02 March 2006

On practical working myths

I have written elsewhere about "learning styles", and I am sceptical about them, with good reason, according to the (rigorous) literature. However, a correspondent wrote yesterday about her own research into how her own students responded to the introduction of the idea; and her results were overwhelmingly positive. What is one to make of this? This is part of my reply (slightly edited);

I suspect that the issue is about empowerment and focus; regardless of the legitimacy of the VAK (this is one learning style model) idea, it does draw teachers' attention to how students experience learning. Indeed, it can present an empowering myth (quickly, "myth" in my terms is an account in which usefulness takes priority over truth; I wrote about it in a book in 1989 in a different context) which helps teachers to get a handle on their practice.

Further, they experience the presentation of the alternative strategies as more empowering than direct injunctions. For example, one source (sorry, not to hand at the moment) suggests that 38% of learners are primarily kinaesthetic, and a further 30+% are secondarily so. (The research methodology, based on self-selected respondents to a large net survey, is dodgy, and the questions themselves are not above suspicion, but still...) But... If you are a teacher (as you are) presented either with an injunction from on high which says, "Thou shalt make use of active hands-on learning wherever possible." how are you likely to react? "Yeah, OK." seems about right.

But: given the chance to discover exactly the same point through your own action-research and reflection? You will own it. It's your insight. You are more committed to it, and you are more likely to follow through. It's a variation on the placebo effect, I suspect; but the placebo effect is very powerful indeed.

Coffield et al quite rightly make the point that all this "learning styles" stuff has been used by Ofsted and other as a means to dump on teachers responsibility for issues which are actually beyond their control. But there is perhaps another side to this coin; the theory may give teachers a powerful strategy to believe that they are indeed in control.

And it doesn't have to be "true" to do that, as long as you believe it.

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