We all want to do our best to educate our students and many of us attempt to address the unique characteristics of our learners when we are developing our own lectures, assignments, and projects. It is true that each person (learner) is unique and that some approaches will work well for one student and not for another. Many of us also look at our students today and think to ourselves “they seem much different than I was when I was their age.” People are unique yes, and the generations do differ from one another. These two facts are the basis for some of the most pervasive misunderstandings, and frankly myths, about learning in education today.
I’ve take a couple of weeks hiatus from blog posting because I’ve been focusing on one of my sabbatical projects which is a “Call to Action” paper regarding the continued belief about how learning styles are a vital component to understanding our learners and in developing our lessons. My particular position is that the idea of ‘learning styles’ does not significantly influence how well one learns. This position is based on growing evidence from psychological and educational research demonstrating that indeed there is not a large effect (and in most cases no effect) of matching ones teaching to a student’s learning style. My call to action will be to better inform our future teachers about the research in cognitive psychology and to use this as a primary mode of communicating how our learners do and do not learn.
In my preparations for writing this paper I ran across an article titled “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education” by Kirschner and Van Merrienboer (2013). This paper reviews the research debunking three pervasive beliefs in education: 1) That students today are digital natives, 2) that it is best to match teaching to a student’s learning style, and 3) that learners can be effective self-educators using the Internet. I was drawn initially to the section on learning styles for the purposes of my own writing, but interwoven within all three of these myths is the role of technology in education.
To give a brief summary, the notion of digital natives is based on the idea that college students today have been born into a world of constant access and use of technology and connectivity. Marc Prensky (2001) was the first to write on this supposed phenomenon. He argued that these digital natives were different than those not born into this technological world (whom he termed digital immigrants). They were different in that these people were able to multitask effortlessly, intuitively knew how to use technology effectively, and likely had developed brains that were ‘wired’ differently due to this use of technology. Kirschner and Van Merrienboer demonstrate that none of these claims are true, and in reality, a careful read of Prensky’s original work shows that most of his claims are based on casual observations.
The notion of learning styles is so pervasive that it continues to hold importance in most teacher education. Most textbooks in teacher education discuss learning styles and teachers are taught how to best match instruction to the different learning styles of their students. Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2009) reviewed the literature and found basically no evidence for this ‘matching theory.’ However this belief persists to this day. There is an entire industry dedicated to the assessment of individual learning styles (thus this belief helps others make quite a bit of money). Others, however, are advocating circumventing these self-report inventories and identifying a person’s learning style using computer automation given the criticism that existing learning style inventories are often unreliable (Feldman, Monteserin, & Amandi, 2015). So now there is a call for automating this unsubstantiated approach to instruction!
Finally, the belief that with the fact that all (or nearly all) knowledge is available on the Internet, learners simply can become self-educators (i.e. not needing formal instruction) is losing steam. It may be true that there is a wealth of information more freely available now that there ever has been. However, there is also a lot of CRAP on the Internet as well and what research finds is that novice learners (i.e. the types of learners most of us are dealing with) do not sift the good from the bad very well. Kirschner and Van Merrienboer (2013) argue that novice learners are still in need of formal instructors to help provide them with the essential knowledge needed to learn. I’ve been known to say “you need to know stuff to do stuff,” here is yet another example of the importance of knowledge. There is a place for experts to inform and guide students in education and it is an important role that these experts play. Do we hope one day that our students can become these types of self-educators? Of course (I get a nickel for everyone who thought the term ‘lifelong learner’), but it does take having a certain amount of basic background information in an area to be able to do this well.
All three myths have the thread of technology in them. The digital natives and learners as self-educators are self-evident. But the impact of technology is also found in the learning styles myth. It’s not uncommon for papers on e-learning to note the possibility for allowing for almost perfect learning styles matching to occur in a way that is not as possible in a face-to-face class (e.g. Markovic & Jovonovic, 2012). In e-learning, the learner can simply do the activities created in the mode best suited for their own learning style (Markovic & Jovonovic, 2012). However, what we have learned again from research is that this matching hypothesis simply has not held true. What does have more empirical support are the strategies and techniques learned from cognitive psychology on how human memory works and these are the methods that should take precedent when developing lesson plans and other learning opportunities.
I encourage you to read the entire article from Kirschner and Van Merrienboer. It is available full text to those with access to the Morningside College Databases. This article (besides feeding into my small curmudgeonly side on these issues) once again illustrates the importance of knowing the research and knowing what is the good research out there. The continued belief in these ideas can have a negative impact (assuming people know how to use technology because of their age, cutting out a valid and effective mode of instruction, setting a student out into the big wide Internet without a net) and in my opinion more needs to be done to correct these beliefs.
Markovic, S. & Jovonovic, N. (2012). Learning styles as a factor which affects the quality of e-learning. Artificial Intelligence Review, 38, 303-312.