29 September 2008

Learning Styles

What is "rain"?

Is it a word? an idea? a bit of science? something to drink? the thought of being cold? food for crops?

For me, first and foremost, it is a sound. It is a specific sound on an uninsulated roof as I lay in an attic, a Hudson's Bay Blanket pulled over my head.

Oh sure, I've learned the other concepts over the years, but at the core of my understanding "rain" is a sound, and a particular kind of moment surrounded by that sound, and every other idea of "rain" has to first go through my original way of comprehending it.

I don't know if I'm a "visual learner" or an "auditory learner." Maybe I am an "atmospheric learner" - ideas, if I am to efficiently take them in and process them, must form into a "vision" that includes many, if not all, of the senses. I am not "sensorally confused" - I do not "smell green" rather than see it - but I do picture the operations of mathematics. It makes arithmetic very hard for me but mathematical concepts much easier. And even in arithmetic I do far better without paper in front of me, those numeric symbols confuse, they are not the images I need.

On Sunday Paul Hamilton asked me to react to a YouTube presentation by Dr. Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia.

Dr. Willingham is many things I am not. He is a distinguished faculty member at one of America's most prestigious universities. He holds a Ph.D. in Psychology (from Harvard). And he seems to be a conservative educational theorist as one of his primary activities, based on a quick look through some of his publications. One of his ideas is "Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise." By "conservative" I suggest that he might be a modernist, rationalist, believer in scientism.

For Dr. Willingham might suspect me of being not only "not sufficiently credentialed," but also a dreaded "post modernist" who doubts all reality. And he might be right. But, let's first look at Dr. Willingham's assault on the notion of "Learning Styles."



Dr. Willingham does not claim any new or original research. He describes this as "summarizing about 50 years of research conducted by 100's [sic] of other investigators." And he acknowledges that very few people agree with him. Although, in truth, almost the entire educational establishment behaves as if it agrees with him.

I am not saying that Dr. Willingham is wrong in his analysis of others' work (though I commented that he didn't know what he was talking about). Within the very narrow definitions he creates of "knowledge," "comprehension," "understanding," and "learning" - all definitions unconsciously developed to match his own personal understandings of these "ideas" - he might be completely right. Of course he has chosen the studies to analyze. He has chosen how to read those studies. He has chosen the definitions of the concepts that he will study. If I say I am studying "the value of currencies over the past year," and I choose to study only the Euro and Euro-linked currencies, I will demonstrate that "the value of currencies has increased."

Where I think he runs off the rails is his attempt to use this analysis educationally. "Good teaching is good teaching," he says, providing the ultimate comfort to the unchanging lecturer or the AP classroom teacher whose students all get "4" or above after reading the book straight through. How wonderful to discover - to scientifically prove! - that a teacher need not respond to student difference in teaching.

And this is the pure colonialism of his argument. It reminds me of ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's "One City" policing strategy. From a "pure" viewpoint, why would anyone imagine that public safety needs in Crown Heights might differ from public safety needs in Greenwich Village? That is, from 5,000 feet up and looking down, as modernist scientist is trained to, humans look very similar and so do communities. Down on the ground, of course, it looks very different. Scientific Imperialism designs conceptions of humanity in ways that make a certain type of white Protestant male "the norm" - and that norm's understandings the norms.

That said, even science - hard science - can see things in other ways.

Functional MRIs (fMRIs) suggest great learning differences among humans. Since at least the Eden-NIMH study of 1996 fMRIs have shown the different people process learning in radically different ways in terms of which regions of the brain are utilized. fMRIs also indicate that learning, and ways of learning, alter the brain in definitive ways (Maguire, Woollett, and Spiers, 2006). So even if Dr. Willingham were completely correct, and all humans began with the exact same brain processing system, the evidence is very strong that that equipment is significantly varied by the time children enter school - a point in time which follows life's most rapid period of learning.

Dr. Willingham has argued with me that the brain scans prove nothing. He suggests that though different brain regions are activated differently by similar stimuli applied to different people, there is no proof that this means that "learning styles" exist. And from this negative assumption he seeks to assure teachers they may continue their industrial processing of students, as long as their processing is "good."

Which should make bad teachers everywhere happy. If a student doesn't learn, Dr. Willingham infers, it is not a mismatch of instructional strategy and learning style, it is simple the student's fault.

A long time ago there was a joke about a Microsoft engineer who joined the army. On the rifle range his target remained untouched no matter how many shots he fired. When approached by the instructor, he held his finger over the barrel and pulled the trigger, blowing his finger off.

"It's working here," he told the instructor, "the problem must be at the other end."

When I heard Dr. Willingham pronounce that "Good teaching is good teaching," that's the joke I immediately thought of.

