Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Will Thalheimer on learning styles

If you've been reading this blog for a while, it can't have escaped your notice that I am not an adherent of the concept of learning styles. I have written several blog posts and articles on the subject (I won't bore you by linking to them).

Like Donald Clark (to whom thanks for the pointer) I hope that this blog post from Will Thalheimer, and the research it cites will finally begin to draw a curtain on this silliness.

There is... a great gap from... heterogeneous responses to instructional manipulations—whose reality we do not dispute—to the notion that presently available taxonomies of student types offer any valid help in deciding what kind of instruction to offer each individual.
Enough now.


Stephen Downes said...

Will Thalheimer has waged a long campaign against the idea, as have the ultra-right 'content first' people in the States.

But the case isn't made.

Thanheimer, who cites his 'challege' every so often, has yet to explain why one of the conditions required that "the learning-style program must be created in an instructional-development shop that is dedicated to creating learning programs for real-world use."

he says he specifically wants to prevent research on the matter. He writes, "I want to specifically exclude programs that are created for academic purposes only. I want to exclude programs that are just created for research purposes—that have no other commercial purposes."

This condition - and several others - seem designed to screen out ahead of time any actual challenge to his position. By creating a test that prohibits a research-based approach, he ensures no research will ever prove him wrong.

Moreover, the Thalheimer - and the (two-year old) study mentioned in the recent Clark post - presume a strict instructivist model of learning.

The only depiction of learning styles they are willing tom countenance is one where content is delivered and then regurgitated on tests.

I have been objecting to Thalheimer and the rest of the core content crowd for years. The main reaction from them has been silence. I don't have a stake in the issue, but I can tell the difference between a political campaign and scientific research.

This is a political campaign. Don't be swayed.

(p.s. I love the word verification word for this post - aquademe. Conjures up images of a school of fish.)

The upsycho said...

@Downes Hmm. You are very probably right - a confession which it disappoints me to have to make, but then, you have a much wider frame of reference than I do.

I don't know enough of Thalheimer's work to know his motives, and perhaps am all the more likely to miss it since I feel remote from any political motives he may have. Of course, his 'challenge' has appeared on my radar from time to time.

However, I remain opposed to the idea of classifying an individual as having a specific approach to learning. It simply defies logic to apply any one approach to all the learning situations we have in a lifetime or even a single day.

I'm not a fan of Bloom's taxonomy, but if for a moment we use his 'domains' as a broad strokes descriptor of (some of?) the different types of skills human beings are able to master, I cannot see how an individual capable of acquiring such wide-ranging skills would - even unconsciously - tackle them all in the same way.

"The only depiction of learning styles they are willing to countenance..." I'm probably being a bit dense, but is this 'they' the researchers or Thalheimer and Clark?

Perhaps our problem lies in the fact that we have still not satisfactorily defined what learning is, to the satisfaction of all.

Donald Clark and I have debated before the emphasis on memory as a gauge of learning. I have a significant objection to a model based on "content... delivered and then regurgitated on tests", since I can't see how it can genuinely be called an assessment:
- it does not establish whether an individual is able to apply principles in an unfamiliar situation
- it does not establish whether the individual is able to adapt the principles learned to a situation already part way down the track towards solution
- it does not establish whether an individual is able to collaborate with others to work towards a solution
- it does not establish whether the individual is capable of conducting a search for information which may be of assistance in a situation where the information provided is incomplete.

In short, it does not mimic a real life scenario and seems more appropriate to behaviourism than any subsequent understanding of learning.

Owen Ferguson said...

Hi Karyn,

My tuppence for what it's worth: http://bit.ly/9071MM.

It always seems like these debates result in two extreme camps. Surely if ever there was an area where we could expect ambiguity and grey areas it's human psychology.

PS I'm not sure that excluding research programmes from a bet (or 'challenge') is quite the same as wanting to prevent research on the matter full stop.

Stephen Downes said...

I have put the issue in another way (which has not even been responded to, much less refuted).

