Science / Fiction
By Carol Black
1. The Debunkers
In case you missed it, research has now shown that (spoiler alert) LEARNING STYLES DON’T EXIST!!! Most people believe they exist, of course (including the vast majority of teachers), because... well, because it seems obvious to most people that human beings have different styles of learning. But this common sense perception on the part of the great unwashed population, according to education researchers Paul Kirschner and Jeroen van Merriënboer, is not merely “unsupported by data;” it is an “urban legend” on an intellectual par with the belief that there are alligators in our sewers.
Much derisive language in this vein has emanated from the 'evidence-based' instruction camp in recent years. Anyone foolhardy enough to question the latest 'evidence-based' claim about learning styles (or phonics or direct instruction) is met with accusations of "pseudoscience" and promptly compared to a believer in UFO’s.
This is curious, because Cambridge University Press recently published The Value of Intellectual Styles by Li-Fang Zhang, editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Education Psychology, which says that learning styles... um, exist.
And, as it happens, the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology chapter on "Cognitive Styles" by Harvard researcher Maria Kozhevnikov says the same thing. Researchers Carol Evans (University of Southampton), Elena Grigorenko (Yale), Stephen Kosslyn (Keck Graduate Institute), and Robert Sternberg (Cornell), agree.
So what exactly is going on here? What's science, and what's fiction?
Some say the learning styles 'debunkers' are simply trying to unmask the excessive claims of those who market simplistic learning styles-based programs to school systems. It doesn't work to pigeonhole kids into limiting 'visual' or 'auditory' categories and 'match' instruction to the pigeonholes (this is true) and the debunkers want to save schools from wasting their money and teachers from wasting their time. This certainly makes sense, but it doesn’t quite explain the phenomenon. If you have reason to believe a certain cancer cure is quackery, you should by all means say so. But you don’t say that cancer can’t be cured, and you certainly don’t say that cancer doesn’t exist.
So something else is up.
This is a new phenomenon that we're seeing with increasing frequency in popular media claims about 'science.' We're all familiar by now with the strategies of those who have tried to deny the scientific consensus about climate change. But what we're seeing now on many issues is the reverse strategy –– the claim there is scientific consensus where there is no such thing, that an open, ongoing area of scientific inquiry has reached a settled conclusion, and that anyone who disagrees about this is as irrational and “anti-science” as a climate denier (or a believer in Big Foot.) There are three parts to this claim:
Claim #1 is that the research is all on one side; that a consensus exists among reputable scientists and that there is little or no empirical support for opposing views.
Claim #2 is that cognitive biases, emotions, denial, irrationality, etc., are what prevent untrained people from accepting this conclusive body of scientific data.
Claim #3 is that the only legitimate path forward is to set aside our childish intuitions and false beliefs and act in rational obedience to research. In other words, data good; intuition bad.
A disturbing feature of this discourse in education is the frequency with which it takes the form of male researchers and pundits telling female educators that their views on learning are cognitively childish and irrational and should therefore be disregarded. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, a prominent debunker, has shared some rather patronizing speculations as to why the vast majority of (mostly female) teachers persist in thinking their students have different learning styles ("I think learning styles theory is widely accepted because the idea is so appealing. It would be so nice if it were true.") His paternal tone is especially disturbing since he makes his case by failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views from respected scientists and education researchers.
Researchers Kozhevnikov, Kosslyn, Evans, Zhang, Grigorenko, and Sternberg believe there is ample evidence that learning styles exist and that warrants continued research into how best to conceptualize and apply them in education.
Claims to conclusive "science" where no such conclusions exist are becoming more frequent in debates where public opinion must be shaped in order to shape public policy; the National Reading Panel convened under the Bush administration is another good example of this. As dissenting panelist Joanne Yatvin (the only member of the panel who actually had experience teaching reading to children) has explained, a combination of politically motivated constraints were used to rush the panel through a mountain of conflicting, inconclusive, and imperfect data to create an artificial 'scientific consensus' about phonics, which now drives education policy across the nation –– as well as, coincidentally, justifying billions of dollars in contracts to corporate giants like Pearson and McGraw-Hill.
Once this artificial 'consensus' has been created, the debate can be framed as one between those who are informed and those who are ignorant. This becomes a mechanism for policing what questions may be asked and who may ask them, marginalizing dissent so that policy can be imposed from above. It attempts to remove not only the public but also the teaching profession from the decision-making process.
