Teachers, Learning Styles, and Using Data to Drive Instruction

Everyone likes data that back their prejudices. Academics call it “confirmation bias.” It runs rife among U.S. Presidents, state governors, legislators, school district policymakers, and Moms and Dads. I include myself in the crowd. People with beliefs on one or the other side of an issue lean heavily on examples and evidence that supports their view of, say, gun control, dieting, the worth of alternative medicine or the two-shooter theory in the Kennedy assassination. Resisting confirmation bias and being open-minded, a process that is closer to sandpaper rather than a soft pillow, requires awareness of one’s beliefs, values and positions on issues. It is hard work and requires attention in what one chooses to read, listen to, and think because it is far easier to screen out or avoid contrary information. Convenience often trumps thinking. All of this is also true for teachers. Consider the issue of  data-driven instruction and learning styles.

Gurus, vendors, and policymakers urge teachers to use test data such as research results and experts’ lists of “best practices” in their daily lessons (see here and here). The record of actual teacher use of data in classrooms however, is, at best, spotty. What happens, then, when research evidence overwhelmingly goes against deeply-held teacher beliefs in “learning styles?”

The most recent and detailed reviews of the literature on learning styles reveals little support for providing materials that play to the auditory, visual, tactile, and other ways that students learn (see here and here). Yet teacher beliefs about the importance of differentiating instruction to meet students’ varied interests, attitudes, abilities, and “styles” continue to be unflagging (see here).

Making sense of the contradiction between using data to drive classroom decisions and the poverty of studies that support “learning style”

So many teachers and studies have claimed–the operative phrase is “research shows”–that learning styles exist and differentiating instruction to match varied “styles” will lead to higher academic achievement (see here and here). Yet meta-analyses of available research has found little concrete evidence of such linkages. Even more so, the research on student learning styles is often deeply flawed in both design and methodology. Researchers have concluded:

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them.
There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtually no evidence for [causal links between styles and achievement]…. Al-
though the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.
A less jargony and concise analysis of learning styles and connections to student outcomes can be found in psychologist Daniel Willingham’s Q & A on the subject (see here).
So what’s going on here? Are teacher beliefs so powerful as to overcome strong findings that challenge those very beliefs? The answer is, unsurprisingly, yes. Not only do teacher beliefs in learning styles trump evidence but similar tensions between beliefs and data-driven decisions occur around direct instruction, multiple intelligences, and holding students back for a semester or year and other practices. But teachers, of course, are not the only professionals to succumb to confirmation bias. Doctors, lawyers, software engineers–name the profession–have similar issues. In short, the practice is pervasive among professionals and average folk.
If such cognitive bias is rife among the highly and barely educated, where does that leave data-driven instructional decisions as a “best practice?” Such biases mean, at least to me, that for any reforms aimed at teaching and learning the very first step is to deal openly and directly with the varied beliefs (and assumptions) that teachers have about their content knowledge, how best to teach that content to the young, and how do children learn more and better. These beliefs influence teacher choices of daily activities, instructional materials, arranging classroom furniture, what subject-matter and skills to teach, and grouping of students.
Without attention to teacher beliefs, confirmation bias will continue to go unnoticed as it so often does among physicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and software developers. And data-driven instruction will remain lofty rhetoric rather than classroom realities.


Filed under how teachers teach

25 responses to “Teachers, Learning Styles, and Using Data to Drive Instruction

  1. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Well, we – Paul, Casper, myself, but also many other – try to work on those teacher beliefs with blogs and our book and many other books, but it’s indeed still a long way to go….

    • larrycuban

      Pedro, thanks for comment and “Urban Myths” piece that catalogued items from your co-authored book. The history of the pyramid of knowledge learning was fascinating. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for addressing this important topic, and for the links to the research. Promoting the language of “”learning styles” in school isn’t just unhelpful, it can also be actively harmful. It has been my experience (as a teacher) that it encourages in students the idea that there are some subjects in which they are intrinsically incapable of succeeding. As a result, students exert minimal effort in these subjects and avoid them where possible. Instead of seeking feedback, adjusting their study strategies, and working toward improvement, students frequently abdicate agency and say “well, that teacher/subject really didn’t meet my learning style.” Thus, in an Orwellian turn of events, adults have adopted an educational language that causes students to diminish their sense of their own potential, and to deliberately truncate their educational experiences.

