3 Ways to Politely Challenge the Possible “Myth” of Learning Styles

In, “Are ‘Learning Styles’ A Symptom of Education’s Ills?”, Anna North joins a long list of journalists, academics and researchers who are trying to dispel the myth that teaching according to student “learning styles” is a worthwhile effort. I’m referring to the concepts that originated in the 1970s, suggesting that each student has preferred “styles” of learning. One of the more popularized descriptions of learning styles is the VARK model: visual, auditory, reading-writing, and kinesthetic. This theory suggests that learners have a preference for one of these and that, designing lessons that accommodate such preferences, is more likely to improve each student’s learning.

This and similar approaches have been taught in teacher education programs and in-service teacher professional development for decades. In some schools, it is hard to find a P-12 teacher who doesn’t refer to the importance of learning styles. That is surprising given the limited research to support such claims, and the growing body of literature to suggest that designing lessons according to student learning styles or preferences does anything significant to improve student learning. Yet, the beliefs and practices persist. In fact, when I challenge the idea of using learning styles as a way of designing instruction, it is common to get passionate opposition, quickly turning to a flurry of anecdotal proofs from one’s classroom experience. I offer three responses to such opposition.

1. A Plea to Healthy Skepticism 

“Yes, please don’t believes this because I am saying it. I have not provided a single robust and empirical study to support my claim. Why not test my claims by reviewing the peer-reviewed literature on the subject? There is ample research to explore. Check it out directly and see what you think.”

The challenge is that using peer-reviewed research is uncommon among many in education, and methods of teaching classes in University education programs are often taken from textbooks and “how-to” resources. Look at a typical undergraduate education program, you will often find students reading secondary works about education far more than they are reviewing the scholarly research.

2. A Plea to Common Sense

Suppose I want to teach you how to play basketball. Is one student going to learn basketball better by watching slide shows for hours, while a different student will learn it better by playing basketball and getting coaching? Or, should I divide up my physical education class into four groups: having the reading-writing people just read books about basketball and writing essays, the visual learners just look through instructive photos about playing basketball, and the auditory learners send to another areas to listen to recorded audio lectures on playing basketball?

I realize that this argument has weaknesses. After all, ample research challenges our common sense or experiences. That is part of the fun of delving into the research. Regardless, I’ve found that this example often helps people become a bit more open to considering different claims about the effectiveness or lack thereof for using learning styles as a guide for designing instruction.

3. How Should we Prioritize?

A third response is that I step away from too strong of an attack against learning styles. Instead, I suggest that we simply prioritize the degree of importance we assign to many considerations for designing learning experiences. For example, I mention cognitive load theory, a body of research showing how we can minimize the chance of students experiencing overload when trying to grasp a new concept. I reference the value of taking into account prior student experiences and learning when designing learning experiences. I reference the importance of students having adequate attention to or focus upon that which is being learned. I talk about the research in support of deliberate practice. Or, I might also discuss the research on feedback loops and their impact on student learning. In other words, given all the research we have on what helps students learn, where should we prioritize the learning style claims?

There may well be research in the future to support more of the claims around learning styles as a guide for designing effective learning experiences, but I’ve yet to see a solid body of such literature. As such, it only makes sense to me that we focus our attention on those areas that are far more consistently supported.

What do you think? Have you been a learning styles champion in the past? To what extent are you open to challenging some of those assumptions and practices, or possibly lowering them on our list of strategies for designing high-impact learning experiences? Or, are you already one of the minority who never embraced learning styles or who has set them aside for more fertile teaching and learning ground?

Educational Publishers & Content Providers: The Future is About Analytics, Feedback & Assessment

What is the future of educational publishers and content providers? As more content becomes freely distributed online and there are more creative (and sometimes free) products and services that help aggregate, curate, chunk, edit and beautify this content; there are questions about the role of educational publishers and content providers. While there is something to be said for a one-stop-shop for content, that might not be enough to secure a solid spot in the marketplace of the future, especially given that content is not the only thing for which people are shopping.