Unfortunately, as Grundmann and Stehr explain in their excellent article "Social Control and Knowledge in Democratic Societies," the days when scientific research emanated from some ivory tower of "objectivity" free of influence from political and profit motives are–– well, they never existed. Aggressive factions can now be seen engaging in a sort of academic arms race to control the discourse on controversial issues in education research, taking their claims directly to social media and trying to create the impression that no sane person would question them.
The strident, almost bullying tone, along with the use of words like "myth" or "urban legend" seems designed to shame or intimidate teachers and to foreclose debate; as Smets and Struyven outline in "Power relations in educational scientific communication—a critical analysis of discourse on learning styles", the goal seems less to accurately communicate information and more to establish a power relationship between researchers and practitioners.
But despite the debunkers' undeniable passion on the topic, the fact is that there are extremely reputable scientists on both sides of this debate. In other words, as Grundmann and Stehr put it, "the basic rift in these debates is not between lay people and experts but between two alliances that advocate different courses of action based on divergent basic values and knowledge claims... we see representatives of science and the lay public on both sides."
So what are the two alliances in the case of learning styles? And what are their divergent basic values?
Luckily, you don't have to dig very deep to find out. If you review the writings of the most vocal learning styles 'debunkers,' you quickly find that they are almost always simply advocates for traditional, teacher-controlled direct instruction. They tend to favor a traditional "core knowledge" curriculum, traditional forms of discipline, and they adhere to a traditional IQ-based view of intelligence. In other words, they’re just educational conservatives. (In the UK they openly call themselves "trads" as opposed to "progs.") They trumpet any research that supports their preferences and ignore or attempt to discredit any research that leans the other way. They don't like progressive or self-directed or culturally relevant approaches to education. They don't tend to concern themselves overmuch with less tangible aspects of children's well-being like, say, "happiness" or "creativity" or "mental health." They define "what works" in education in terms of test scores.
But the reality is that you can’t say ‘what works” in education until you answer the question: works for what? As Yong Zhao explains in “What Works May Hurt: Side Effects in Education,” it’s reasonable to assume, in education as in medicine, that any given intervention may have negative as well as positive effects; if we want to claim to be evidence-based, we need to look at both. What raises test scores may lower creativity or intrinsic motivation, and vice versa; this study, for example, found that direct instruction hastened young children's mastery of a specific task, but lowered exploratory behavior. So “what the research supports” depends on what you value, what you care most about, what kind of life you want for your children.
If direct instruction of kindergarteners raises early test scores but makes children anxious and unhappy, you may quite reasonably respond to the test score data by saying: who cares?
Well –– the debunkers care. They care a lot. And they are dedicated to the effort to convince you that science supports their views and no others.
The case of learning styles is worth exploring in some detail, because it's part of a larger phenomenon that bears closer scrutiny.
2. The Map and the Territory
The first thing to understand about learning styles is that there is no agreed-on definition of the term. Multiple frameworks have been proposed, from the popular Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic framework, to the Concrete-Abstract framework, to the Holistic-Analytical, Impulsive-Reflective, Convergent-Divergent, Field-Dependent-Field-Independent, Cognitive-Affective-Physiological –– one literature review identified 71 different models. As Kirschner and van Merriënboer grouse, if we consider each learning style as dichotomous (e.g. visual vs. verbal) that means there are 2 to the power of 71 possible combinations of learning styles – more than the number of people alive on earth.
They say that like it’s a bad thing. But as a well-known physicist remarked recently, “In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That's why physics is easy and sociology is hard.”
Zhang and her frequent collaborators Robert Sternberg and Stephen Rayner, co-editors of The Handbook of Intellectual Styles, are not fans of the 'debunkers.' They use the term intellectual style as an "umbrella term for all style constructs," (including learning styles, cognitive styles, perceptual styles, and thinking styles) which relate to "people's preferred ways of processing information and dealing with tasks." (Notice the word "preferred" here, since that will come up later.) As these authors see it, intellectual style differences are complex, involving cognitive, affective, physiological, psychological, and sociological dimensions. Researchers Maria Kozhevnikov, Carol Evans, and Stephen Kosslyn use the term cognitive style (which includes learning style constructs), to describe "patterns of adaptation to the external world that develop through interaction with the surrounding environment on the basis of innate predispositions, the interactions among which are shaped by changing environmental demands."
The most promising style constructs, in Kozhevnikov's view, are not the narrow visual-auditory-kinesthetic (V-A-K) perceptual categories, but the richer constructs of "context-dependency vs. independency, rule-based vs. intuitive processing, internal vs. external locus of control, and integration vs. compartmentalization." These cognitive tendencies are neither set in stone nor completely malleable; they intersect with cognition at multiple levels, from perception to concept formation to higher-order cognitive processing to meta-cognitive processing.
