A Solution That Is Neat, Plausible, and Wrong
When I was pursuing my teacher certification, nearly all of my education classes stressed that teachers should teach to different learning styles. The most prominent theory of learning styles is the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which says that there are nine different kinds of intelligence, including the traditional lingual and logical-mathematical, as well as musical, inter and intrapersonal, and existential, and that people learn best when information is presented to them via their strongest intelligences. It’s an interesting theory that’s relatively simple to grasp, and it’s not terribly difficult to craft a curriculum around the ideas. Unfortunately, there’s not really any empirical data to show that it — or any of the other learning-style theories — are true. A review of the available literature on learning styles from 2008 found no evidence to support learning-style theories and some evidence that contradicted them. From the study’s abstract:
Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.
We conclude therefore, that at present, there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice. Thus, limited education resources would better be devoted to adopting other educational practices that have a strong evidence base, of which there are an increasing number. However, given the lack of methodologically sound studies of learning styles, it would be an error to conclude that all possible versions of learning styles have been tested and found wanting; many have simply not been tested at all. Further research on the use of learning-styles assessment in instruction may in some cases be warranted, but such research needs to be performed appropriately.
So, why does a completely unproven theory dominate teacher training? Part of the answer is that education, like most industries, is subject to fads that seem fascinating and obvious at the time but later prove to be ineffective. However, I think that the government’s near monopoly on schools contributes to the problem. Because education is dominated by one entity, it is extremely static; therefore, while it may be very difficult for a renegade idea to take hold, once it has been ensconced as revealed truth, it will remain in curricula long after it is proven false. I don’t know for certain that a more competitive education industry would be less susceptible to incorrect theories, but at the very least it would allow for innovators to come in and demonstrate new and possibly superior methods of teaching. Some will be better and some will be worse, but it is only through that kind of trial and error that we can advance — not by clinging to unproven dogmas.
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