I hope it rains tonight. I really need the sound.

- Ira Socol

27 comments:

Karen Janowski said...

What especially horrified me about this video was his final comment, "Good teaching is good teaching and good teachers do not have to adjust their teacher to individual student learning styles."
What I was most concerned about was the belief that this final statement would be seized by those who were looking for support to maintain the status quo and traditional instructional methods.
That would create a situation where many students with special needs would not have their differing learning styles accommodated for leaving them further behind their classmates.
His arguments do not address the fact that there are many students who need multiple methods of representation, engagement and expression for academic success.
I called him on this (literally, by phone) when I first saw the video - he seemed to agree with my concerns and thought he might revise the video. I can see he hasn't.

(And for me "rain" is a feeling - cold, wet, damp.)

Good post as always.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Willingham sure uses a lot of run-on sentences. Also poor word choice. But that's OK, he's not a poet. He's not an example of someone who excels at language.

When I see a negative argument like this (negative in the sense that it simply tries to disprove an argument, and doesn't offer other theory), I can't call it much besides politics. I see a man whose story is one of saying the words that will get him some attention; maybe even a gig on Fox News as an educational expert the next time there's a debate over education reform. This is, of course, pure imagination on my part, and could be totally unfair to Dr. Willingham. But that's just my style of learning: I take in the surface information and make inferences.

For me rain is the second time I went to New Orleans, and there was a light afternoon shower in the late summer. We were walking through the French Quarter, and no one cared that it was raining. People were not running for cover; the rain was light and everyone knew it would end soon. We all just got wet. There was no reason to think anyone would be dry. Social expectation transformed in an instant. After that it was still humid and we were a little soaked, but we kept walking around and laughing and enjoying ourselves.

Always a pleasure to read you, Ira. :-)

-htb

Dan said...

Ira:
The very narrow definitions of "knowledge," "comprehension," "understanding," and "learning" are not ones that I created--they are the ones used by the theories I critiqued (although I mostly share them). I met the theories on their own grounds.

I've admitted elsewhere that I wish I had phrased the last line of the video differently. I meant that *when it comes to learning styles* good teaching is good teaching. I don't believe that teachers should treat every student identically. I added a response video trying to clarify that point.

The fMRI data do not support learning styles as the theories have been proposed by their originators. You make the choice to be "Either brain activation is identical for identical tasks across people, or learning styles theories are right." That's a false dichotomy.

I agree with you that bad teachers could take what I said to reinforce bad practice. People who are bad at their jobs are often resourceful in self-justification. Nevertheless, I think it's worth letting people know that the theories, when tested on their own terms, fail.

Karen: I thought about revising the video itself but that would have rendered all the existing links dead. Our conversation is what prompted me to post the response video. Your comment implies that learning styles theories might better apply to learning disabled children. They don't. In fact, many of the first studies tested LD kids, exactly because of the hope that it would be of special use for these students.

Anonymous: It's true, this video was purely trying to persuade people that there are not data supporting learning styles theories. It seems worth it because it's so widely believed. I write a recurring column forAmerican Educator and many of those columns offer more positive messages (i.e., something beyond "Don't believe this.")

Dan

narrator said...

Dr. Willingham:

Your video disclaimer doesn't change the basic fact. You are saying, essentially, that nothing you have read proves that brain processing differences connect to the described "learning style differences." But in your search for a public audience, you are re-phrasing this to say that "learning styles do not exist" and that "learning styles are a bad way to differentiate instruction." And you offer no proof of that assertion.

It is important to remember how many unproven assumptions go into any school day. Schools, as I've discussed on this site many times, assume that reading ink on paper is the highest form of information exchange. Of course that has never been even tested, much less proven. Schools presume that students are best housed in rectangular classrooms during weekdays, another unexamined assumption. It is presumed that discrete subject instruction is valuable, despite piles of counter evidence. And it is presumed that whole class instruction has value, despite 140 years of evidence that this format serves only 1/3 of students even marginally well.

You challenge something we are just beginning to fully understand via brain research - differentiated learning styles. Now surely our theories will change and develop as we learn more, but we already know that differentiated instruction based on learning style improves educational results and students' willingness to engage in school. We've actually known this for a very long time - the entire concept of the Catholic Mass and the Catholic Cathedral is based in these ideas. So while we may not yet know that this brain region functioning in this type of learning situation means you are a visual learner, while that brain region lighting up says sound is your route, we do indeed know that as educational practice - learning style differentiated instruction works.

But truly, where your beliefs and training stop you is your hunt for a medical diagnosis for every human difference. This is "the American Way," and it is theory which abuses millions of so-called "disabled" children every day, and damages tens of millions more who fail to achieve your specific diagnoses.