So it's complicated. And yet despite what researchers Elena Grigorenko and Samuel Mandelman call "the very fine texture" of the "intertwined threads of intelligence and personality" that make learning styles so devilishly hard to define, in practice these differences are not at all difficult to see.
Which is probably why somewhere between 75 and 90% of teachers believe they exist.
In self-directed learning situations where children are able to follow their curiosity in their own ways, differences that might be muted or masked in a controlled instruction setting become very clearly visible. Sensory preferences intersect with social, emotional, and cognitive differences in complex and individual ways that profoundly shape how each child enters and explores and takes hold of the world. One child will spend quiet hours poring over illustrated books about science or history; another child is quickly bored by those, but gets deeply engaged in active social projects like building or filmmaking or citizen science. One child listens in on adult conversations and remembers everything she hears, absorbing knowledge like a sponge; another child creates and constructs knowledge in her own hands-on ways, writing her first book before she reads one. One child is observant and cautious, always making sure of things before venturing into unfamiliar terrain; another child is bold and intuitive, diving in head first and filling in the gaps later in a "fake it till you make it" spirit. The river moves steadily toward the sea, but it follows many divergent pathways, and the shortest distance between two points may not be a straight line.
In other words, human learning differences are complex, multi-dimensional, and difficult to definitively pin down, but this much is clear: the kids have different styles of learning. So how does something so intuitively obvious and readily observed cease to exist in the eyes of the debunkers?
Daniel Willingham outlines the thinking in a popular YouTube video called (you guessed it) “LEARNING STYLES DON’T EXIST.” He explains:
Here’s a visual learner, here’s an auditory learner. Suppose I give each of them two lists of words to learn. One list I read aloud — an auditory presentation — and for another list I show a series of slides — a visual presentation. Later, everybody gets a test. The prediction is straightforward: visual learners should learn the slides better than the words, and the auditory learners should learn the words better than the slides. Lots of people have done that experiment, and that's not the result you get.
Okay. This sounds like an awesome eighth grade science fair experiment. But as a way to come to definitive conclusions about human learning?
As Tyson suggests, there are intellectual hazards inherent in the effort to turn the study of human behavior into a hard quantitative science. The specious argument here has to do with what is sometimes called the map-territory relationship. In other words, Willingham is conflating a finding about an extremely simplistic theoretical map of learning styles with a finding about the astronomically complex territory of learning itself. (He becomes comical at the point where he patiently explains how learning styles theory is refuted by the fact that auditory learners can’t learn the shape of Algeria through their ears, but I won’t even go into that.)
The debunkers' core claim is based on what's known as the meshing (or matching) hypothesis –– the idea that if learning styles exist, experiments should show that students will always learn better if taught in their preferred style. But in defining learning styles (a theory about the brain) as equivalent to the matching hypothesis (a theory about instruction) the debunkers have created a straw man. As Kozhevnikov points out, "the fact that a simple version of the matching hypothesis – which rests on the assumption that a given person can be characterized by a single type of style, independent of the task –– has not been supported does not imply that the concept of cognitive style itself is invalid."
The fact that we're having difficulty mapping and predicting human learning should not surprise us. Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart J. Firestein began teaching a course on scientific ignorance “after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain.” The extraordinary difficulty in creating workable theoretical models of complex systems like the human brain has been called “Bonini’s Paradox,” expressed by Paul Valéry this way: “Everything simple is false. Everything which is complex is unusable.” In other words, if we create a model with 2 to the power of 71 different learning styles, it’s not really helpful; we’re as confused by our model as we are by reality. But when you simplify all the way down to only 2 different learning styles, inevitably your map fails to capture all of the information relevant to the territory you are trying to navigate. So one of the possibilities is that your model is too simplistic to have any predictive value.
So how do we think intelligently about systems that are so complex that our current knowledge is a tiny island in a vast sea of ignorance? Well, a first principle is that a little humility goes a long way. Richard Levins, in a classic essay regarding the difficulty of accurately modeling complex ecological systems, has argued that when dealing with systems with too many parameters to measure, we must inevitably simplify: but we must take care to “simplify in a way that preserves the essential features of the problem.”
So have the debunkers preserved the essential features of the problem? Or have they simply announced that the problem doesn't exist?
