Do we have a set way of learning?

Source: BBC

By Claudia Hammond

When you trying are something new, do you learn more easily from diagrams, from someone telling you how to do it, or by having a go yourself? You might be tempted to answer that it all depends on the nature of the task in question.

Learning to drive entirely from a book or from someone sitting in the kitchen telling you about it, is no substitute for having a go. Watching someone ice a cake might give you just the technique that it would take a long time by trial and error. But in general you might well have a preference for learning in a certain way, or as they say in education, a preferred learning style.

Over the years, masses of different ways of categorising learning styles have been developed – pragmatist versus theorist, concrete thinker versus abstract thinker, organiser versus innovator – and many, many more. One review found more than 30 of these dichotomies.

(Credit: iStock)

If you want to learn to ice a cake, you might learn quicker by watching someone do it (Credit: iStock)

And schools are offered the chance to buy dozens of different assessment tools. Some of the best known classify children as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic – preferring to learn via seeing, hearing or doing. Many thousands of schools around the world have taken to assessing a child’s preferred learning style and then, where possible, teaching them according to that style.

This idea, called the meshing hypothesis, says that if you are taught in the style that meshes with your own preferences, you will find it easier to learn and do better as a result. It’s been hugely popular in schools. I’ve even been told of classrooms where children sit with bibs which have a large V, A or K on them, so that the teachers know exactly which students prefer which style.

We know we are all different, so why not make learning that bit easier by playing to our strengths?

The idea has intuitive appeal. Every teacher notices the variation between different pupils when it comes to picking up new idea, and knows just how hard that can make the job of teaching. Anything that can make it easier should be welcomed. What’s more, the meshing hypothesis brings a certain optimism. It not only recognises that we are all individuals, but implies that we can all do well if only we can work out the way of learning that suits us best. We know we are all different, so why not make learning that bit easier by playing to our strengths?

And teachers seem to concur. In 2014 Professor Paul Howard-Jones from Bristol University sampled teachers in five countries, and found that the proportion agreeing that students learn better if they are taught according to their preferred learning style ranged from 93% in the UK to 97% in China and Turkey.

But intuition that a practice works is one thing. Evidence is another.

(Credit: iStock)

Teachers know the enormous variance in how pupils pick up new information (Credit: iStock)

The question mark is not so much over whether learning styles exist, but whether learning according to your preferred style makes any difference. So if you are visual person, do you learn better when faced with pictures, than with verbal instructions? There is a huge literature on this, with many, many published studies. But some are very small and only a minority appear in peer-reviewed journals.

A major review of research on learning styles took 16 months to complete and was published in 2004.The authors identified a staggering 71 different models of learning styles, and then analysed 13 in detail. But they were disappointed to find the field was much more “extensive, opaque, contradictory and controversial” than they expected.

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Categories: learning, The Muslim Times

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