June is an important month for Learning and Development (L&D). It’s Debunk Learning Styles month. It’s important for the profession, and it’s important to each of us individually in L&D because it brings up a key question.
Do you want to be liked, or do you want to make a difference?
This idea for this theme for June came from the Debunker Club, an online group run by – among others – Dr Will Thalheimer who has served our profession well in the past. As well as his work on spaced learning, Will has shown that the much repeated claim that you remember just 10% of what you read versus 80% of what you do is spurious nonsense. (It’s a ghastly corruption of Dale’s Cone.)
The aim of the Debunk Club is to move the L&D profession from pseudoscience such as Learning Styles to more rigorous theories, backed by experimental data.
We shouldn’t need a Debunk Learning Styles month at all. Coffield et al (2004) and Pashler et al (2009) have already done the research. Pashler et al in their report summary say this:
We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice.
while on their website, Coffield at al say this:
… we found little good evidence to suggest that teaching influenced by the idea of learning styles has a significant effect on achievement or motivation.
Baldly put: Learning Styles are pointless rubbish.
So, why do L&D professionals continue to use them, and to reference them?
I think there are three reasons
First, they fill a vacuum in a field that until now has been bereft of much decent experimental science to guide it. That is no longer the case. We have probably learned as much about the workings of the brain in the past 15 years as we ever knew beforehand.
Second, they are entrenched because too often it pays somebody that this nonsense on stilts be believed. On page 144 of the seminal meta-analysis on learning styles, Frank Coffield et al put this very well: “… fortunes are being made as instruments, manuals … and workshops are all commercially advertised and promoted vigorously by some of the leading figures in the field”.
Finally, they are accepted because as a profession we are too keen to be liked rather than to be critical. We almost never ask “What’s your source? Where’s the research?” when someone wheels out another of these pseudoscientific canards.
We can’t do much about the first cause. We can’t add to the body of science, although we should certainly read it.
We can’t do much to stop people making money out of Learning Style instruments, apart from refusing to use their systems.
We can, however, challenge.
And this is where I ask: do you want to make a difference, or do you want to be liked?
I believe that we are too inclined in L&D to avoid conflict, to believe that everyone should have their say. But we cannot sit on the fence with Learning Styles and other learning myths, because this matters.
It matters because you are known by the company you keep, and if we mindlessly repeat these old saws, then we are no better than any charlatan who deliberately repeats them only to make money. Ignorance – in the L&D community of all places – can never be a defence.
It matters because until we take ourselves seriously enough to root out this nonsense, we cannot expect anyone else to take us seriously.
It matters most of all because bad theory will inevitably lead to bad practice.
Challenging someone’s use of Learning Styles does not have to mean a personal attack. It does not have to mean confrontation. It can be done as simply as asking, politely: “Excuse me, what’s your source for that? Because Coffield (2004), Pashler (2009) and others found no scientific basis for Learning Styles.”
It doesn’t have to be rude or personal. But it does have to be done.
Please, help raise the standing of our profession, and its standards, by being an honest friend to colleagues. If we allow Learning Styles and other myths to influence our work, it will lead to bad practice. Yes, you might not be liked – for a short while – if you challenge the notion. But you will be improving our work as a whole.
The next time someone mentions Learning Styles, ask yourself the question: do you want to be liked, or to make a difference?