3. The Evidence
To answer that question you need to drill down into the research a bit.
The debunkers admit that people have fairly stable learning preferences. They also admit that people have variable abilities in visual v. auditory memory, etc. When you combine preference with ability –– e.g. "I have a good visual memory, and I prefer information presented visually" –– that’s probably what many speakers of the English language understand by the term “learning style.”
So that thing? That exists.
But here’s where the crucial elision occurs, and the claim shifts to the matching hypothesis. In a literature review of learning styles research, Pashler et al. state it this way: the theory of learning styles is only confirmed if we can successfully sort individuals into groups “for which genuine group-by-treatment interactions can be demonstrated.”
What are “group-by-treatment” interactions? Well, in this scenario the teacher diagnoses and sorts the learners into groups, applies a randomized instructional “treatment” to each group, and then administers a test to determine which “treatment” worked better –– like a drug trial.
It's important to note that the debunkers' claim is thus based almost entirely on studies of teacher-controlled direct instruction; they don't involve scenarios where learners have agency. But the problem with studying learning in teacher-controlled settings is that it may be unclear whether you're measuring something about the learning or something about the teaching. In other words, you have to be sure that "Treatment A" isn't just a better or more interesting lesson than "Treatment B."
How can you solve that problem? Simple. By excluding from the list of methodologically acceptable studies anything that involves the kind of creative activities that good teachers might come up with to address the needs of diverse learners.
From the standpoint of strict scientific method, this is, of course, correct; your experimental protocol should control every variable except the one you're testing. How can you achieve this? By further simplification, of course: by creating a lesson so lacking in complexity that it can’t possibly be interesting to anyone. Like memorizing a random list of words.
Here’s where you run into what cognitive psychologist Frank Smith pointed out long ago; that much education research takes the form of collecting data on people’s ability to learn nonsense. The problem with this is that data on how people memorize a meaningless list of words may or may not have much to do with how they learn in complex, meaningful contexts. Many studies have shown that people (like rats and pigeons) can be induced to perform mechanical learning tasks at a low level in response to rewards or punishments –– but in the long run it turns out that rewards and punishments lessen intrinsic motivation to learn. So maybe most people can memorize a short random list of words equally well whether the words are presented visually or verbally. That, in itself, is a marginally interesting minor finding. But what does it really tell us?
It’s important to remember here that we don’t know why people have such strong preferences about learning modality, just that they do have them. One neuro-imaging study has suggested that people who self-report as preferring information presented either verbally or visually may mentally convert information to their preferred modality, essentially picturing the words or naming the pictures in their minds. So one possibility is simply that this conversion step changes the learner's subjective experience of the task, affecting whether they enjoy the activity or find it tedious and unpleasant. We all know that learning can either feel energizing and engrossing, where you are immersed in a “flow” experience of concentration, or it can feel stressful and exhausting, where you have to use enormous will power to force yourself to focus on something you dislike. Does working in one's preferred style have an impact on this? We don't know. What we do know is that the former kind of learning is 'better,' not because it will necessarily show up on a memorization test, but because people who experience it are more likely to pursue learning to a high level over time –– because they love it.
Of course that effect won't show up at all if your experiment involves learning that no one could love. Like memorizing a random list of words.
The bottom line is that the claim that LEARNING STYLES DON'T EXIST!! is based almost entirely on quantitative data from a small handful of highly simplistic randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of the type described in Willingham's video. The vast majority of the research in the field has simply been thrown out by the debunkers as methodologically flawed. Mountains of qualitative data –– from empirical observation, teacher experience, and the more complex non-randomized in-classroom studies that have in fact shown encouraging results –– is excluded from consideration. It's the equivalent of trying to learn about animal cognition solely based on controlled laboratory experiments while excluding data from the observational field research of wildlife biologists.
In other words, science doesn't work that way. As one teacher wrote:
I’ve conducted my own field studies of students in their natural habitat—my own classroom. And despite what this study claims, I have found that these individuals do learn differently from one another.
The debunkers would claim, of course, (in their patient, patronizing tone) that this teacher simply has what's called a "confirmation bias;" her years of experience tell us nothing meaningful, because she is seeing what she wants to see –– what confirms her pre-existing beliefs –– rather than thinking scientifically. They would encourage her to disregard her own perceptions, because science shows that our perceptions are often wrong. Then they would patiently lecture her on the merits of randomized controlled trials, and perhaps compare her to a believer in unicorns.