So maybe, a more responsible - though much less headline grabbing - thing to say would have been: "I cannot find proof that the typically described learning style differences are formed by specific brain functional differences." No one would be debating either your scholarship or your politics if that had been your position. But then, fewer people would be watching you on YouTube.

- Ira Socol

Dan said...

[IS] Your video disclaimer doesn't change the basic fact. You are saying, essentially, that nothing you have read proves that brain processing differences connect to the described "learning style differences." But in your search for a public audience, you are re-phrasing this to say that "learning styles do not exist" and that "learning styles are a bad way to differentiate instruction." And you offer no proof of that assertion.
[DW] How many studies would you say must investigate an issue and find no effect before you're ready to say that the effect probably doesn't exist? We can't prove definitively that ESP doesn't exist. . . should we suspend judgment?

[IS] It is important to remember how many unproven assumptions go into any school day. Schools, as I've discussed on this site many times, assume that reading ink on paper is the highest form of information exchange. Of course that has never been even tested, much less proven. Schools presume that students are best housed in rectangular classrooms during weekdays, another unexamined assumption. It is presumed that discrete subject instruction is valuable, despite piles of counter evidence. And it is presumed that whole class instruction has value, despite 140 years of evidence that this format serves only 1/3 of students even marginally well.
[DW] Do you see a difference between these assumptions you list that have been utterly untested and an assumption (learning styles theories don't help) that has been exhausitvely tested.

[IS] You challenge something we are just beginning to fully understand via brain research - differentiated learning styles. Now surely our theories will change and develop as we learn more, but we already know that differentiated instruction based on learning style improves educational results and students' willingness to engage in school. We've actually known this for a very long time - the entire concept of the Catholic Mass and the Catholic Cathedral is based in these ideas. So while we may not yet know that this brain region functioning in this type of learning situation means you are a visual learner, while that brain region lighting up says sound is your route, we do indeed know that as educational practice - learning style differentiated instruction works.
[DW] How do we "we already know that differentiated instruction based on learning style improves educational results and students' willingness to engage in school." This assertion is exactly what I'm claiming we DON'T know and can be fairly confident is not true. I've posted a few citatations reviewing this research on my website. What evidence do you have in mind? You keep referring to brain research, but the only findings you've cited are ones showing that there are individual differences in brain activation and that attention modulates brain activity, neither of which support the theories.

[IS] But truly, where your beliefs and training stop you is your hunt for a medical diagnosis for every human difference. This is "the American Way," and it is theory which abuses millions of so-called "disabled" children every day, and damages tens of millions more who fail to achieve your specific diagnoses.
[DW] This statement would make more sense to me if you (1) described some evidence that learning styles exist; (2)

[IS] So maybe, a more responsible - though much less headline grabbing - thing to say would have been: "I cannot find proof that the typically described learning style differences are formed by specific brain functional differences." No one would be debating either your scholarship or your politics if that had been your position. But then, fewer people would be watching you on YouTube.
[DW] This is the same point you make in paragraph one, along with the insinuation that I'm interested more in fame than in intellectual honesty. I'm happy to have an honest intellectual exchange with you, but I do wish you would stop the personal attacks. They are not becoming.

narrator said...

Dr. Willingham:

First, I always have to be reminded that I can sound like I am attacking personally, when I am not - when it is my intention to show the shortfall of modernist thought and the academic institutional practice itself. I believe that the way academics are created, promoted, recognized in the social sciences, does indeed develop a way of thinking which leads to certain conclusions - and I believe that process is unexamined, and unaccounted for in far too many conversations of this type. So, I apologize. It is not at all personal and I shouldn't let it sound that way. It is theoretical, it is political, and I am passionate about it, but it is not personal.

That said, There are literally tens of thousands of studies demonstrating the success of differentiated instruction (a quick tour of Google Scholar results shows this), and perhaps hundreds of thousands of case studies and practitioner (teacher) observations.

Perhaps 300 to 400 of those studies relate directly to the typically described "learning styles" that you find zero evidence exist.

So, let's suppose that you are correct. That these "learning styles" have no basis in brain function and have no effect on any type of learning. But, let's also suppose that "differentiated instruction" is known to work - you even say that you wouldn't want a child of yours attending a school which did not differentiate instruction.

Taking those two concepts together, what might we suggest?

We might look into this any of these questions: What specific brain functions create learning preferences? What cultural development situations lead to specific learning preferences? What learning experiences (in school and out) tend to develop differences in learning needs? Which specific brain function patterns tend to lead to differences in learning needs? How might a teacher "dig deeper" beneath a surface understanding of "learning styles" to effectively address differing learning needs?

