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Learning Styles: A Good Thing, or Educational Quackery? | Indoctrination
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Learning Styles: A Good Thing, or Educational Quackery?

Education is a field that is rife with gimmicks and fads, much the same as the medical field. There are legitimate methodologies and philosophies; there is genuine quackery, as well. About fifteen years ago I was exposed to a philosophy that was brand new to me: the idea of individual  “learning styles.” I immediately began to question whether it was legitimate science or educational quackery.

Having graduated all of my kids and sent them off to the real world, I’m able to look back on how my wife and I went about teaching our kids at home. Indeed, we did employ some measure of the learning styles philosophy, but we never obsessed over it. What’s more, we did not customize each of our children’s curricula and study habits based on individual learning styles. Instead, we set up a consistent method by which all three were taught, only leaning on learning style when one of the children could not grasp something any other way.

I believe our approach was the right one. Why? because the learning style philosophy is rooted in the dual ideas of individual perception and something psychologists call “intelligence profiles.” In other words, individual minds perceive information in individual ways, based on the intelligence profile of each person. Perceptions will obviously not be the same among every member of a given group. Therefore, as the thinking goes, the differing perceptions and intelligence profiles must be accommodated in order to help each individual understand and apply the information correctly.

As helpful as the learning styles philosophy might be in some cases, it has one inherent flaw: education does not start with perception or intelligence. It starts with fact. No matter what subject you are talking about, the job of the teacher/homeschool parent is to establish facts first, then deal with the perception, understanding and application of those facts.

The concept of learning styles is rooted in psychology’s standard of how the mind works, completely separate from the reality that the individual is a three-part being. The inevitable result of this thinking is the elevation of certain types of people above others, based on perception and intelligence profiles. Let’s face it; most of us, without even thinking about it, subconsciously elevate the “auditory” learner above the “visual”  learner. We assume the visual learner is not as intelligent because he “needs a picture to understand.”

I prefer to base my educational model on the Biblical standard of establishing the facts first, expecting the student to accept those facts at face value, and then moving into the area of understanding and application. Yet I fear that too often, the learning styles philosophy puts the perception and understanding first, hoping that assimilation of facts will follow. The result is a skewed reality due to facts being influenced by perception, rather than the other way around. An over emphasis on learning styles can easily produce relativism by way of perception being the driving force of learning.

A Tool of the Education Establishment?

I’m not sure if I made myself clear in the opening paragraphs of this blog. So let me reiterate that the learning styles philosophy has its proper place. It’s not all bad and something to be completely avoided. Different learning styles, to the extent they do exist, need to be kept in the proper perspective.

Having said that, it seems as though many homeschoolers mistakenly believe that learning styles are something new the homeschool community has embraced as a means of further rejecting the perceived rigidity of institutionalized schooling. Unfortunately, that’s not true.

Some experts say that the learning styles idea can be traced as far back as Aristotle. Whether or not that’s true, I can’t say. But I do know that the modern era of learning styles cropped up at the turn of the 20th century, faded away for about 50 years, then re-emerged in the 1950s – long before the modern homeschooling movement was born.
Since this re-emergence, no fewer than 9 different schools of thought have been born. The most popular is the VAK/VARK model which identifies four learning styles:

  1. visual learning
  2. auditory learning
  3. reading-writing preference
  4. kinesthetic/tactile learning

Guess what? These four are just a drop in the bucket. The nine schools of thought have come up with more than 100 different leaning styles between them. Who among them is right? Who is wrong?

It turns out that the education establishment hasn’t been able to answer these questions. But that hasn’t stopped them from implementing the philosophies within institutionalized education. This is why we have special ed programs that go well beyond legitimate cognitive learning disabilities. It is why we have programs for gifted students. It is why we have things like whole language reading, fuzzy math, et al. Dare I say that the learning style philosophy is central to the success of Common Core? It is.

The learning styles mentality, when implemented within institutionalized education says to certain kids, “You’re not as smart as other students, so we’ll separate you over here.” Once you have enough groups unable to learn by way of any structure, you suddenly have a dysfunctional system that no longer produces kids capable of competing. What’s the obvious answer? Create a new set of standards that defeat individual thought and create robots able to do the master’s bidding. The truth is that learning styles have been used against us in the institutionalized system since the 1970s.

Learning Styles Counterproductive

If the point of education, mechanically speaking, is to establish facts that can be then understood and applied, an over-emphasis on learning styles is counterproductive. As I said earlier, the learning styles philosophy needs to be kept in perspective. If parents customize the education of each of their children based on learning styles, they are allowing the child’s education to be directed by perception rather than fact.

So what should homeschooling parents do? Let’s rewind to the days before learning style education took hold. What we find is a system in which children were schooled in facts and information using basic methods of reading, writing, memorization and recitation. Despite what the education experts would have us believe, we churned out hundreds of millions of well-educated, well-adjusted, and morally upstanding citizens without ever knowing learning styles existed. What does that tell you? It tells me that God gave each of us the ability to learn in similar ways. The world doesn’t have to be customized for each of us.

Listen friends, the old and seemingly rigid ways of learning have proved successful for generations. Why are we so quick to throw away what has worked in favor of something new? Why are we, as homeschoolers, so quick to rebel against anything that looks like structure? Why are we so scared to push our kids to to go beyond who they are naturally, in order to make them the best at what God intends them to be? Yet these are exactly the thing we are doing when we make learning styles the core of our educational programs at home.

The Biblical model of education is as follows:

  • a statement of fact;
  • the acceptance of that fact;
  • the influence of perception and understanding as related to that fact;
  • and the application of both the fact and the understanding of it.

If you need to fall back on learning styles in order to help your kids grasp some material that is especially troubling, that’s one thing. But if your entire educational philosophy is dictated by learning styles, please rethink what you’re doing. Learning styles should be treated like medicine: only use them when it’s an absolute necessity. And as always, beware of educational quackery. There are a lot of learning styles systems and curricula out there that are nothing more than snake oil.

Sources:
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia – http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/index.php?title=Multiple_Intelligences_and_Learning_Styles
James Cook University – http://www.jcu.edu.au/wiledpack/modules/fsl/JCU_090460.html

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