Tuesday, October 03, 2006

school innovation

Learning styles are like a quick fix to understand something as complex as learning, and teaching, for that matter too. They are darlings of corporate training and something that managers look into when they are calculating ROI for professional learning and continuous training.

E-learning area seem to be the other domain where learning styles pop up often. Many times it is claimed that e-learning allows personalised learning, e.g. learner is presented with material that marches his/her learning styles. Commonly we see references to VAKT (Visual, auditory, kinaesthetic and tactile) or some dimensions like holistic vs. analytic or linear, etc.

I took a quick (fix) review on learning styles after a short discussion that I had with a colleague of mine. I, totally mistakenly (of course, not) mentioned something along the lines of learning styles, where my colleague mentioned "aren't they already so passe". Uuhmm, yeah, sure...

So I duck up some literature on the Web and realised: which learning style? There sure are many of them, Goffield et al. (2004), for example, identified 71 in the literature, out of which his team chose 13 most influential and potentially influential models of learning styles for a systematic and critical review.

After reading "Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning;
A systematic and critical review" one becomes humble about quick assumptions regarding learning styles. Table 44. presents these 13 Learning styles models matched against minimal criteria that was used in the review (p.139). Findings...

Only three of the 13 models – those of Allinson and Hayes, Apter and Vermunt – could be said to have come close to meetingthese criteria. A further three – those of Entwistle, Herrmann and Myers-Briggs met two of the four criteria. The Jackson model is in a different category, being so new that no independent evaluations have been carried out so far.

Oookey, seems like there is really something in this area of learning styles that hints that one should be rather wary and critical about quick fixes. Moreover, the plethora of models in the area should probably ring a bell. Along Coffield et al.

These central features of the research field – the isolated research groups, the lack of theoretical coherence and of a common conceptual framework, the proliferating models and dichotomies, the dangers of labelling, the influence of vested interests and the disproportionate claims of supporters – have created conflict, complexity and confusion. They have also produced wariness and a growing disquiet among those academics and researchers who are interested in learning, but who have no direct personal or institutional interest in learning styles. After more than 30 years of research, no consensus has been reached about the most effective instrument for measuring learning styles and no agreement about the most appropriate pedagogical interventions. p. 137

The main charge here is that the socio-economic and the cultural context of students’ lives and of the institutions where they seek to learn tend to be omitted from the learning styles literature. Learners are not all alike, nor are they all suspended in cyberspace via distance learning, nor do they live out their lives in psychological laboratories. Instead, they live in particular socio-economic settings where age, gender, race and class all interact to influence their attitudes to learning. Moreover, their social lives with their partners and friends, their family lives with their parents and siblings, and their economic lives with their employers and fellow workers influence their learning in significant ways. All these factors tend to be played down or simply ignored in most of the learning styles literature.

Coffield et al. are truly critical about this field of research, however, they don't, all together, through it to the waste-basket. They actually endorse some of the models which, instead of simplifying learning styles as anything like "deep-sealed features of the cognitive structure" or "components of a relatively stable personality type", see them more related to "learning preferences" or "learning approaches, strategies, orientations and conceptions of learning". They embrace these tools to help learners to gain more self-awareness and become more familiar with their metacognition, e.g. how to enhance their learning.

One of the main aims of encouraging a metacognitive approach is to enable learners to choose the most appropriate learning strategy from a wide range of options to fit the particular task in hand; but it remains an unanswered question as to how far learning styles need to be incorporated into metacognitive approaches. (p.132)


The positive recommendation we are making is that a discussion of learning styles may prove to be the catalyst for individual, organisational or even systemic change.

All right, now we are getting somewhere. Seems like it would be acceptable to say that people have learning preferences or "individual dispositions which influence the reactions of learners to their learning opportunities, which include the teaching style of their teachers." According to Bloomer and Hodkinson (2000) dispositions are both psychological and social. It is notable, however, that these individual dispositions constitute only a minor part of what can effect on learning.

To enlighten other effects or intervention on learning, Hattie (1992, 1999) synthesised 630 studies. If individualised learning means offering learning according to students' learning styles, the average effect size is not significant for individualised teaching in schools (significant<0 .40=".40" br="br">

So, where does all this leave e-learning? Are we all just armchair psychologist looking for a quick fix to talk about how different ways of personalisation that ICT and multimedia offer can enhance learning? Maybe not, as the Coffield report leaves a back door open by saying that the potential of ICT to support individualised instruction "has not been fully evaluated".

Interestingly, this leads me where I want to go: look what ICTs can do. I will continue these notes with some reviews on papers on adaptive learning systems. For example, I'll look at this "Reappraising cognitive styles in adaptive web applications" that used Felder-Solomon Inventory of Learning Styles (ILS) instrument (which did not even make it to the 13 models studied by Coffield et al.) Oops, they say: "Contrary to previous findings by other researchers, we found no significant differences in performance between matched and mismatched students. Conclusions are drawn about the value and validity of using cognitive styles as a way of modelling user preferences in educational web applications." WoW!

It might be reasonable to note that in my research I'm not interested in adaptive learning or any of that, but I'm just doing this for the literature review to make my case of social information retrieval.

F Coffield, D Moseley, E Hall, K Ecclestone - Learning and Skills (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Research Centre, Wiltshire, UK.

Bloomer M and Hodkinson P (2000). Learning careers: continuing and change
in young people’s dispositions to learning. British Educational Research Journal, 26, 583–597.

Hattie J. 1999 speach where the table is extracted by Coffield et al.

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