Or even, to tweak your YouTube presentation, "If there is no evidence that learning styles exist (in brain function, cognitively), why does differentiated instruction based on this seem to work?"

But, I guess you'll have to admit that uploading the kind of YouTube video you did, leaping from the classroom/lab to the most popular medium, and declaring that "Learning Style Theories Do Not Help" was done for a reason. You wanted to provoke a response in the general public - I know - I've written articles the same way, Google my name and "cheating" for example. And, I think it is fair to say that, as htb suggests, you have a "negative argument" - you are saying there is no evidence that "x" is true but you are not providing evidence for the claim that "good teaching is good teaching" - which you had to know would be "the quote" taken from this video.

And all of this occurs because of the fairly bizarre ways in which we debate educational practice. We strongly discount "evidence on the ground" and elevate the clinical study. We presume a medical model for educational research is possible when it is not (the double blind trial being impossible in a social science). We are forced by America's fully politicized educational structure to "bust through" the conversation clutter with overheated argument if we are to get heard.

But none of that helps our teachers or our students. They need us to help find applicable solutions which start to change that consistent 2/3 "failure" rate("failure" defined as the inability to achieve "proficiency" or finding school irrelevant). And doing that requires us to not just describe the "doesn'ts" but to recommend the alternatives.

For example, when I say "clickers are not the solution for the classroom," I might add that, "the lecture is a poor educational format in most situations anyway" but I'll add that if you are teaching in that situation I'd suggest the use of the far more interactive mobile phone text response system. I'm not just saying, "stop trying to make lectures better."

You may have written this kind of response. I don't know. I have not had a chance to read more than a couple of your articles. But please realize that more people will view your original video this year than will read all of your academic articles in your life. More will view that than will read all of your columns. Your words will have an impact on students. Is it the type of impact you want them to have?

- Ira Socol

v said...

PS rain to me is a soft sound on the roof in the afternoon when i was little and had to take a nap. it let me drift off to sleep- so it is comforting. i like this word association thing!

Dan said...

[IS]Perhaps 300 to 400 of those studies relate directly to the typically described "learning styles" that you find zero evidence exist.
[DW] That number sounds a little high to me, but you're right--there are studies that appear to support learning styles. BUT if you look a little closer you'll find that when positive findings are observed, they are almost always observed by the theoretician himself or herself, and other labs cannot replicate the findings. Rita Dunn reports dozens of studies supporting the VAK distinction, all from her lab, most of them unpublished. I'm not saying that Dunn and others are doing anything dishonest, but it's well established that it's all too easy to fool yourself when you are " a believer." You consistently see the same thing in studies of reading strategies--effect sizes for experimenter-generated reading tests are about twice what they are on standardized reading tests. (I fully accept that I'm susceptible to the same bias--we all are. That's the point of peer review). The American Psychological Association put together a panel to evaluate the evidence to support learning styles--their report is not out yet, but I understand it will draw the same conclusion.

I actually don't discount "evidence on the ground" at all, and in fact I think that a teacher's experience is probably the most important guide in differentiating instruction. I think that exactly because I don't believe that cognitive and educational psychologists have anything that can help teachers much in this case. As to exalting the laboratory, I think we probably overlap more than you suspect on this issue. The only other video I've posted on YouTube is basically about the limitations of applying neuroscience and cognitive psychology to educational practice.

Returning to a point you made earlier in this post and in some other posts. . .I know enough about the history of western thought only to know that I'm pretty ignorant on these matters. If you were to recommend a few introductory sources for someone like me on the shortfall of modernist thought, what would you suggest that I read? (Recognizing, of course, the more concise they are, the more likely that I'll actually read 'em :) )

v said...

dan, if i could show you a 4th grade girl who is first taught a letter and its sound the traditional way through rote repetition and is unable to recall the sound after 20 attempts of equal time length vs being successfully taught a different letter and its sound with the same amount of repetitions for the same time length, but using visual and kinesthetic memory cues to the letter and its sound- would you acknowledge that teaching to her learning style: viusal/kinestheitc is superior to an only visual/auditory approach? without the kinesthetic element, her recall of a letter sound is zero. i think her example is similar to things i have read about stroke patients trying to use other parts of their brains to compensate for damaged areas. would you do away with all these rehabilitative techniques used for stroke patients? nuf said.

Dan said...

v said
if i could show you a 4th grade girl who is first taught a letter and its sound the traditional way through rote repetition and is unable to recall the sound after 20 attempts of equal time length vs being successfully taught a different letter and its sound with the same amount of repetitions for the same time length, but using visual and kinesthetic memory cues to the letter and its sound- would you acknowledge that teaching to her learning style: viusal/kinestheitc is superior to an only visual/auditory approach?

