Learning styles Professor Frank Coffield, of the London University Institute of Education, questions the usefulness of teaching children according to the DfES-endorsed ‘learning styles’ approach. he term ‘learning styles’ has become part of the everyday vocabulary of many teachers and the approach has received official endorsement from the DfES’s national strategy for Key Stage 3, which recommends that teachers should identify the preferred learning styles of all pupils:
Research indicates that in general 35 per cent of people are mainly visual learners, 40 per cent of people are mainly kinaesthetic learners and only 25 per cent are mainly auditory (DfES, 2004:27)
However, the DfES publication gives no detail of the research in question, so it is difficult for teachers to follow up or question the assertion. Moreover, such a simplistic conclusion is not supported by the large, complex and contested body of research. In his article, Learning Styles: help or hindrance? Professor Coffield seeks to oppose such dogmatic claims, which he feels have little or no basis in evidence and which may be doing harm to students of all ages by labelling them inappropriately. His report describes a systematic and critical review of learning styles and their implications for methods of teaching, carried out by a team of four researchers over a period of 18 months. The four key questions they set out to answer were: What are the leading models of learning styles and what are potentially the most influential? What empirical evidence is there to support the claims made for these models? What are their implications for teaching methods? What empirical evidence is there that these models of learning styles have an impact on students’ learning? The researchers selected 13 of the most influential models of learning styles from the 70 that they came across. The criteria they decided upon to select particular theorists to study were: the approach was widely quoted; the model March 2006
was based on an explicit theory; the model was representative of the literature; the theory has led to further research by others; the learning style questionnaire has been widely used by teachers and managers. In the two reports produced by the researchers, Should We Be Using Learning Styles? and Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post16 Learning, the researchers described briefly the design of each model. They then provided details of its reliability and validity as given by the originators and compared these with the findings of independent researchers. They found the research field of learning styles both extensive and conceptually confusing, so they ordered the 13 models into a continuum, according to their main theoretical stance. At the left hand of the continuum were theorists with strong beliefs about the influence of genetics on fixed, inherited traits, who contend that learning styles should be worked with rather than changed. Theorists at the right hand of the continuum pay greater attention to both personal factors such as motivation, and environmental factors such as social learning.
learning styles. Recommendations
Some valuable features did emerge from the research. Instead of being assigned a particular learning style, it would be more beneficial for students to appreciate the relative advantages and weaknesses of a range of different styles. The aim for teachers would be not only to study how students learn but to show them how to enhance their learning by developing a flexible repertoire of approaches to learning rather than settling for just one. Professor Coffield recommends discussing different approaches to learning (e.g. building an overview, looking for concrete examples or memorising the main points); different orientations to learning (e.g. self-improvement, vocational interest or to prove competence); different models of learning (e.g. dialogue with experts, to apply knowledge or to pass exams); and different e