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Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Mercury Model

I have to admit that the new research programme on which I have embarked is in many ways even more difficult than my epic anthropological research. My new project has its origins in the massive waves of nausea that overcame me when I read the title of my final term paper, due at the end of the current semester, which was something like:

"Evaluate how your learning style has developed over the first year of your programme and reflect on how this might make you be more better at gittin an edercashun.."

Nevertheless, as a dutiful student I took a questionnaire, designed to assess my Preferred Learning Style. I was disappointed to find that I was a "Reflector", so I took another questionnaire, designed by different authors. This time I found to my satisfaction that I was a Pragmatist. Seeking confimation of this diagnosis, I took a few more questionnaires, and found that I was, variously, A Diver, A Doer, An Actionist, A Ponderer, A Deep Study, A Skim Reader, Pre-Operational and after one test, taken while imbibing several draughts of the amber nectar, I was declared a high functioning Rhesus Monkey.

My scepticism, already at Condition Amber, was subsequently raised to Condition Red. Further reseacrh was indicated. After all, my reasoning went, tests, if measuring the same thing, should deliver at least a modicum of consistency - it would be most alarming if, during the course of some routine medical tests, you were to discover that the various measurements taken had shown that you had a healthy blood pressure, despite being clinically dead according to the ECG machine. Questions, one assumes, might be raised.

I therefore have been investigating the Theories of Learning Styles. One point of call on the journey has been the people over at "The European Learning Style Information Network" Conference (ELSIN). The 78 major models of Learning Styles are discussed, reviewed and 'workshopped' wih many serious papers, published in peer reviewed journals resulting. In all fairness, the Learning Style model is an interesting one, and the originators of these models, are mainly serious scientists who had interesting things to say. However, over time, new research sheds light on the machinations of all things scientific, and just as the Flat Earthers woke up one day to discover they were sitting on a disc, it has become apparent over the last decade that for Learning Styles, the jig is, as they say, up. Academic life, as anyone who may have been recently elevated to the ranks of, say, Professor, will be able to tell you, is tough.

I trawl through the proceedings of the various ELSIN conferences, looking for words like "empirical", "tested", "evidence" and so on, but alas, alack, I find no such words. My search ends when I find a paper which may perhaps hint at the direction that these Experiental Learning Styles enthusiasts are heading. The paper investigates a realm of Science that I have frequently advocated my Scientist friends to follow, mainly on the basis of a simple profit/loss equation.

The abstract from the 'paper' starts promisingly enough "Within our common humanity we are all unique...........". This is difficult to refute, so I continue to read ".........One key difference is our style of thinking and learning and we propose that this can be described in considerable depth and detail from data derived from date of birth.........." Hmmm, this is getting hard to follow. I wonder where they are going with this, so I read on "...............This presentation will introduce our original work, Mercury Model, an astrological approach to the identification and description of learning styles. ......."

I pause and check the ELSIN website homepage and find that the aims are described as:

The aims of ELSIN are to:

* further opportunity for research and development in learning and cognitive styles and strategies of learning and thinking
* promote collaboration with practitioners in various contexts
* enable the dissemination of information about learning and cognitive styles and strategies of learning and thinking
* promote international collaboration in research and development
* facilitate events that help to realise these aims

Nowhere do I find the words "clutching at straws", nor any reference to barrels, particularly scraping the bottom thereof, but in another conference presentation I find reference to a report by Dr Coffield. Dr Coffield, you may remember, conducted a thorough examination into Learning STyles theories and concluded that for all 73 of the buggers, the evidence was, at best, weak. Dr Coffield was not invited back, neither were any of the neurocoscientist whose names had previoulsy graced the Conference Schedule in the early part of ELSIN's life, and had presented papers that initially had titles like "Steady On, Now!" and "Hang on, Guys. Let's not Get Too Excited here". Later, as Neuroscience investigated Learning in more detail, Neuroscientist papers came to have titles like "Time Out", or "I think there's a bit of a Problem" and "Hey Guys, can we just hunker round, we seem to be a bit lost? ".

All of this could be seen as amusing, but it does not really affect anyone does it? I will answer my own question immediately. Actually it does. It affects the Education Policy of this country. In fact, Learning styles IS the Education Strategy of this country, as the notion of Learning Styles has been wholeheartedly endorsed by this country's Education Department. The principle, boldly stated, that "every child has a different learning style" is now part of Government policy, and educators are instructed to begin teaching according to it's beliefs. Is this a bad thing? Yes is the answer. Particularly when you consider the effect that stupid or bad psychological theory can have.

Take Hans Eysenck, for example. Eysenck's notorious theories on so-called IQ led to some disastrous results, most notably the use of his theories to "demonstrate" that there were links between intelligence and race, and gave rise to routine school based administration of IQ tests in the UK (called the '11 plus' tests), tests that streamed pupils at the age of 11. Given that a three tier system of education was operating in the UK at the time (Grammar, Secondary Modern and Comprehensive were the school categories)the effect of all this was that kid's future's were effectively decided at that tender age. 'Clever' kids (and therefore future doctors, lawyers, leaders) went to Grammar School, while the 'thickies' who failed, went to Comprehensive Schools. It was widely accepted that kids from Comprehensives were the future bricklayers and tanners of this country. One consequence of this was that for a long time Comprehensive Schools were persistently underfunded, and tended to predominate in blue collar areas. It goes without saying, or should do, that the eventual success of many kids from Comprehensive Schools, is not only a testament to some great schools overcoming the disadvantages built into an inequitable system, but also non-empirical proof of what a load of old crap the notion of IQ testing of 11 year olds actually is.

The problem with Learning Styles Theory is that it does the same thing as IQ tests, namely categorize people. I personally would have no objection to any of this if there was any validity to these theories. The fact is though, like IQ tests, no one really knows what Learning Style inventories are actually measuring, and the neuroscientific evidence contradicts the Mr Kolb (the proponent of Learning Styles) and his model. In other words, the UK's Education system is once agian launching itself into a voyage of the unknown, which, when you consider what is at stake, is ridiculous.

A final point should be made. ELSIN's links page points you in the direction of

The editor in chief of ISSID was S.B.G Eysenck. Their approach to research is revealing:

The editors are concerned with both genetic and environmental causes, and they are particularly interested in possible interaction effects. Ultimately they believe that human beings are bio-social organisms and that work on individual differences can be most fruitfully pursued by paying attention to both these aspects of our nature. They believe that advances are more likely to be made by the use of the hypothetical-deductive method, though empirical data based on sound research and providing interesting new findings, would of course not be rejected simply because they might not have a good theoretical underpinning.

I love emphasis on the "Hypothetical-deductive" approach. When I was a kid, this was called guessing, and it is probably how I passed the 11 plus.

1 comment:

Will said...

There is no evidence that there is any such phenomenon as 'learning styles' apart from vague generalisations. Really you should hand this post in as your essay.