But in truth the history of science has not always been kind to those who take this scornful attitude toward the common sense perceptions of non-scientists. For decades, scientists believed that infants (and animals) lacked sufficiently developed neurological systems to experience pain –– so they performed surgery on human infants (and animals) without anesthesia. For decades, scientists were convinced that attributing emotional states to animals was anthropomorphism, so they ignored Jane Goodall's observational data about chimpanzees and mocked her as sentimental and unscientific (i.e, a woman.)
But in both of these cases, the intuitive perceptions of untrained people turned out to be more accurate than the scientific dogma of the era. Most ordinary pet owners believe their animals have emotions and feel pain, and certainly most mothers believe their babies do. Now we know they're right. As Goodall recalls:
These people were trying to make ethology a hard science... So they objected – quite unpleasantly – to me naming my subjects and for suggesting that they had personalities, minds and feelings. I didn't care... You cannot share your life with a dog... and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings. You know it and I think every single one of those scientists knew it too but because they couldn't prove it, they wouldn't talk about it.
Many teachers feel, in exactly the same way, that you can't spend your days in the presence of children and not know perfectly well that they have different styles of learning. It's worth remembering that there is a long history to the effort of male-dominated science to assert control over the traditionally female domains of birth, childrearing, and education, and it's worth noting that this effort has often been accompanied by scornful treatment of women. But from baby formula to behaviorism, Team Science has not always turned out to be right.
To make note of this is not, however, to be anti-science: it is to adhere to the facts. The lesson here is not that common sense is always right and science is always wrong; the lesson is that where scientific theory conflicts strongly with the basic empathic responses of ordinary people, history (and Jane Goodall) would suggest that it's a good idea to pay attention to those conflicts.
The conflict itself is a significant piece of data. There may turn out to be a reason for it. It should be an impetus not for derision but for curiosity –– and further investigation.
But again, the derisive –– even bullying –– tone of the debunkers' claims is a red flag that should tell us that there are issues not just of science, but of power at stake here. The question of what forms of knowledge are admissible in determining educational practice is not trivial, and should not be conceded lightly. Randomized controlled trials serve an essential purpose in advancing our scientific understanding; but that does not mean that they are the only form of knowledge that has value, and it does not give us a simple recipe for determining how much weight they deserve in decision-making. As economist Marc Bellemare has pointed out, in the complex realm of the social and behavioral sciences,
(I)nsisting on RCTs is like the drunk looking for his car keys under the street lamp when he knows he lost them elsewhere, because the only place he can actually see is under the street lamp. Many interesting research questions are not randomizable, but this should not prevent us from asking them.
Which raises an important point. Because preventing us from asking the question seems to be exactly what the debunkers are trying to do.
The question is, why?
4. The Territory Beyond the Map
There’s an Orwellian quality to the spectacle of cognitive scientists reasoning from their own inability to meaningfully address the differences in our children to a finding that our children don’t have meaningful differences after all.
Why does this matter? Because every year, all over the world, schools fail millions of healthy intelligent children who don’t learn well through traditional classroom methods. Most instruction is strongly imbalanced in favor of a narrow range of learning modalities –– text-based, abstract, decontextualized, analytic, sedentary. When you look at the lifelong psychological, social and economic damage done to intelligent children who do not learn well in conventional schools, you quickly realize that finding better ways to cope with human learning differences is not an academic question, but a problem of the utmost moral urgency.
There are meaningful ways to address these differences that have nothing to do with the "meshing hypothesis" or with sorting children into limiting categories. When a school system assumes that intelligent children learn differently, it can design for those differences. Instead of school as a standardized institution based in a one-size text-dominant approach to learning, school can be re-imagined as a vital and varied array of makerspaces, labs, and studios, cozy nooks for quiet reading, open spaces for noisy collaborating, calm places for formal instruction, and adaptive technology as a basic right rather than a special accommodation. In this kind of setting kids don’t need to be pigeonholed by their learning differences; they just need the freedom and agency to interact with the space and the teachers and the resources in a way that works for them –– and they need teachers who have the autonomy to respond to individual students' needs instead of having to force them all into one mold. Formal direct instruction then becomes one option among many rather than the one-size-fits-all medium that everybody lives or dies by.
