interesting to me that proponents of learning styles seem so worried by this claim, but not at all worried by their being no research support for LS theory.
The EFL world needs a good podcast so I hope Phil and his crew will deal a bit more critically with topics like this in the future. If you would like to listen a podcast which makes a good job of dealing with learning styles, then try this one.