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TORONTO, Ont. /Troy Media/ – In an open letter published in The Guardian recently, a sizable group of educators and neuroscientists expressed their displeasure with how teachers misunderstand and misuse neuroscience to support bogus educational practices.
They were speaking specifically about the theory of learning styles. Widely practised among educators, learning style theory argues that people learn differently, each according to his or her neurobiology and preferred way of learning.
Classrooms built around this theory of learning tailor lessons to each individual. If Bobby is a visual learner, show him pictures. If Sally is an auditory learner, get her singing. If Ali is fidgety, he’s probably a kinetic learner, so get him moving.
Learning style theory has been around for decades and subject to ridicule for just as long. The more caustic critiques go something like this: if you can’t learn by reading, it’s not because you’re an auditory learner, it’s because you can’t read.
Naturally, more than one student has, over the decades, found refuge from their failures in learning style theory. If I failed math, the student says, it isn’t my fault, it’s because the teacher didn’t appeal to my style of learning.
The open letter shook many educators. Twitter burped up many exclamation points and question marks in response. Teachers who have been diligently, earnestly modifying lesson plans to appeal to different learners did a double take. Have I been wasting my time, they asked. Have we been tricked? How did we get here?
The how is easy to answer: because teachers want to do what’s best for students. And because educational leaders took the theory as commonsensical and true.
But there’s another reason how this now-debunked theory burrowed into the minds of educators: it appeals to an idea of equality that dominates education. If each student is equally capable of success, the reasoning goes, then failure originates in obstacles placed between the student and success. If classroom instruction is biased towards visual learners, learners of other styles will be placed at a disadvantage. If we believe in equality, we should give everybody an equal chance by teaching to their style.
So the reasoning goes.
The idea that literacy should not be defined exclusively by a person’s ability to read words springs from the same swell of empathy. So, too, do discussions about whether teachers should force children to memorize mathematical formulas.
Out of empathy and for equality, we sometimes make the mistake of moving the obstacle out of the student’s way. The better response is to help students meet and beat their challenges. Not around the obstacle, but over and through the obstacle.
Teaching to different learning styles doesn’t help students. A child who struggles to read doesn’t need to be told she’s gifted in another fashion or differently abled. And she doesn’t need teachers to comfort her by saying she has a different learning style – which is another way of telling her she’s special. The child needs time to work through the difficulty. She needs more support from teachers and parents.
For all the talk about how important innovation is to education, the truth is that education is a remarkably un-innovative enterprise. The chief ingredient is structured, orderly routine – asking students to do something enough times, over a long enough period, until they can see what we want them to see.
Customized learning, personalized learning, learning styles – each is a fashionable distraction. Teachers are not mechanics building custom-model lesson plans for different customers. They are teachers. They lead students towards understanding – and over and through obstacles standing in their way.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto. Robert is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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