Right brainer or left brainer? Pragmatist or theorist?

Industrial and Commercial Training

ISSN: 0019-7858

Article publication date: 1 October 2004



(2004), "Right brainer or left brainer? Pragmatist or theorist?", Industrial and Commercial Training, Vol. 36 No. 6. https://doi.org/10.1108/ict.2004.03736fab.003



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Right brainer or left brainer? Pragmatist or theorist?

Right brainer or left brainer? Pragmatist or theorist?

How can teachers be effective unless they understand how their students learn? And how can organizations improve the performance of their employees without knowing how their learning can be enhanced? These are among the issues that are addressed in Should We be Using Learning Styles? a research report from the UK Learning and Skills Development Agency.

The publication is the outcome of 16 months' work by a team of researchers, led by Frank Coffield, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, London University. The team examined theories about learning styles and scrutinised some of the leading commercial products in the field.

The researchers discovered more than 70 instruments designed to identify people's learning styles. They undertook rigorous scrutiny of 13 of these, plus a literature review of the main theories on learning styles.

The research reveals “a proliferation of concepts, instruments and strategies” and “a bedlam of contradictory claims”. Some approaches are based on theories claiming that activity related to learning can be identified in different areas of the brain. Other approaches draw on psychological theories claiming that people have fixed traits that form learning styles, leading to assumptions that people cannot develop a wide repertoire of learning styles. A third approach promotes a type of “pedagogic sheep dip”, where teaching strategies deliberately engage with various learning styles.

The report says: “The outcome – the constant generation of new approaches, each with its own language – is both bewildering and off-putting to practitioners and to other academics who do not specialize in this field”.

Rigorous analysis by the research team suggested that some of the most widely used instruments have low reliability, poor validity and a negligible impact on teaching and learning. But it must be noted that not all instruments are designed for use by teachers and students; some are better suited to managers and their employers in business.

Simplistic judgements are being made about learning styles. The research revealed examples of stereotyping, with learners labelled as “verbalisers or imagers, activists or reflectors, left brainers or right brainers”. Simplistic judgements are also being made about the links between learning styles and good practice in inspections. An analysis of 30 inspection reports highlighted the importance of focusing on the needs of individual learners, but revealed no consistency on whether inspectors commended the use of learning styles or not.

Professor Coffield argues that many assumptions about learning styles and what is “good practice” are being made in policy documents, guidelines for teachers and national standards for teacher training. He also points out that standards for management training contain no references to learning styles and that more emphasis is needed on the need for managers to understand learning as the basis for helping and motivating staff.

Professor Coffield said: “Some of the learning- style instruments – many of them well-known commercial products – make extravagant claims of success that are not upheld when subjected to scrutiny. Furthermore, people who use these instruments may come to think in stereotypes, tending to label vocational students, for instance, as if they are all non-reflective, activity-based learners”.

He added: “The real danger is that if learners think they are a 'low auditory, kinaesthetic learner', they might see little point in reading a book or listening to anyone for more than a few minutes. We believe that teachers and trainers should move away from individual learning styles to broader notions of how learners approach and conceive of learning. But the audit culture – the system of power, regulation and control in post-16 education and training – may restrict teachers' freedom to choose the most effective intervention. If inspectors are claiming that failure can be laid at the door of those teachers who do not use learning styles to differentiate their students, then there may be no need to discuss resources, financial incentives, pay and conditions, the assessment regime or the quality of senior management”.

Kate Anderson, LSDA Director of research, commented: “We need a much better understanding of how individuals learn and of the tools we can safely use to identify their learning styles and motivations. This research suggests that students will become more motivated to learn by knowing more about their own strengths and weaknesses as learners. Also, if teachers can respond flexibly to students' individual learning styles, the quality of teaching and learning is likely to rise. An understanding of learning styles can also open broader cultural change within the organization. Instruments that identify individual learning styles may act as a catalyst for change, but they must be used with great care”.

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