"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Friday, May 31, 2013

Understanding Learning Styles

The first distinctive feature and guiding principle of the Philippines' DepEd K to 12 basic education program is its emphasis on the learner:
"The learner is the very reason of the entire curriculum system. Who the learner is in his/her totality, how he/she learns and develops and what his/her needs are were highly considered in the making of the K to 12 curriculum framework.The holistic learning and development of the learner is its primary focus. A teacher creates a conducive atmosphere where the learner enjoys learning, takes part in meaningful learning experiences and experiences success because he/she is respected, accepted and feels safe even if in his/her learning exploration he/she commits mistakes. He/she learns at his/her own pace in his/her own learning style. He/she is empowered to make choices and to become responsible for his/her own learning in the classroom and for a lifetime." (The K to 12 Basic Education Program, March 12, 2012)
All of these sentences sound good but what these really mean and demand from an education system warrants a closer look. For example, one of the sentences above, "He/she learns at his/her own pace in his/her own learning style", is quite loaded. Learning style is associated with preference. In this specific sentence, it is quite clear that attention to learning style is made at the individual level. This is largely different from choosing activities, media for delivering lessons, pedagogical approaches based on what the subject and what the student, in general, based on age and background, demand. The latter is illustrated, for example, by expecting chemistry to be taught differently in an elementary school, compared to how it is taught in high school or college. In the former, differentiated instruction will be employed within one classroom. Recognizing this difference is important since the resources required in terms of time, effort and materials are astronomically larger in an instructional setting that caters to the individual learning styles of the students.

There are also important questions that need to be asked when considering "individual learning styles". It is unfortunate that the phrase has become a buzzword because it somehow connotes paying special attention to the student and focusing on the learner. This fashionable slogan needs to be questioned. First, what does it really mean? And secondly, is there evidence out there that suggests that considering how a student prefers to learn leads to better education results.

There are business opportunities in education and "learning styles", as one can imagine, opening doors to a wide variety of materials and resources that can be developed and sold to the public. Thus, there are now inventories or questionnaires that are supposed to provide anyone an assessment of their primary and secondary learning styles. One example is provided by learning-styles-online.com, where the following learning styles have been defined:

The Seven Learning Styles (taken from Overview of Learning Styles)
  • Visual (spatial):You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
  • Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
  • Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
  • Physical (kinesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
  • Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
  • Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
  • Solitary (intrapersonal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.
I took the test and the following is a summary of the results:

Except for "logical", my preferences are really all over the place. And I have to ask myself whether I am really logical. Preference and ability are two different things. Choosing to be logical does not necessarily mean being logical. Learning styles should not be confused with learning abilities. Abilities are developed and learned while making preferences is just a matter of choice. One may guess that preferences can be a factor to consider in engaging students. But, then again, it is perhaps only one of so many factors that can help engage a learner in a given lesson. The subject matter, the topic being covered are equally or perhaps, even more important to consider. For education, the bottom line is how much does tailoring to match individual learning styles cost and how effective it really is. A group of cognitive psychologists (Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, Robert Bjork . Learning Styles. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Volume 9, Number 3 (December 2008), pp. 105-119,<http://ejournals.ebsco.com/direct.asp?ArticleID=4F99A97E42AC70C56FC0>) provided the following answer to these questions:
"We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately."
Rohrer and Pashler reiterated the above findings in a 2012 paper with the following bullet points (Rohrer, D. and Pashler, H. (2012), Learning styles: where’s the evidence?. Medical Education, 46: 634–635. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2012.04273.x):
  • Whereas modern medicine owes much of its success to evidence-based treatments, most instructional techniques have not been subjected to empirical scrutiny.
  • At first blush, style-based instruction seems to be supported by a large empirical literature.
  • Our search of the literature on learning styles revealed that the appropriate design was used in only a handful of studies.
  • There exist a smattering of positive findings with unknown effect sizes that are eclipsed by a much greater number of published failures.
  • There presently is no empirical justification for tailoring instruction to students’ supposedly different learning styles
Rohrer and Pashler concluded, 
"In summary, there presently is no empirical justification for tailoring instruction to students’ supposedly different learning styles. Educators should instead focus on developing the most effective and coherent ways to present particular bodies of content, which often involve combining different forms of instruction, such as diagrams and words, in mutually reinforcing ways. Given the costs of assessing students’ supposed learning styles and offering differentiated instruction, this should come as good news to educators at all levels, from kindergarten through medical school."




1 comment:

  1. Hi, may I ask if the learnig style assessment that you mentioned here is valid in the Philippine setting? Thanks!

    ReplyDelete