Beware False Profits of Easy Learning

published 9 September 2016 updated 9 September 2016

By Stephen Dinham, University of Melbourne, Australia

Television shopping channels and online selling are dominated by products that promise much. Lose weight with a miracle diet, get a perfect body with only a few minutes of daily exercise using some piece of equipment, clean your bathroom in seconds, vacuum the house like never before, start your car with a tiny battery, produce super food from a few ingredients, cut through steel with a magic kitchen knife, and so the list goes on, usually with a complementary set of non-stick saucepans included.

We live in an age where minimising effort is prized and there are plenty of corporations that are only too ready to separate us from our money in return for making our life ‘easier’. Why should education, one of the biggest markets of all, be exempt from such profiteering?

In education, rightly, we want to do the best thing for our students and improve school performance and anything that promises to assist us in this regard is attractive.

In health there are well-established protocols that govern the introduction of any new drug or treatment. Of major consideration is the notion of doing no harm. In education there are no such controls and plenty of vested interests keen to see the adoption of new strategies and resources for a variety of ideological and financial reasons.  Educators therefore need to be ‘critical consumers of research’ [1] – as with medicine lives are also at stake – yet with the best will in the world and without the knowledge and time to do so, decisions may be made to adopt new approaches that are not only ineffectual, but can actually do harm.

A case in point is learning styles. The notion of the existence of learning styles has been around since the 1970s, with there now being more than 70 extant models ranging from early childhood, to higher education, to business.  Probably the best known is the ‘Auditory’, ‘Visual’ and ‘Kinesthetic’ typology of learners. Learning styles has become a vast, lucrative industry with inventories, manuals, video resources, in-service packages, websites, publications and workshops.

However. psychologists and neuroscientists agree there is little efficacy for these models, which rest on dubious evidential grounds.  If learning styles exist at all, they are at most preferences, and what we prefer is neither fixed for all time nor what is necessarily best for us. It would be just as effective to teach students according to their horoscope.

Stahl has commented on the lack of empirical support for the existence of learning styles:

‘The reason researchers roll their eyes at learning styles is the utter failure to find that assessing children’s learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning.’ [2]

Yet as Scott has observed: ‘Failure to find evidence for the utility of tailoring instruction to individuals’ learning styles has not prevented this term from being a perennial inclusion in discussions about and recommendations on pedagogy. It also continues to influence what teachers do in their day-to-day work. Practitioners from preschool to university level attempt to apply the theory in classrooms, administering the unreliable tests, criticised by so many, to their students, using the results as a guide to classroom practice and encouraging or requiring students to apply the results to understanding, controlling and explaining their own learning.’ [3]

References to learning styles still abound in many curriculum documents at system and school level, despite the lack of evidence for their existence or efficacy. When I have pointed this out to educators, the usual response is that ‘it doesn't matter’. However, it does matter, because of the problems and harm that can be caused by the categorisation, labelling and limiting of learning experiences of students through the continued belief in and application of so-called learning styles, not to mention the time and money wasted.

A further example of an expensive yet unproved inclusion in schools is so-called ‘brain training’. One of the best known is ‘Brain Gym’ which is purported to be an ‘educational kinesiology’ tool which is targeted especially at students with learning difficulties.  (See also the ‘Arrowsmith Program’ which makes similar claims. There are many others).

Stephenson reviewed the research evidence on ‘perceptual motor programs:

" Brain Gym® is one perceptual motor program that is used in schools .... There is little evidence to support the claims made about the benefits of Brain Gym® … its theoretical underpinning has been subject to criticism by neuroscientists. … Although education departments and others responsible for providing advice and professional development to teachers espouse research-based practice, they continue to endorse and support the use of Brain Gym®.’ [4]

The massive publisher Pearson is also attempting to dominate this field through ‘Cogmed’, its computerized memory training program.  However research and experience in the field has shown that such quick fixes to improve student learning have questionable outcomes.

‘Developmental-behavioural pediatrician Professor Gehan Roberts … tested the literacy and numeracy skills and behaviour of 1723 students who used Cogmed and found that after two years their abilities were "almost identical" to those who had not used the product. 

"It's very tempting to find an off-the-shelf product that has the promise of fixing complex problems," Professor Roberts said.[5]

By all means we should cater for individual differences in student learning. This is best achieved through ‘knowing our students as learners and people’ [6], thorough on-going assessment, constructive feedback and targeted, evidence-based teaching strategies.

However looking for short-cuts in learning, especially when these are expensive ones, is counter-productive and even harmful. Ultimately,

learning is done by the learner

, with the assistance and guidance of well-trained and supported teachers.

[1] Dinham, S.  (2016). Leading Learning and Teaching[2] Stahl, S.  (1999). ’Different Strokes for Different Folks? A critique of learning styles’, American Educator, Fall, pp. 1-5.  (p. 1)  [3] Scott, C.  (2010).  ‘The Enduring Appeal of ‘Learning Styles’’, Australian Journal of Education, 54(1), pp. 5-17. (p. 8)  [4] Stephenson, J. (2009). ‘Best Practice? Advice Provided to Teachers about the Use of Brain Gym® in Australian Schools’, Australian Journal of Education, 53(2), pp. 109-124.(p. 109).   [5] Jacks, T. (2016). ‘Schools turn to brain training despite little evidence that X marks the spot’, The Age, 13/8/16, p. 9. http://www.theage.com.au/national/schools-turn-to-brain-training-despite-little-evidence-that-x-marks-the-spot-20160812-gqr63j.html  [6] Dinham, S. (2016), pp. 20-23.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.