Some fear or simply predict the demise of such groups, but I expect a long and vibrant future. In fact, over the past decade or two, we’ve already witnessed publishing companies rebrand themselves as education companies with a broader portfolio of offerings than ever before. They’ve done so by adding experts in everything from educational psychology and brain research to instructional design, software development to game design, educational assessment to statistics, analytics, and testing. These are exactly the types of moves that will help them establish, maintain, and extend their role in the field of education. This is a shift from a time when many educational publishers and content providers would suggest that it is best to leave the “teaching” up to the professional educators. Now, more realize that there is not (nor has there really ever been) a clear distinction between the design of educational products and services and the use of them for teaching. Each influences the other, and understanding of educational research is critical for those who design and develop the products and services that inform what and how educators teach students.

According to this article, the preK-12 testing and assessment market is almost a 2.5 billion dollar market, “making them the single largest category of education sales” in 2012-2013! A good amount of this is the result of efforts to nationalize and standardize curriculum across geographic regions (like with the Common Core), allowing education companies to design a single product that aligns with the needs of a larger client base. However, even apart from such moves for standardization, more people are becoming aware of the possibilities and impact of using feedback loops and rich data to inform educational decisions.

This is just the beginning. If you are in educational publishing or a startup in the education sector, this is not only a trend to watch, but one to embrace. Start thinking about the next version of your products and services and how learning analytics and feedback loops fit with them. If you look at the K-12 Horizon Report’s 5-year predictions, you see learning analytics, the Internet of everything, and wearable technology. What do all three of these have in common? They are an extension of the Internet’s revolution of increased access to information, but this time it is increasing a new type of information and making it possible to analyze and make important decisions based on the data. Now we have a full circle. Data is experienced by learners. The actions and changes of the learner become new data points, which give feedback directly to the learner, to a teacher, or the product that provided the initial data. There is a new action taken by the learner, teacher and/or interactive product and the cycle continues (see the following image for three sample scenarios).

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Some (although an increasingly small number) still think of the Internet and digital revolution in terms of widespread access to rich content. Those are people who think that digitizing content is adequate. Since the 2000s, we’ve experience the social web, one that is read and write. Now we live in a time where those two are merged, and each action individually and collectively becomes a new data point that can be mined and analyzed for important insights.

While there are hundreds of analytics, data warehousing and mining, adaptive learning, and analytic dashboard providers; there is a powerful opportunity for educational content providers who find ways to animate their content with feedback, reporting features, assessment tools, dashboards, early alert features, and adaptive learning pathways. Education’s future is largely one of blended learning, and a growing number of education providers (from K-12 schools to corporate trainers) are learning to design experiences that are constantly adjusting and adapting.

The concept that we are just making products for the true experts, teachers, is noble and respectable, but the 21st century teacher will be looking for new content and learning experiences that interact with them (and their students), tools that give them rich and important data (often real-time or nearly-now) about what is working, what is not, who is learning, who is not, and why. They will be looking for ways to track and monitor learning progress. If a content provider does not do such things, it will be in jeopardy, with the exception of extremely scarce or high-demand content that can’t be easily accessed elsewhere.

As such, content still matters. It always will. However, the thriving educational content providers and publishers of the 21st century understand that the most high-demand features will involve analytics, feedback (to the learner, teacher, or back to the content for real-time or nearly now adjustments), assessment, and tracking.

10 Quotes, Comments & Questions about Learning Experience Design

I love quotes. There is something about reflecting on a single sentence, comparing it to past experiences, conducting thought experiments about possible applications, and simply letting it help me look at familiar topics from a different perspective. In fact, over the years, I’ve challenged myself to take new ideas or lessons learned and turn each one into a single sentence, a sort of bumper sticker summary of the idea. It is a way to help me quickly remember a larger train of thought, but it is also a guide to help me further reflect upon or apply the concept. With that in mind, I offer these ten quotes about designing learning experiences. As you will see, a few of the quotes come from other people, but the others are examples of my attempt to summarize personal discoveries. Some are simple and straightforward. Of course, you’ll soon see these things for yourself. Enjoy!