Ah, but that's not the prediction of the theory. It might be that the visual/kinesthetic is best for all children, and that's the reason it clicked for the student, not because she's a kinesthetic learner. The theory predicts that some children will learn best with visual/auditory and some children will learn best with visual/kinesthetic. And importantly, that if you take the kids who learn this task best as visual/auditory, they will learn other tasks better when they are presented as visual/auditory (compared to giving that child the task as visual/kinesthetic).

A bunch of studies like that have been done specifically on beginning readers. You don't observe the predicted effect. Some of the early ones (14 of them) are summarized in this article

Arter, J. A. & Jenkins, J. R. (1977)Examining the benefits and prevalence of modality considerations in special education. The Journal of Special Education, 11 277-298

Therapies that are effective for disabled patients are not always the most effective for people with intact brains. I wouldn't use the visual presentation for a blind person or the kinesthetic for someone with peripheral neuropathy, but that doesn't mean that the theory applies to people without disablity.

Dan

narrator said...

Oh Dr. Willingham,

Please tell me you didn't just use this phrase. "Therapies that are effective for disabled patients are not always the most effective for people with intact brains."

Many of us, classified as disabled" by psychologists, feel quite strongly that our brains are fully "intact."

I know you come from the field that brought us "the medical model of disability," but even so, that's unbelievable language from any educator.

I'm working on a short reading list for you - because I surely do appreciate the question - and now I think I'll add a piece by Tom Shakespeare that we give to undergrads here.

More later, gotta teach.

Ira Socol

vera said...

dan said: I wouldn't use the visual presentation for a BLIND person or the kinesthetic for someone with peripheral neuropathy, but that doesn't mean that the theory applies to people without disablity.

Vera says: this girl is like a blind person and you are like a teacher telling her to write a letter that she can't see. that kinesthetic element is CRITICAL in a way that it isn't for the vast majority of children. i know because she is the first and only one i've taught in 10 years that absolutely could not recall a letter sound without learning a picture with an associated hand movement to encode the sound. do you get it? For some kids addressing their specific learning style MAKES OR BREAKS whether they retain what they are learning.

Dan said...

I meant a specific type of disability, namely one with a known neural pathology, like blindness or peripheral neuropathy. I apologize to any who I offended. . the term "intact brain" is frequently used in cognitive neuroscience to make clear that you're talking about a brain that has not suffered damage due to stroke, disease, etc.

vera said...

make or break make or break make or break make or
make or break make or break make or break make or
make or break make or break make or break make or
make or break make or break make or break make or
make or break make or break make or break make or

don't be alarmed

nuf said

narrator said...

last thought till after class... but there are dozens of good studies showing the impact of these differing methods on dyslexic students (and different ones for different students). Are their brains "intact." And if not, are the brains of the 2/3 of American students who fail to learn to read proficiently (as NAEP describes it) also "not intact"?

But ok, does your opinion on learning styles require that we first sort out the "non-intact" brains from the "intact" brains?

It's a serious question. What is your "normal" here?

- Ira Socol

Dan said...

Vera
My comment earlier about differentiating instruction is relevant--if a teacher finds a method of instruction that works for a study, naturally he or she should use it. The difference is taking the experience of this only-one-you've-seen-in-ten-years student and assuming that she's characteristic of most students.

Ira
Can you cite some of the dozens of studies showing evidence that accounting for learning styles among dyslexics is useful? I was not sure that I had read this literature as completely as I ought to and so a couple of weeks ago I put this question to my colleague John Lloyd and he agreed pretty flatly. Larger point: to my knowledge, using learning styles is no more effective with LD kids.
Dan

KarenJanowski said...

Dan,
You are losing me in this conversation. Where are you going with this? When you say, "Larger point: to my knowledge, using learning styles is no more effective with LD kids," is your point that one-size-fits-all IS effective for everyone? And what do you mean by "effective?"
Do you acknowledge that learning style DIFFERENCES exist?

Our schools are built upon a lecture-based, print-based teacher centric model that "works" for some of our students. For many, this method teaches to their challenges. Auditorally presented information is not the way they learn and consequently, school becomes a tremendous challenge.
I believe that "accounting for learning style (differences) among dylexics is" incredibly useful. And to not do so creates an environment of failure for many students, an appalling and disturbing reality.
(And please don't call them "LD kids" - they are kids with learning differences). I would even propose that if we taught using principles of UDL, (multiples methods of engagement, representation and expression) we would not need to identify kids as having learning disabilities.
Are you familiar with the work at CAST? http://cast.org/research/index.html If so, where does their work fit in with your beliefs?

vera said...

dan, i think it is about time we found common ground and get out of the nit picky forest. good teaching means we teach using as many forms of sensory input as the material allows so we can try to reach everyone. when we find a student needs more than what we are doing- we accommodate them. good teaching is definitely not lecture style teacher talks, kids listen passively. maybe teacher throws up a couple interesting power point images, kids listen passively. tell me about what you think good teaching is for the classes you have taught. did you ever change your strategy? what did you do?