  3. Pingback: Teachers, Learning Styles, and Using Data to Drive Instruction | teaching knowledge and creativity

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  5. kassissieh

    “even an educator who does the right thing, who takes the time to search for the literature, could easily come to a false conclusion about this stuff. ”

  6. Laura H. Chapman

    A variant of this thinking about learning styles and dispositions is found in recent peer-reviewed research and promotions of explicit instruction to help students learn academic and social-emotional skills. Here are three recent examples.
    1. Mindset theorist and psychologist at Stanford University, Dr. Carol Dweck, has TED talks, a couple of best selling books for business, and a “Brainology” website replete with teaching materials and a full-spectrum “professional development” package (last check $6000) designed to help all students acquire a mindset oriented toward learning, especially through repeated practice and what my generation knew as “the power of positive thinking.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X0mgOOSpLU
    2. The (Angela) Duckworth Lab at the University of Pennsylvania is also working on concepts about dispositions or personal attributes that favor academic learning, with a sharp focus on two traits that seem to predict achievement: grit and self-control. Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. Self-control is the voluntary regulation of impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions. Both concepts are related in programs of character education. See http://www.characterlab.org or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H14bBuluwB8
    3. A third center of activity is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in Chicago http://www.casel.org/. CASEL’s work is rooted in sociology, especially Bandura’s demonstrations of learned aggression in young children. In addition to advocacy, CASEL serves as a clearing house and evaluator of assessments for social-emotional learning (SEL).
    With help from CASEL staff, Illinois developed SEL standards for pre-school then 100 additional standards extending to grade 12 and organized around ten themes.
    The Illinois standards are intended to help students to “establish and monitor their progress toward achieving academic and personal goals.” (I found an astonishing expectation that students in K-4 should be able to “recognize and accurately label emotions and how they are linked to behavior.” That sounds to me like a challenging assignment even for a person with a Ph.D in psychiatry or linquistics).
    In any case SEL is represented as way to reduce bullying, prevent substance abuse and risky behavior, induce empathy for others, and teach civic virtues (character education, well disguised), and prepare students to lead a thoroughly planned life.
    From my perspective, these efforts are the direct result of several decades of emphasis on strictly academic and “rigorous” learning and also pressure to reduce everything not “academic” into skill sets, also called “soft skills.”

  7. Reblogged this on The DigiTeacher and commented:
    To my mind the role played by knowledge itself is crucial.

    Imagine trying to teach Geography without maps (visual learning) or teaching dance moves with only a diagram (kinetic learning), or music with only the score (auditory learning).

    We all have different learning styles depending on what it is that we are learning.

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  9. The Gates-funded analysis is interesting. I seem to be a “perception” type.

    I never had a problem gathering data and analyzing it without technology. Technology mostly gets in my way and puts another layer between me and the students. I hated to even have to put grades on an electronic gradebook because I’m much more likely to make a mistake putting in a number on the computer than writing it by hand, and I can handwrite it faster, though I also had stopped using the gradebook we were given because it was too constrictive. I invented my own way of record-keeping that served me well and included daily observations and other information about students outside of my class. I also had students form personal learning goals and track them, without technology.

    The only way I can see more technology would be helpful to me would be to have a database on the mainframe computer that had all information gathered into one place on each student that I could tap into easily if I needed to so I wouldn’t have to go looking it up in a lot of different places, like school-wide absences, not just my class; problems at home from the counselor; health issues from the nurse; standardized test scores; student schedules; grades and interim reports from other classes; disciplinary actions; IEPs.

    I’ve thought at times it might be useful to have some kind of software program to help me with some kinds of data analysis, but it would have to be tailored to exactly what I need or it would be much more trouble than it was worth. Having more time to do my own analyses would probably be just as helpful. It would also be useful for me to have my own customizable website on the school site for students and parents to be able to see, but again, it would be nice to have more time because it would take an awful lot of time to maintain.

    I appreciate that the Gates-funded study is trying to figure out what exactly teachers need, but it disturbs me that the focus is on finding markets more than anything else, and I just don’t see that anything would be specific enough for my needs. It always ends up being me having to adapt to the tool instead of the tool tailored to my needs. And technology is so expensive, I would rather spend the money on lowering class size and load. That would be the best way to be able to meet individual students’ needs and create a community in the classroom..

    To me data analysis is easy. What’s hard is figuring out what to do from there, and for that you need knowledge of cognitive psychology and learning strategies much more than any kind of technology. It disturbs me that so much emphasis on improving education is put on technology and data-gathering as if that’s what teaching is, instead of the emphasis being on cognitive learning theory.

  10. A belief in data-driven instruction is also a confirmation bias.

  11. Annie R

    Thank you for sharing the complicated nature of the language of “learning styles” and the confirmation bias that accompanies such a belief. Even though, as you stated, it is not surprising that teacher beliefs can be “so powerful as to overcome strong findings that challenge those very beliefs,” it is still a worrying statement to read. Policies meant to change curriculum go through many different channels before they reach the classroom. The curriculum changes may be perceived by policymakers as ideal, but if teachers do not support the new data-driven format, this has the potential to influence how they decide to shape their classroom, and, consequently the success of their students. At the lowest level, teachers are the ones who must implement policy. It is troublesome to consider what risk confirmation bias can play in other attempts to implement data-driven instruction.

  12. I think it’s always best to vary your approach – whether be teaching in the classroom, adult learning, or with your children. Everyone learns through multiple senses.

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