The learning styles debate: a triumph of rationality over criticality

A number of well-meaning and well-intentioned neuroscientists and psychologists signed a letter in today’s Guardian saying that the concept of Learning Styles has no evidential base. Learning styles are well and truly debunked.

I don’t disagree.

What alarms me is the prioritisation and politicisation of this issue. Learning styles have been attributed, as a bête noire, by neoconservative educators, as dangerous and foolish – a symbol of the maleficence of progressive education.

For the neoconservative educator, the destruction of learning styles represents a victorious battle in a war against progressive education. The fiction is that a progressive cabal has imposed such monstrous practices on teachers, for example: learning styles, group work and discovery learning. And science, when done properly and rigorously leads to the destruction of these myths, one-by-one. Science will destroy progressivism in death by randomised control trial.

Educational neoconservativism is a broad coalition. It includes the teacher who simply wants authority in their own classroom, who is apolitical. The egoistic demagogic rationalist, who sees opportunity in elevating themselves amongst traditionally-oriented teachers. The knowledge evangelicals, who claim to be apolitical, and it is simply about truth and giving (disadvantaged) children access to powerful knowledge through a conservative canon. There is an unholy alliance – whether it be inadvertent or by volition –  with the libertarian freemarket right wing, intent on the commidification of knowledge and the privatisation of state education.

Because, for the freemarketeer, there is nothing that suits economic rationalism more than procedural rationalism, i.e. the rationality of neoconservative education.

Learning styles were introduced into schools in the UK in the 1990s and 2000s. Their introduction was part of an attempt to develop personalisation, the identification of sensory preferences for the formulation of learning experience. Learning style identification was streamlined into an easily implemented questionnaire and data was kept and used by teachers to inform the planning of their lessons. To make them aurally, kinaesthetically or visually oriented for learners’ various preference.

The context of the introduction of learning styles in England was against a backdrop of  a cross-party consensus on neoliberal reforms. Marketisation through competition, commodification of knowledge and pedagogy and per-pupil funding, creating a quasi-voucher scheme. Learning styles under New Labour in the 2000s were typical of Michael Barber’s deliverology, where policy could be turned into prescribed action and monitored in the extent to which it was implemented. A way of showing, to the electorate, that a policy such as personalisation, could be implemented through a system of rationality and accountability. There was little concern about the efficacy of the process.

Neoliberal reforms, as result of financial liberalisation, have resulted in increased wealth inequality within nations like the UK and US. Unfettered state-subsidised capitalism permit the rich to get richer, while the rest become poorer. Neoliberal reforms in education have preserved the inequality that has developed in the wider political economy. We are now in a situation where large private-sector multi-academy trusts are in receipt of public money to expand their education businesses and develop regional monopolistic control on the education of middle class pupils. Schools in more challenging areas suffer as a result of an unequal and unfair education system.

When academic colleagues launch a public attack on learning styles, I wonder why they do not take a more critical stance on what is happening in our education systems. Are learning styles – while they have many limitations – really the major issue that we have to address in education at present? Should we not be attacking the privatisation of education and the growing inequalities of society? Should we not be attacking the reduction in funding given to schools?

I fear that these scientists have been hoodwinked into a debate by neoconservatives as party to a false battle against progressivism. They may be acting in good faith and in absolute belief that science provides us with truth. I don’t know. But I do see that science can be used as an anti-intellectual force, the search for evidence and validity becomes a parochial exercise and denies the context of political and economic forces that drive things.

It is necessary that we approach evidence, causality and context with a critical eye. Otherwise we can end up focussing our energies on the relatively inconsequential, as we have done in the endless debates about learning styles. I implore all to focus on what is really damaging our education system.

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