  1. Could it be that pure face-to-face instruction will one day be considered educational malpractice? – paraphrase of Chris Dede at the 2007 Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning
  2. Distance education is a huge lecture hall with hundreds of students and minimal interaction. It is time for us to start measuring the quality of learning by more than labels like face-to-face, hybrid, or e-learning – paraphrase from a 2008 webinar with Darcy Hardy
  3. “In order to create an engaging learning experience, the role of instructor is optional, but the role of learner is essential.” – Bernard Bull
  4. “He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” – Harold Wilson
  5. “…how many educators are able to keep the undivided attention of 5th graders for multiple hours straight without even a bathroom break? And yet video games manage to do it. As educators, we would be fools to ignore this phenomenon.” – Bernard Bull
  6. “All effective and engaging learning experiences provide frequent and meaningful feedback. Without feedback on whether one is getting closer to a goal, progress is unlikely.” – Bernard Bull
  7. “Give a person a six hundred page book on how to get out of a room with no doors and you’ll put them to sleep. Put a person in a room with no doors, have the walls gradually close in on them, give them the same book, and you have an engaging learning experience.” – Bernard Bull
  8. “Why do people fall asleep in class? It has nothing to do with how much sleep they got the night before, whether or not they are sick, or if they are hung over. The answer can be summed up in two words. Perceived meaninglessness. This is a key to designing engaging learning experiences.” – Bernard Bull (based upon a conversation with a student doing research on students falling asleep)
  9. “A key to the design of effective learning experiences comes from discovering the many answers to the following question. Why do students sometimes learn a ton from terrible instructors?” – Bernard Bull
  10. “When it comes to the design of effective learning experiences, one provocative question is worth a hundred proclamations.” – Bernard Bull

Overcoming Role Rut in Online Course Design: The Alternate Roles Approach

Despite the growing influence of web 2.0 technologies and social media in online learning, there is still a persistent challenge for the educator who is charged with designing online learning. The challenge is to avoid simply replicating what one does in the face-to-face classroom. When one runs into trouble making the transfer, it is sadly too common for the online course to lose out, easily turning into reading texts and writing papers with few other elements. From an instructional design perspective, I see another challenge in both face-to-face and online courses. This challenge is what I call the “role rut.” The role of student and teacher becomes so embedded in our thinking that we often fail to consider a variety of potentially powerful and engaging designs.

mask.jpgWith these two challenges in mind, I now turn to the nature of digital culture. In the digital world, roles and identities are constantly shifting as we move from site to personal blog to news blog to video sharing site to search engines. In a single day in the digital world, I may be a student, teacher, researcher, blogger, consumer, mentor, lurker, video producer, team member, and friend. Of course, this same thing is true in the face-to-face world, but these roles are even more fluid online. One can quickly try on a myriad of roles. With this dynamic in mind, I see promising possibilities with an alternate roles approach to designing learning experiences. It is not new or profound, but it does offer a strategy for escaping the ordinary, a way of getting out of those role ruts that are commonplace in online and face-to-face education. The alternate roles approach is a simple thought experiment or challenge: try to design a course, unit or learning activity without using or thinking about the traditional roles: teacher, instructor, learner, student, facilitator, or participant. Instead, design the learning environment with two or more alternate roles. Consider the following possibilities: mentor, boss, coach, guide, expert, consultant, travel guide, assistant, supporter, advocate, leader, mayor, employer, director, manager, owner, administrator, advisor, editor, assessor, professional, team member, player, novice, explorer, tourist, supporter, advocate, member, citizen, investigator, research assistant, researcher, consultant, employee, actor, director, manager, steward, owner, designer, creator, patient, client, offender, defender, author, apprentice, activist, or member.

This is more than role-playing. Role-playing tends to be a single activity in an otherwise traditional teacher/student environment. Instead, this is an exercise in simulation learning, still starting with learning objectives (What do I want them to learn?) but then quickly bracketing the teacher/student roles in lieu of alternate roles. Experimenting with this exercise has been a delightful experience, affording me a fresh and exciting way to think about instructional design in the digital world.