Dan said...

Karen
Here's what I meant. There are different ways that one can try to understand why a child is having difficulty learning to read or learning mathematics when the same methods are helping other kids. Some of these ways try to use what we understand about the processes by which kids who are not having trouble learning do it. So we might try to do a cognitive analysis of the process of reading: for example, successful readers first learn process X and process Y then they learn process Z, and so forth. So perhaps kids having trouble aren't getting process X and need a different way of learning it. Maybe the problem with X is organic, maybe it isn't, etc. But this is primarily a deficit model--something is wrong with process X.

An altogether different class of model would say "no, no, it's not a matter of problem with a cognitive component of reading. rather, different people have different styles of learning. Different styles (e.g., linear vs. sequential) can usually get the same work done, so unlike the deficit model, a reading problem isn't really a matter of something missing. Rather, the input or the way of thinking about reading is a bad fit for this child. And quite probably the bias for or preference for this style is stronger in this child than in other learner, so when the lesson is a bad fit for the learner's style, this child can't switch to a different, less-preferred style as easily as other students.

That's my understanding of how one might take the idea of learning styles and try to use it to help one understand why some children have difficulty reading, or learning math, etc. So the question is "what would be a characterization of 'styles' that would provide some help and useful approaches to teaching these kids?" That's where my claim comes in--I'm claiming that this was a neat idea of how to think about learning differences that did not pan out.

It does not follow from a rejection of learning styles that one-size-fits all is the way to go. It follows that we need to find other ways to help us understand how different kids learn.

Vera: I agree!
What do I do for my classes? Hard to summarize briefly. I teach two types of clasess--the large courses (about 350 students) where I find it very hard to do more than lecture, with occasional, feeble attempts at small group work. I also teach seminars, usually about 20 students. There I am able to do much more and I usually include many different formats: projects (group and solo), debates, student presentations. . . . I do change strategies frequently. . .basically, if something I've done doesn't work I seek advice from others who have done it to try to better understand where it went wrong and how to change. Sometimes student feedback is helpful in this regard.

narrator said...

OK, It will take me a few attempts to discuss all this, but let me begin.

First, we are witnessing a classic modernist/postmodernist standoff - as it occurs in the real world, especially as it has repeatedly occurred since the arrival of BushAmerica and NCLB and the publication of "Scientific Research in Education." That is, on one side you have social scientists pretending to be physical scientists (and badly misrepresenting the scientific method in the process - "those guys in your building," a chemistry prof said, "always forget the first step in the scientific method, where you climb up the mountain and look around.") and on the other side you have practitioners working in a post-modern world where absolute truths are fundamentally elusive and where evidence NOT based in individual responses, that is, large group evidence, is worthless.

The essential nature of "scientific research methods" is that the goal is to get as far away from any particular human response as possible. As I said, the 5,000 feet up view, where you can start to average "human A" and "human B" and "human C" and come up with "an average human experience" which you can then put into SPSS and print out a result.

Everything about these research methods strips away the human experience. Terms and definitions become so tightly controlled as to no longer bear any relation to our general understanding of language. Vast amounts of data must be excluded. Actual experiences are tossed out and replaced with artificially created measuring structures in the name of control. Human differences are formulaically hidden, even - to use a term I consider "hate speech" when applied to educational research - declared to be "outliers."

Dr. Willingham is right. Much research is flawed. Much is conducted by people with something to gain from finding positive results. To support him in this (my "Senator McCain is right" moment for this debate), I'll note that I've been a brutal critic of the research for Johns Hopkins' "Success for All" reading program, which I find fatally marred by self-interest and what truly is fraudulent inclusion/exclusion of relevant data.

But...

The work of Bransford, Dunn, Bruno do "prove" the efficacy of learning styles-based instruction in the classroom. So do studies like Sharp, J. E., Harb, J. N., & Terry, R. E. “Combining Kolb Learning Styles and Writing to Learn in Engineering Classes,” Journal of Engineering Education, Vol. 86, No. 2, 1997, pp. 93 – 101. and Hein, T. L. “Learning Style Analysis in a Calculus-Based Introductory Physics Course,” AnnualConference of the American Society for Engineering Education, 1995, Anaheim, CA.

As does work by Stephen Denig, and the excellent efforts of Ken Jennings, Brendan Tangey, and Declan Kelly at Trinity College - Dublin (often getting "unexpected" results, but always finding the next research question in their data).