It's this:

if there are no learning styles, then for the same content, there need be no variation in teaching. All students will learn the material equally well.

This is a reductio ad absurdum. It's a consequence of the assertion that must be false. We know that wed can't simply teach the material the same way to everyone, that there will be variations in how well they perform (up to and including whether they will even stand to be treated like that).

The supposed empirical evidence is based on short-term test and recall. It has nothing to do with real education or long-term results.

The upsycho said...

@Downes I'm reeling from that assertion. From where I sit it seems disengenuous, which is out of character for you.

Your observation appears to presuppose that the learners are all cookie cutter replicas of one another. It takes no account of the fact that they have different personalities, different moods, different medical conditions, different pre-existing knowledge, different aptitudes, different cultural conditioning towards the topic at hand, and vastly different journeys to this point in their learning experience. Some of those change moment by moment, others more slowly, while some are relatively constant. All these factors, and a myriad more I have not listed, will impact the way in which a learner responds to a particular bit of information at a particular moment on a particular day.

Learning styles models imply that a person has a natural tendency to approach learning in a certain way. I cannot accept that there are 3/4/7 (depending on which of the more than 70 models you choose) ways to approach learning and that all 6.5 billion of us fall into one or other category, any more than I can accept that there are 12 personality types in the world and yours is predetermined by the month of your birth.

Each unique individual will change the way he/she tackles a new piece of information based on a host of variables.

Of course, the teacher must vary the way the material is presented... to address all the things I have listed, and the many I have not, including the issue of sheer boredom for the teacher him/herself.

None of this requires an acknowledgement of the existence of learning styles.

What it requires, and what I advocate with every breath in my body, is a focus on the learners as unique, multi-dimensional human beings with busy lives and many things clamouring for their attention.

Garry Platt said...

Karyn you wrote: “Each unique individual will change the way he/she tackles a new piece of information based on a host of variables.

Of course, the teacher must vary the way the material is presented... to address all the things I have listed, and the many I have not, including the issue of sheer boredom for the teacher him/herself.

None of this requires an acknowledgement of the existence of learning styles.”

I would agree Karyn that there is no significant empirical evidence for the existence of Learning Styles of what ever shade or flavour you care to mention. It is also true as you have stated people have approaches and preferences in their learning which flux slowly or quickly according to circumstances. As a helpful and potentially constructive way to approaching this mercurial situation and creating engaging, sensorial rich and diverse learning experiences for students it can be useful to consider that learners have five major sensory collection systems and a variety of methods of processing, analysing and understanding the data they collect from these.

Classifying some of these approaches and methods of tackling learning can be helpful in developing a positive approach to a situation which might otherwise be seen as overwhelming and impossible to respond to. At the same time I must also recognise that it can be immensely destructive where it becomes a distorted labelling system and a pseudo scientific commercial enterprise. It can be even more destructive where people complete LS questionnaires and find themselves being placed in a box which frankly doesn’t exist.

The term ‘Learning Style’ appears to be incendiary for some people, personally I can’t get that excited about it as it is only method of allowing me to order and respond to the enumerable preferences a learner might have in a pragmatic and working fashion. But I can also recognise that the promotion of ‘Learning Styles’ as dogma is wrong. To date however nothing that you, Donald Clark or anyone else has written has led me to believe that the mode in which I apply and use Learning Styles is wrong, unethical or should lead to my eternal damnation.

The upsycho said...

@Garry Thank you for your cogent comment. I sincerely hope that nothing that you practise professionally is going to "lead to [your] eternal damnation"!

While you may have taken a pragmatic approach to the concept, there are far too many who have been taught a single model as if it were globally accepted as indisputable fact. Learning professionals are thereby reduced to identifying how they are going to include activities suitable for the 3/4/7/whatever types of learners they will encounter. This channels and restricts their creativity in what I believe to be a counter-productive way.

Have you read Coffield et al on the subject?

Garry Platt said...

Karyn wrote: “Have you read Coffield et al on the subject?”