The concept of learning styles, rather than rigid pigeonholes or stereotypes, can be seen as a flexible heuristic device for stimulating creativity and problem-solving in learning and teaching. Teachers and students who look together at the various cognitive style dimensions often find them an invaluable tool for reflection, a way to talk about which activities and approaches work best, which ones cause frustration and disengagement, which ones help kids get past roadblocks in learning. As Todd Rose says in The End of Average, any individual trait should be seen not as a static and unchanging characteristic, but as a tendency that has some stability over time but that may change and develop and vary according to task and context. It's not a tool for "sorting" people passively into groups, but a tool for active reflection and self-knowledge. It's a lever for getting unstuck, for re-directing energy more productively, for playing to students' strengths instead of repetitively penalizing them for their weaknesses.
What makes this issue so urgent –– and so tragic in its implications if we neglect to seriously address it –– is the way that individual learning differences can function to intensify and amplify the underlying economic and racial inequities in education. If a bright child from an affluent family doesn't learn well in a traditional classroom –– and make no mistake, many don't –– his parents have the option to place him in a private alternative educational setting (including homeschooling or unschooling) where he may be able to thrive. If a bright child from a low-income family has the exact same problem, he has nowhere to go. The system will treat him as though he has lower intelligence and academic aptitude; after years of this he may come to believe that he is less intelligent, and/or the frustration, shame, and stigma that he experiences may be channelled into discipline problems at school. If on top of this he is Black, there is a disproportionate risk that he'll be suspended from school and that school resource officers or even police will be involved when he is disciplined. The unaddressed individual learning difference can become a decisive link in the school-to-prison chain.
In other words, learning is intersectional. A female student of color who gets A's in a traditional formal classroom setting has one set of problems; a female student of color with a different intellectual style –– one who, for example, would shine with more active, self-directed learning methods, or more collaborative, socially engaged learning methods –– but who struggles in the traditional classroom –– has a bigger set of problems. She is marginalized and discriminated against in additional ways. Her intellectual talents and capacities are likely to be overlooked or diminished for additional reasons.
So when the debunkers double down on their claim that LEARNING STYLES DON'T EXIST, they are doubling down on the claim that the children who don't perform well in traditional instructional settings are in fact just less intelligent. Dr. Yana Weinstein, a vocal debunker, spells it out this way on David Didau's "Learning Spy" blog:
Some people need additional modalities more than other people... This is where things get really tricky and awkward. Essentially, at its core what this is saying is that some students are smarter than others. Some will just “get” it, no matter how dull and unvaried your teaching style is. They could probably just study a textbook alone and get an A. Then there are other students, who need a lot more scaffolding. The pictures, the videos, the Lego models all help. But no-one wants to say, “My son is a bit thick and doesn’t really like to sit still and read, so he needs to watch a video before he can understand anything.” Saying, “My son has a visual learning style” is much more palatable.
This gets more than "tricky and awkward."
What needs to be noted here is how the claim that LEARNING STYLES DON'T EXIST has morphed directly and explicitly into a claim about lower intelligence in certain children.
It is in the details of this discourse that its true import becomes manifest. In their piece "The Myth of Learning Styles," Willingham and co-author Cedar Riener explain that we already know that students have meaningful differences in ability (some are dumber), that they have differences in background knowledge (some are more ignorant), and that some of them have learning disabilities. Only interest is acknowledged as a value-neutral difference; every other difference is framed as a deficit. And the burden of proof is placed on anyone who wants to challenge this framing.
The question, then, is this: is there a scientific reason we should assume every difference is a deficit until proven otherwise?
Or is there a historical reason that difference was framed as deficit from the beginning, intentionally, to perpetuate and justify a hierarchical society of winners and losers?
In a literature review examining the application of learning styles research to the education of Native American students, Comanche-Kiowa education professor Cornel Pewewardy points out that "before educators became interested in learning styles research, it was generally assumed by non-Indian researchers that American Indian / Alaska Native children lacked the innate intelligence and ability to succeed in formal school programs." Pewewardy makes clear that of course there is no "Native American learning style" –– Native children have as many individual differences as any other group of children –– and people on both sides of the debate have pointed out that care must be taken that 'styles' don't just become a coded form of stereotyping certain children as less able to learn. There is, however, evidence supporting the idea of broad cultural variations in perception and cognition that exist independent of overall cognitive ability. For example, some cultures may foster a way of conceptualizing reality that is more contextualized and integrated, while others encourage a more abstracted, compartmentalized mode of thinking. The design of school lessons and tests may be biased toward one of these cognitive styles over the other, thus producing more success for one demographic group of children and more failure for another.
