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School Daze

There is something vaguely unethical about experimenting with the ways that children are taught in schools, because getting things wrong can have a serious effect on the children's intellectual and social development.

Teaching has always been subjected to fashion and fad but in most cases the children manage to come out at the end of the process with at least some grasp of what used to be called "The Three Rs", although as someone who went through school learning grammar, spelling, mental arithmetic, times tables and neat writing (the last of which I never really mastered) I'm a little concerned at statements I've seen recently that nobody needs to know arithmetic because everyone has a calculator and it's not necessary to teach any form of handwriting because everyone has a keyboard and what is typed is automatically checked for correct spelling but spelling and grammar aren't really necessary for communication anyway.

One comparatively recent fashionable theory is called "Learning Styles", which posits that children have different ways of learning and teaching methods should be individually tailored to the appropriate style for each child. Scientific evidence of the validity of the theory has been claimed.

The three styles are:

  • Visual You learn by seeing and looking. Take detailed notes rather than get involved in discussions.
  • Auditory You learn by hearing and listening. You will hum and/or talk to yourself.
  • Kinesthetic You learn by touching and doing. You will remember what was done, but have difficulty with what was said or seen.

Nobody would argue that everyone learns in the same way, but problems arise when children are categorised as being in one group only and all education is delivered according to the group.

Schools have been paying money for the tests which classify students, and some schools have even gone as far as to have different uniforms for the three categories. This is redolent of Edward de Bono's "Six Thinking Hats" which used to plague business seminars a few years ago and give us something to laugh at in the pub after a day's "training", but the consequences are much more severe. Physically labelling children according to some purported hard-wired learning style is not only blatantly discriminatory but it imposes and reinforces the children's own self images of inadequacy (and even failure) in the areas from which they are excluded.

Opposition to learning styles is not new, and there have been several challenges to the supposed scientific basis for the theory. A report published by the Australian Council for Education Research in 2010 found no supporting evidence and actually used the word "rubbish" to describe the strategy. Investigations by other education academics have also failed to find any evidence for the practice, and have pointed out the dangers of telling children that there are things that they are not capable of doing. Telling someone often enough that they will never understand mathematics, for example, will probably not lead to any desire to learn maths.

Another insidious effect that has been detected is that indigenous students are vastly overrepresented in the "Kinesthetic" category, which can look suspiciously like division on racial or ethnic lines (although hopefully accidental). The unintended consequence of this would be to steer these children into manual occupations rather than, say, higher education.

But is there really any science behind the theory? I suspect that there is probably as much as there is for the Myers-Briggs personality tests used to determine the sorts of occupations that people are suitable to follow, which is not very much at all. Both systems are based on the idea that people can be assumed to have fixed and limited abilities and are incapable of learning different skills or expanding their intellectual horizons. And who wouldn't be insulted by that?

In a sense, though, there doesn't need to be any science, because common sense and life experience teaches us that nobody is exclusively fixed into one of the categories. It's not possible to play a musical instrument without actual hands-on experience, but if you can't hear the wrong notes you are never going to be any good at it. You can't paint in oils without the ability to visualise the finished work but brush skills have to be learnt and practised. Most sports require both visual and kinesthetic ability (and in tennis it helps to listen to the sound of your opponent's racquet hitting the ball).

Then there is the quality of the testing to place students in the categories. As research for this article I took two tests. The results were that I am highly Auditory, moderately Visual and low Kinesthetic. Except that the second test showed me to be almost exclusively Visual, a little bit Auditory and barely measurable Kinesthetic. It is a bit surprising then that the only sport I have ever been good at is motor sport, which requires a high level of all three categories, especially Kinesthetic. Apart from the inter-test unreliability, by the fifth question in both I had worked out the scoring template. This did not suggest that any science had been applied to the test development and, by inference, to the results of the tests. And if the testing is unreliable then it probably shouldn't be used to direct how and what children should be taught.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the September 2016 edition of Australasian Science

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