Saturday, January 16, 2010

Research on Learning Styles

There have been a major paper on learning styles in the months since I finished my capstone paper. Neurologically, the empirical research is not good for those who ascribe to them. I refer you to the following sources that pretty much shred the idea that learning styles have an actual brain structure foundation:

Springer, S. P. & Deutsch, G. (1998). Left brain, right brain: perspectives from cognitive neuroscience. 5th ed. New York : W. H. Freeman and Company.
Smeets, G., & Merckelbach, H. (1997, November). Panic disorder and right-hemisphere reliance. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 10(3), 245. Retrieved December 1, 2008, from Academic Search Premier database.
Zalewski, L., Sink, C., & Yachimowicz, D. (1992, January). Using cerebral dominance for education programs. The Journal Of General Psychology, 119(1), 45-57. Retrieved December 2, 2008, from MEDLINE database.

The paper referenced in the article, "Matching Teaching Style to Learning Style May Not Help Students", has caused quite a stir with many educators. However, from what I've read of it (being that I am too poor to go around and subscribing to all these journals to see the full paper), it is quite correct about the lack of solid research and validity on the matter. Based on my own research into the subject, the styles don't really map onto the cognitive functions in a clear and concise manner.

The crux of the matter is that the theory of learning styles does have some usefulness in practical application, just not necessarily to the degree many people want it to have. The main author of the paper is quite right to compare it to the Myer-Briggs stuff - the two theories are very similiar in many ways. They work well in clear cut and dry situations, but most humans are not like that. If you try applying them religiously, you will start having to make exceptions to the point that you have something that resembles the rules for spelling English words.

For me, I see the Myer-Briggs Temperment Indicator (and to some extent learning styles) the same way I see the Lewis Dot]Electron Dot diagrams in chemistry. They can only describe things on the simplest level. Get into more complex personalities (which doesn't mean "unhealthy" ones, many healthy personalities can actually be quite complex and some of the simplest personalities can be very unhealthy) and everything starts falling apart, like working with transition metals. Which makes complete sense to me, because healthy individuals actually change in personality traits over time, due to maturation, mental and emotional stresses, illness/health and other developmental process affecting agents. Some MBTI experts do take this into consideration and adjust for it. It is also possible for chemists using metals to use electron dot diagrams with metals, by keeping a reference of possible electron charges near them. However, there is a great danger on relying on any of these methods for more than a cursory beginning. They only briefly describe the surface situtation. Their premises for the deeper levels have no validity on the scientific level.

It's sort of like knowing that tornados in the middle of the United States usually come from the southwest and go to the northeast. You know that is what normally happens by looking at the destruction afterwards, however, that never stops a tornado from going the opposite direction for a little while, before going back to the normal track. Nor can you really know what path it will travel. And when it comes to personality, learning and cognition, there is no such thing as a straight line between points A and B.

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