Learning styles may now be out of favour in classroom teaching, but for people with dyslexia they continue to be a valuable tool.
Current thinking about ‘Learning Styles’ in the classroom
Learning science is a relatively new interdisciplinary field that seeks to apply understanding generated by cognitive science to classroom practice.
Therefore, we can expect to see an inevitable shift towards the promotion of evidence-based methods of teaching as well as some sharp intakes of breath, among academics, at the notion of using any teaching method, even if it appears to work in practice, that can’t be scientifically proven.
Immediately a long list of not-so-strictly evidence-based practices come to mind, such as mind maps, learning styles, coloured lenses, positive thinking, neuro-linguistic programming, wellbeing etc.
An overview of various research papers published earlier this year, suggests that the idea of the differentiation approach (attempting to direct one’s teaching to the individual requirements of each student) has been considered to be weak in relation to outcomes.
Furthermore, it is reported that there has not been any reliable evidence to show that tailoring instructional methods to an individual’s learning style results in a statistically measurable gain in performance.
This has become known as the ‘meshing theory’. Where it is expected that students will perform best when they are individually presented with their lessons in, for example, a predominantly visual, auditory or kinesthetic mode, depending on their apparent preference.
This method would suggest the expectation of a direct link between teaching and learning and it would also suggest that this link can be measured under clinical test conditions. Negative outcomes, therefore, might well have been predicted.
In fact, researchers have admitted that some learning styles haven’t been tested at all. However, it would appear that, among educationalists, the will to embrace these concepts has rather evaporated and these approaches in teaching are now considered to be too artificial and cumbersome.
Perhaps this is just one of the consequences of the shift in emphasis away from differentiation and towards inclusivity.
Implications for dyslexia
There is full agreement nevertheless as to their main conclusion; teaching exclusively to one modality is not a particularly good idea.
Nor has it ever had a basis in teaching students with dyslexia, given that the most effective form of learning occurs when multiple sensory paths are involved (multi-sensory teaching being at the heart of dyslexia support).
Nevertheless, visual and kinaesthetic approaches to learning are of some relevance for those with dyslexia. ‘Weighting should be towards the visual and hands-on rather than the auditory mode’ (www.bdadyslexia.org.uk).
One of the problems for dyslexic students has been their difficulty in coping with the predominantly auditory and written mode of presentation in traditional teaching methods. Therefore the proven and established ‘dual coding’ method – that is when teaching is presented verbally but also supported by visual materials (since they are processed through different channels in the brain) are now proven to enhance learning and retrieval from memory.
Currently, metacognition and self-regulation approaches are recognized as best practice to help students think about their own learning in a more explicit and organic way.
However, in order to achieve metacognition it would surely be helpful to have a working knowledge of a variety of different ways of learning.
Some will recall the discovery of ‘real’ books. This method allowed the teaching of phonics to be all but discarded in favour of the more Immediate experience of actual books. Typically with the back up of commonly used whole words first being presented on flashcards the expectation was that of a simple transition to reading itself.
In the light of no forthcoming advance in literacy statistics, (from a method that badly let down students with dyslexia and other learning difficulties), education experts later conceded that it would have been more successful if the tools for learning to read had not been removed in the process. So they brought back not only phonics, but more recently also synthetic phonics (which some say introduces another layer to process and may in time prove not to be the best practice for everyone).
So now there is no shortage of phonics teaching of one sort or another. But actual reading, if it can’t be fitted into the busy schedule, is often passed over to parental involvement at home.
Similarly, the concept of learning styles may well recede in the wake of new thinking. But we feel we should recognise that the tools and the language required to explore many of these different approaches to learning, largely became available because of the research and widespread practical application of concepts such as these in the first place.
How these developments will affect QuickScan
At Pico Educational Systems Limited we will be reflecting some of these new recommendations in our QuickScan Dyslexia Questionnaire product.
This will presently shift the focus towards addressing and contextualising the merits of exploring different ways of learning, rather than placing too big an emphasis on any one specific approach.
However, we also recognise from our users’ comments, that finding their ‘preferred’ learning styles (through the matrix of the questionnaire) has provided them with a positive starting point on their path to self-knowledge and metacognition.
With that view in mind, along with students who have dyslexia being our main concern, we will not be reactive and simply discard the whole concept of learning styles on the basis of current incomplete evidence, or new educational trends, whilst it is still proving to be of value to our users. However, we will continue to keep a close eye on developments.
Furthermore, we will also look at upgrading the ‘what to do next’ recommendation upon completing the QuickScan Dyslexia Questionnaire and will provide a checklist of those study skills techniques that have recently been researched and proven to enhance learning outcomes.
As with many others within the dyslexia support community, we have needed to be pragmatists rather than adhering to prescriptive methods in teaching.
Please share your thoughts with us via the blog comments section below or contact us directly.
Dr. D. Walker – Dyslexia Consultant for Pico Educational Systems and QS Dyslexia Tests.