So let's be crystal clear about this: if we abandon the idea that equally intelligent children may simply learn differently, and if we abandon the attempt to understand these differences and to meaningfully address them, this is the point that we circle back to. Whether current models of learning styles hold up or not as research progresses doesn't matter; what matters is that we continue to move forward in our effort to understand human intellectual diversity, not backward to narrow racially biased conceptions of human intelligence and human learning. And we need to understand that when Willigham states that "it would be so nice if it were true," that intelligent children simply learn differently –– but that actually, it's a myth –– he is indirectly making an extremely significant claim about the intelligence of the millions of children who fail by the very instructional methods he advocates as 'evidence-based.'
It's essential to recognize that most research in psychology has been conducted on a narrow cultural subset of humanity –– what Henrich et al. have called “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) populations –- which are in no way representative of human populations overall. And it's equally essential to remember the ugly history of Euro-western scientists who have viewed their research findings as universally applicable to all human populations when they’re not –- an arrogant, ethnocentric blindness that has been a key tool in the colonization and subjugation of Indigenous people. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith says in her seminal work Decolonizing Methodologies:
From the vantage point of the colonized, a position from which I write, and choose to privilege, the term 'research' is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism. The word itself, 'research,' is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world's vocabulary. When mentioned in many indigenous contexts, it stirs up silence, it conjures up bad memories, it raises a smile that is knowing and distrustful.... just knowing that someone measured our 'faculties' by filling the skulls of our ancestors with millet seeds and compared the amount of millet seed to the capacity for mental thought offends our sense of who and what we are.
So before we uncritically accept the debunkers' claim that the scientific research supports a One-Style-Fits-All approach to instruction, we should stop and ask ourselves: "Who invented that One Style? Who succeeds by it, and who fails? What historical power structures does it emanate from, and whose power does it perpetuate and reproduce?
The elephant in the room here is that the reasoning behind the 'scientific' claims of 'evidence-based' education rest on a tautological logic that was historically designed to serve the interests of a ruling class of people and that continues to unerringly serve those interests to this day. The logic goes like this:
What “works?” Direct instruction. How do we know? Tests. Who designs the tests? The same people who have always designed the tests.
What do the tests correlate with? Success in school. What does success in school correlate with? (Hint: it’s not creativity, compassion, critical thinking, scientific curiosity, artistic vision, sustainability, justice, spiritual insight, sense of humor, interpersonal skill, practical competence, or entrepreneurial success.) Success in school correlates with more school success, through a narrow band of verbal and analytical skills that are valued and measured in schools. More school success correlates with access to the elite institutions and sites of economic and political power that require school success as a gatekeeper for entry.
(Oh, yeah. And it correlates with family income.)
It's a self-enclosed circle, self-defining, self-perpetuating, and accountable only to itself. It automatically replicates existing structures of power and automatically excludes vast swaths of humanity. That's what it was designed to do from the beginning, and that's what it continues to do today.
That's why historian Ibram X. Kendi, author of the National Book Award-winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, has argued that we must move beyond the critique of standardized testing to a broader and deeper critique of standardized schooling. Of course we must continue to fight for equity in education. But we must go beyond the well-intentioned effort to equalize student achievement to a deeper understanding that the very concept of an academic "achievement gap" between Black and White students is an intrinsically racist idea. In other words, we must step outside of the self-reinforcing tautology of testing and schooling, where the intelligence of Black and Indigenous children is defined within frameworks that were historically created by White people for the explicit purpose of upholding White supremacy.
The fact that we as a society are still measuring intelligence with instruments directly descended from the IQ test designed by eugenicists like Lewis Terman would be laughable were its consequences not so devastating. The notion that a ruling class of people is somehow qualified to objectively measure the intelligence of the peoples they have historically colonized and enslaved –– and from whose subjugation they continue to profit today –– is like something out of science fiction. It's absurd on its face. But what Kendi is emphasizing is that it doesn't do us any good to challenge the tests if we don't address the fact that our school system was structurally designed by the same colonizers and enslavers, and that it still privileges and validates the same narrow bandwidth of human intelligence that IQ tests measure –– and excludes or devalues every other form of intelligence.
And every other style of learning.
Mi'kmaw education professor Dr. Marie Battiste has coined a very clear term for the tendency of one powerful group to claim the authority to define a narrow set of cognitive traits and behaviors as superior and all other ways of thinking and learning about the world as deficits and disabilities: she calls it “cognitive imperialism.” It's the cognitive form of racism. Indigenous scholars like Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Andrea Landry have argued that it's past time for Indigenous people to stop seeking recognition within their colonizers' education system and instead return to practicing Indigenous intellectual traditions on their own terms and to pass them on to children by means of their own pedagogies.
