Learning styles, heuristics, and employability skills

 Two chairs in sunshine

There’s nothing wrong with a recent article on the (excellent) site The Conversation. Nothing at all. With the descriptive, if slightly unwieldy title, Students are not hard-wired to learn in different ways – we need to stop using unproven, harmful methods, the article is one of a series.

In our series, Better Teachers, we’ll explore how to improve teacher education in Australia. We’ll look at what the evidence says on a range of themes including how to raise the status of the profession and measure and improve teacher quality.

They say this as if telling people the best ways to teach leads to better teaching. By the same analogy, the books I’ve collected on my shelves should lead to me being a more knowledgeable person. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that.

The problem, as I see it, is that people expect both the ends and the means of a change to be pure and unsullied. Let’s take learning styles as an example. The article is absolutely right to point out that there’s no such thing as a fixed best way for each of us to learn.

If learning styles exist at all, these are not “hard wired” and are at most simply preferences. What we prefer is neither fixed for all time nor always what is best for us.

That’s fine, but what the author seemingly fails to grasp is the importance of second-order effects. I’ve seen time and again examples of people exploring learning styles as ‘different ways to teach the same thing’ and realising that it’s OK to mix things up a bit. 

In this sense, learning styles can best be thought of as an heuristic, an “approach to problem solving, learning, or discovery that employs a practical method not guaranteed to be optimal or perfect, but sufficient for the immediate goals”. Another definition is “enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves”. We need to do this for teachers, who are, lest we forget, also learners themselves.

As I keep saying with my work on ambiguity, terms (like learning styles!) are not fixed once and for all time. So terminology becomes, for an indeterminate amount of time productively ambiguous before they slip off into dead metaphors.

I can see something similar at the moment about ’employability skills’. There’s much to critique there, but if it’s the term du jour why not use it for something constructive? The notion of ‘learning styles’, at it’s most reductive, is harmful. But used metaphorically and as a gateway to further self-discovery for teacher, I’d argue, it’s potentially a useful term.

Image via Nomad Pictures