Yes, and Claxton and Stahl and Greenfield, at length Karyn to test my own thoughts and feelings about this subject.

What I agree with as regards Coffield’s view et al on this matter are:

a) The absence of any scientific underpinning for this model.

b) The limiting and potentially destructive way in which this concept can be applied and used.

These issues however do not invalidate the use of the LS construct as merely a figurative aid to framing, ordering and developing creative learning environments.

It does seem to me that the LS concept it is being solely assessed as an infantile labelling process, which I accept it can be, but that is not an exclusive application.

I also don’t entirely follow your reasoning that by applying a 3/4/7 framework creativity will be restricted. Does that mean that Blanchard’s four box model of leadership leads to poor management? It most certainly does not, it contributes to a much more flexible and situational approach and the individuals’ creativity is enhanced by this model not reduced.

The upsycho said...

@Garry I am not familiar with the management model you mention, so I can't comment on that specifically, but I am not usually a fan of anything with boxes... most of them tend to be loosely based on Jung and are variations on a theme. They also tend to impute far more tidiness to life/learning/management than is the case in reality.

That said, the reason I feel that the 3/4/7/whatever approach would limit creativity is that people are inclined to consider their perceptions of the requirements of those 3/4/7/whatever and it can lead to thinking-on-rails, to the detriment of everyone who falls between them.

I wish I could remember where I read a recent article about how the increase of guidelines and marking schemes has had a detrimental effect on students' thinking skills. The finding was that creativity was being stifled. Saying "think of this and think of that" resulted in the learners not thinking of anything else, not raising any points other than those mentioned in the guidelines/marking schemes.

I think the same is true here - provide people with clear paths and they will seldom venture off into uncharted territory, to the potential detriment of all.

Garry Platt said...

Blanchard has no connection with Jung:


Owen Ferguson said...

There are as lot of really good points here and it seems like there's a broad agreement on many areas.

I wouldn't want to throw out learning styles as a principle if it was framed as 'how someone learns best will differ depending on the individual'. However, for many people, the term now automatically represents a cluster of specific taxonomies: VAK, Honey & Mumford, Kolb, Dunn & Dunn. These are gross simplifications and take no account whatsoever of context or content. The way a person learns best cannot exist in a vacuum - what you are learning does have relevance, but I agree that content is often given overriding preference erroneously.

While Stephen rightly points out the empirical evidence against learning styles is based on simple test and recall, I can't remember seeing any good evidence backing up the above taxonomies (though if there's some research anyone knows about, I'd appreciate the link). It may well be a politicised campaign (though I can't really see that) but where is the positive stuff backing up learning styles. There's a hypothesis there that's been around for years, why is there no evidence for it?

I agree with Garry entirely that the concept can be used as a figurative method to start thinking about how people learn. Without any context or understanding of its limits and flaws it does more harm than good. What bothers me is why many learning professionals can talk chapter and verse about a particular learning style taxonomy but struggle to talk about how we think memories are formed or the impact of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations on learning.

Surely we can do better than what we've got at the moment.

V Yonkers said...

If you read the original Kolb and the original Gardner, for example, you will see that they don't have the tidy little boxes that others picked up and put into "tools" to (in my mind) limit access to education for those that fit into those boxes.

LS should be used the way they were developed, as a tool to understand why a learner might not be learning in a given circumstance. In my mind this is like taking your car to a mechanic who hooks it up to a diagnostic machine. The outcomes often are two or three options. You can ask the mechanic to preform all three in the order they were listed, without checking to make sure it solved the problem. Or you can have him try one thing, check to see if it worked. If it doesn't work, the mechanic can check to see if there is more information as a result of the first repair. Now both are using the diagnostic tool (which I look at LS as being), but one is using it well while the other is not.

Should we throw out all tools because it may not be used correctly or it may not work in all situations? Or should we be doing a better job of training when using the tool and making sure the tool is being used the way it was first deemed?

The upsycho said...

@V_Yonkers I have read both Kolb and Gardner.

As far as I can tell, Kold started with a learning cycle and built his learning styles model on top of that.

