Teachers and Red Herrings

Last week, I attended my first meeting of a user group for a particular educational platform. In my new position, I was glad to find a cohort of professional who do similar work at similar institutions, using the same software. As a newcomer to the group, I introduced myself to many attendees, gleaned what I could from conversations, and presentations, but took what most who know me would characterize as a low-profile approach. I sat and listened, watched and observe red, and otherwise tried to “read the room” to understand this group of people.

When a presenter made reference to “learning styles,” and recommended everyone take one of the online learning styles quizzes, I bit my tongue. (I have been making it a habit to challenge those who promote this myth in recent years. Another in the audience did not bite his tongue, although he challenged the speaker in an indirect manner and cloaked his challenge in vague terms. The presenter understood, however, and responded to the challenge with an incredulous shake of her head.

The exchange continued and the presenter said, “I know for myself, my learning style changes. Sometimes I can sit and listen to lectures, other times I need hands-on. It depends on what we are studying.” In that statement, it became clear, the presenter was confusing “learning styles” with “the need to vary teaching.”

“Learning styles” posits individuals have methods of learning that result in them learning materials better that if they use other methods. The fallacy of learning styles has been established elsewhere (including in this blog and in the professional literature—see the bibliography), so I won’t go into detail here.

I believe what the presenter was arguing was that instructors should include a variety of methods in their teaching. This is a point that I believe we can all accept. If I am teaching how lightening forms, animated images of charges moving in clouds will make textual descriptions more understandable, and adding ominous looking clouds and perhaps some guided imagery to connect the lesson with previous experience will all work. Those methods, will engage many or even most learners, regardless of what any individual’s “learning style” is.

As I though more deeply about this exchange that I observed, three things came clear to me.

  1. Educators do not always take the time to understand exactly what is meant by the terms they use, and we assume our understanding is exactly what others’ understanding is. In this case, the presenter had one concept of “learning styles” while others had a different one. Clear definition is vital to collective understanding.
  2. Educators tend to hold on to ideas for a long, long time. Learning styles was a good idea… it is not born out by the evidence, so we must drop it and move along. It is difficult for us, however, because it seems innovative… it seems to be an improvement… it seems to explain much… but none of that makes it true.
  3. Educators accept too complicated ideas. In science, we have Occam’s razor which reminds us to prefer the simplest explanation. We can explain what we observe in teaching and learning perfectly well without any inherent differences in learners.

Learning styles, multiple intelligences, and other ideas are excellent examples of “red herrings.” Leaders and practitioners focus on these aspects of their work and organizations, to give the appearance they seek improvements. We can avoid being duped by red herrings by paying attention (close and careful attention) to research.

Good theories give us the best idea about what is true. Good theories allow us to predict and explain what matters. Let’s just use those.