Because outside the closed circle of Eurocentric education, there are many styles of learning that education researchers would do well to know more about –- modes of learning that could help the children who currently fail in our schools. In the many cultures where learning is consensual, non-compulsory, observational, and participatory, children acquire extraordinary levels of knowledge with no direct instruction at all. They learn through full inclusion and gradually increasing participation in adult activities, through full immersion in local ecosystems and livelihoods, through free play in multi-aged groups of children, through voluntary sharing of story, song, poetry, history. They learn through non-hierarchical collaborative forms of thinking that are rarely made possible in formal schools. They learn through a broadly focused attentional state some researchers have called "open attention" –– a state completely different from the state of narrowly focused attention demanded in schools –– which allows children to absorb detailed information through keen observation rather than direct instruction.
Education researchers would do well to know that adults in cultures all over the world maintain that direct instruction is in fact the least effective approach to learning –– and should be avoided whenever possible –– because children learn better and more deeply when they figure things out for themselves. And they would do well to pay attention to the fact that successful artists and scientists and entrepreneurs with remarkable consistency say exactly same thing.
The last few decades' research on learning styles represents a very small, very preliminary effort to step outside of the tautological closed circle of traditional Eurocentric education. It reflects a willingness to seek openings in those walled borders, to clear other pathways for the human mind to navigate. It's a small foray into a broad and exhilarating terrain where human intelligence and human learning take many diverse forms.
Viewed through that lens, it is unsurprising that these steps have so far been inadequate, and equally unsurprising that they are currently being retraced safely back inside the Eurocentric circle. It is unsurprising to see the 'One Size Fits All' walls going back up, with test scores standing as armed guards at the borders.
And sadly, it is unsurprising to see the claim that anything outside those walled borders is a myth –– a thing that doesn’t even exist.
5. Here Be Dragons
We should all know by now that structural racism can operate unconsciously, through unquestioned assumptions that have a racist impact without the oppressor intending or even being aware of the oppression.
Lately, however, some popular 'debunker' bloggers have been following their line of reasoning to its logical conclusions by reviving a discussion of racial differences in IQ scores. Like following a trail of breadcrumbs back home, they are finding their way, step by step, back to their institutional origins in scientific racism. As disturbing as this is, it actually provides us with an opportunity to critically examine the ways that racist thinking is still deeply structurally embedded in modern institutional schooling, through a core set of interlinked ideas that have been hardwired into the institution from the beginning. In re-claiming the idea that One Learning Style Fits All, in re-claiming the centrality of a standardized Eurocentric "core knowledge" curriculum, in re-claiming the universal validity of an IQ-based framing of intelligence and a system of hierarchical grading and ranking that consistently frames Black and Indigenous children as less intelligent than White children, the debunkers are –– wittingly or unwittingly –– re-laying the foundational bricks of scientific racism.
Many, no doubt, don't consciously intend this. Many no doubt genuinely want to help all students, including students of color, by bringing them into the closed circle of schooling as they understand it.
And in truth all students have an equal right to that traditional form of education if that's what they and their families want. As a straight and narrow path to power, it has its advantages (for those who aren't destroyed by it), and the most racist thing imaginable is for white people to debate their favorite flavor of education and then try to impose their preferences on people of color. Students of color have every right to traditional direct instruction, to a traditional core curriculum, to all the traditional educational keys to status and power. They have a right to facilities and resources and tools of equal quality to those that white students get. And they have a right to teachers of color who can both help them navigate the structures and styles of power and also, crucially, teach them to critically see through and beyond that closed circle.
But they also have a right to live outside the circle. They have a right to live beyond it, to define their intelligence on other terms, to learn and to grow in other ways. The growing movement among Black and Indigenous and Latinx and other families of color for homeschooling, unschooling, or as one family calls it, 'ancestral schooling,' is a movement to reclaim that right. These families know that, as Kendi puts it, "intellectual difference, and multiple literacies, languages, and vocabularies, are only valued in a multi-cultural society that truly values diversity and difference." They are creating that society now. They are not waiting around for white researchers to "discover" –– like Columbus "discovered" a continent –– that other intellectual styles exist.
The debunkers, of course, don't see that. They truly believe that their map is the whole territory. Like medieval European cartographers, they stand at the boundaries of their own understanding, warning us not to fall off the edge of the world, shouting LEARNING STYLES DON'T EXIST!! the way the mapmakers of old warned hic sunt dracones, "here be dragons."
And beyond their known world they see only myths and darkness.