Work at CAST, at the CALL Centre in Edinburgh both suggest the effectiveness of these practices with all learners - but particularly with "learners who traditionally struggle with school" (perhaps a better phrase than "without intact brains").

Much of this might seem to Dr. Willingham to be "research lite." But rigorous research need not be limited to single type of data collection. Rigorous research can observe real students in real situations. It can involve a wide range of complex and affective measures. It can ask the opinions of learners. It can be performed by practitioners themselves - see one of my favorite collections of this at http://www.evaluation.icttestbed.org.uk/learning

Anyway, the way this all plays out here is this. In order to do his research, and in order for the research he is quoting to be done, Dr. Willingham must define an "average student." And to define this average student he must define everything about that student into a fictional "norm." This process does tend to exclude all the students "we" know. Next he must define both learning and knowledge in similarly tight ways. If he didn't, these numbers could not fit into statistical analysis. He has never here, for example, responded to the way I began this post - with my understanding of the "idea" of "rain." This cannot be measured and it cannot be compared with Vera's or htb's conceptions of rain, so, in his world of scholarship, while it may be "data" of some sort, it will not be collected or analyzed. This, Dr. Willingham, is one fundamental shortcoming of modernism, but a later response will deal with that more deeply.

So his results do not care that Vera, or thousands of other teachers, see definitive results with certain students through the use of kinesthetic practices - nor do his results care that this was ineffective for a kid like me who needed words to be pictures. Classroom results are not important in this research ethic, only lab results and standardized test numbers.

This is not necessarily a problem. It is fine for Dr. Willingham to publish a paper for psychological researchers which says, "I'm not finding any evidence that "learning styles as educators know them" actually operate as suspected. That's a good thing to do. If it's true, it suggests important avenues of future brain research. This is how a research community builds and reviews knowledge.

But that is not what Dr. Willingham did. Instead he went very public with an attack on an effective educational practice - an incredibly non-nuanced attack - very much, as htb suggests, as if auditioning for a slot as the ed commentator on FoxNews. This is where the question of "the responsible writing of research" becomes important. Because we are not debating whether cold fusion happened in a test tube in Indiana here, we're talking about how children will be treated on Monday morning when they go to school.

Dr. Willingham sounds like a very "certain" person. I, by nature, am an "uncertain" person. My forays into public conversations on education (mobile phones in the classroom, tech use in education, privacy in university mental health care) have all favored expanding practices, they have all been geared toward "positive" experimentation - suggesting new things to try. This is because, I always start by saying, "if this is working for your students, keep doing it, but if it is not working for your students, why not..."

This is why I said to Dr. Willingham that our differences were both "theoretical and political." Our theories of how we will understand human learning are very different. Our ideas of the politics of speaking about education are very different. Even our understandings of what "concept" and "learning" are different. Which I suspect might "prove" my initial point, but I doubt that he will see it that way.

That said... amazing conversation. Quite amazing.

- Ira Socol

Paul Hamilton said...

This is an amazing conversation indeed! I'm glad I asked Ira for his response to Dan's video.

I have NOT read the research about learning styles. I only know what I have experienced and observed in the classrooms where I have been the teacher, and in the countless classrooms where I have been an observer.

In all of my experience as an educator over the past 30 years, I have observed that what is generally regarded as "good teaching" for the relatively few students who "succeed" (get good grades and move "up" through the school system)is definitely not good teaching for the much larger number of students who are not successful. The very same "good teaching" that effectively meets the learning needs of the small minority of learners who are successful is harmful and ineffective teaching for the majority because it fails to meet unique individual learning needs. Indeed, I have concluded that on balance our educational system does more harm than good.

Last week I was diagnosed with a form of cancer. There are about 20,000 people across North America who receive the same diagnosis each year. I haven't yet met with an oncologist to discuss treatment options. When I do, I very much hope the oncologist does not subscribe to a belief that "good treatment is good treatment" as determined simply by his or her interpretation of "the research". I hope my oncologist will recognize that the set of variables in my body and in my context are unique to me, and that effective treatment will require accounting for my unique treatment needs and challenges.

All of my experience, my clinical observations if you will, tell me that each learner in every classroom is unique, with a specific set of variables and learning needs. Regardless of what the research might indicate, or how it might be interpreted, I think that "learning styles" is a useful practical construct that helps me as a teacher to remember that truly good and effective teaching requires that I be aware of the diversity of learning needs in my classroom as I approach every "lesson".

--Paul

narrator said...

Paul, wow, please take care. My thoughts, and I know many others, are with you.