I am not a great fan of the learning cycle, either, I have to say. I can't see any evidence that learning follows the sequence he describes. He might have the stages right, but I don't accept that they follow cyclically as he identifies.

As for poor Gardner, the man is just about going spare at seeing his multiple intelligences model being used as ipso facto learning styles. He has said in interviews that that was never his intention. He was simply demonstrating that people have different strengths and weaknesses - different 'intelligences' - and that the traditional, narrow IQ test is a hopelessly inadequate measure. His model comes far closer to accommodating the uniqueness of the individual than does any other I have seen, but it is not a model of learning styles.

Unknown said...

My approach to learning styles, and why I think they are not all that valid. If one was a visual learner and then they lost thier sight what would happen?
They would sitll be able to learn.

Deisgn needs to be driven by the performance (or learning) objective. What's the behaviour you are out to change or improve.
How will you be able to tell when the learners are on the job and how will you know. From there it's what type oflearning solution will cause that change or improvement in perfromance to happen. Let the outcomes drive the design and pick the method and media that will best get it there with the resources you and the learners have available, it's a blend of the science of instruction with the art or craft of being a practioner.
And then go out and report on what you did, that feeds back into the art

Will Thalheimer said...

Stephen Downes continues his untrue, slanderous, and uninformed attacks on my Learning Styles Challenge and the critique of learning styles utilization in general.

I will attempt to respond to his assertions one at a time. But first you might want to consider the general tenor of Stephen's arguments as evidence of their limited value.


You can notice Stephen's bias in his first paragraph when he uses the term "ultra-right" and blames people in the United States for some "content-first" political movement. He again stoops to name calling in his final paragraph, stating that criticism of the learning-styles design approach is a political campaign.

In response to Stephen's comment about ultra-right content-first people, I just want to settle him down by saying that my political leanings are on the left. Also, sorry the U.S. Hockey team beat Canada last night in the preliminary round of the Olympics, but we folks in the States really aren't the dark and evil overlords Stephen makes us out to be. My brother lives in Halifax and is married to a Canadian so maybe I could get special dispensation from Stephen and his good-morality council.


The rest of my response, which didn't fit the word limitation here, can be found at:


The upsycho said...

@Will_Thalheimer I'm delighted that you've contributed to this discussion. Thanks, too, for the link to your post as a pointer for readers who have not yet seen it.

I am, however, also a little perplexed. How is it that two such well respected individuals such as you and Stephen have resorted to such acrimony and (dare I say it?) pettiness? Name calling? Taunting? Come, now - surely this is the province of boys in the playground rather than luminaries of our field! Or is it all tongue in cheek ribaldry - to be continued over a beer during the next conference - and I'm just too dense to see it?

Ellen said...

Fabulous debate!

I'm proudly aligned with the anti-Learning Styles camp, but not for the impressive, research-driven reasons cited so well in these comments.

But instead of justifying my stance, which has already been argued so well by others, I'm compelled to add a comment about how perpetuation of Learning Styles can be harmful.

Despite the lack of research supporting the effectiveness of Learning Styles, Learning Styles continue to be promoted as the primary (if not only) basis of design for learning events. ASAE and The Center, the primary association for associations, with more than 20,000 individual members and vast influence in the world of non-profits, includes knowledge and application of Learning Styles among their core competencies for association professional development staff members.

In a state chapter meeting I raised eyebrows when I argued including readings that advised designing learning events around Learning Styles. The majority pointed to one weakly worded sentence within that chapter that suggested there might be other design methodologies (without explaining what they are or how they might be implemented) as their reason for continuing to include the material.

I was outnumbered. I continue to advocate for options on my aLearning Blog but I'm truly a voice in the wilderness.

Keep in mind that a majority of the professional development staffers in these organizations do not have degrees nor other training in instructional design and only learn what they need to know to do their jobs from ASAE and organizations like it.

Healthy, one-on-one debate is great for furthering thought and potential research. But blind advocacy of an unproven approach is irresponsible at best.