I'll also say that your medical analogy is exactly right. I often say that even the surest things in medicine - take penicillin for example - it will cure 90% of people, but it won't do anything for 5%, and another 5% it might kill. The "average" response does little for the practitioner when faced with a patient. It does do "something" - but not enough for a good doctor to begin treatment absent other information.

Likewise, we still know very little about the how and why of aspirin working, but we see that it does work. This does not mean we pull aspirin off the shelves until we figure out how birch bark impacts human/great ape pain response. It means we keep studying.

But understand, neither you nor I are searching for "provable truths" as "modernists" are. We are searching for concepts of how humans operate, think, learn, engage so that we can better understand and perhaps help. We are looking for tools which might help, even if it helps just that 1 of 100 "outlier." It's a different world view. A different understanding of what is important in our work.

Again, take care. Wishing you the absolute best.

- Ira Socol

Michael Cushman said...

Hi There

I agree with Dr. Williams basic point, the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning style model does not hold up in scientific studies. I have worked in accelerated learning for a while and hold a patent in learning. I researched this in detail in order to determine whether to include this idea in a learning product. I found no scientific basis for the claim.

Some studies show that people have preferences, but none show that giving people the information in their preferred modality had any learning effect.

There are differences in learning style. For example, some people move toward rewards while others are more motivated to avoid mistakes. This has to do with dopamine levels or sensitivity.

I could go on and on, about learning, however the basic point is correct. The visual, auditor, kinesthetic learner model is pretty much nonsense. Most of the sensory processing in the brain is visual. Try learning not getting hit by a bus with your eyes closed.

I for one would like to throw the whole theory under a bus and have teachers focus on real issues.

I disagree with Dr. W. somewhat when he says teaching is primarily about cognition (meaning). He's right, but that's not what teachers should be doing. Student's should show up already having read the assignment and teaches should focus on practical application of the knowledge...

A very different topic indeed.

narrator said...

Michael:

This is a strange comment since you include the defibitive statement, "There are differences in learning style." So, according to your theory, if a person was more engaged by moving - thus altering dopamine levels - they would indeed be a "kinestheic learner," while a person whose dopamine levels responded to music... well, there you go.

But neither you nor Dr. Willingham answers the questions - including, why do different people process the same learning tasks with different brain regions? What does that suggest? And why do different students respond to differing forms of instruction?

I really do not remember anyone necessarily claiming that learning styles are genetic. But we do see these differences in students every day.

Perhaps this is a bit like the Copernicus issue. He insisted that the planets moved in circles. The science sure looked good on paper, but the Jesuits said that simply looking at the planets proved that they did not move in circles. Which was also good science - even if their explanation was not good. Eventually the two theories needed another explanation.

- Ira Socol

Dan said...

this is weird. . .I posted a response yesterday, but it didn't show up.
I came here to mention this:
Ira, here's a quote from one of your posts: I always start by saying, "if this is working for your students, keep doing it, but if it is not working for your students, why not..."
Here's a quote from a book I've written, coming out in March '09
Your experience in the classroom is your best guide—whatever works, do again;, whatever doesn’t, discard.

v said...

our thoughts are with you paul- harness your obvious intelligence to help yourself heal

Dan said...

I’m uncertain as to exactly where you stand. The first three paragraphs of your post seem to criticize the scientific method in general, but you cite with approval in later paragraphs work that you believe supports learning styles theories which are straightforward studies of the sort that I’m accustomed to seeing.

Many of your criticisms of scientific methods center on ecological validity—the extent to which the conditions in a study approximate the conditions in the world that they are supposed to represent. Most of my criticisms of the work that claims to support learning styles center on internal validity—the extent to which the experiment was sensibly designed so that we can reasonably draw the conclusions that the study was designed to investigate. In my reading of the literature the well-designed studies quite consistently fail to support learning styles theories. Some of these studies are lab studies far removed from classroom situations. Many are not—they were conducted in classrooms, by teachers, using materials similar or identical to those used in classrooms.

Most of what you’ve characterized as “my view of science” is not. It’s my view of poor science.

I think I need to better understand your background assumptions to better understand some of your claims. What you describe as a classic modernist/postmodernist standoff sounds to me like a typical dispute about which studies to believe. When you claim that “In order to do his research, and in order for the research he is quoting to be done, Dr. Willingham must define an "average student."” I have no idea why you would claim this.

I might better understand you views if you explained how you think that science relates to practice in education.

The other major you point you made concerned my “going public” with my claims via a YouTube video, with the implication that, because I’m wrong, this was irresponsible and damaging. In my experience, that’s how the free exchange of ideas works. I post my views, and if people find them ill-informed they probably won’t watch, and if my errors irritate people they will criticize my views in other YouTube videos, blogs and other outlets.

And to Paul, my best wishes.

Dan