This is really a continuation of my conversation with @gobman on twitter, but it was too big for twitter, so I’m dumping it here.
Do I believe in learning styles? Yeah. I think so. I believe that people have different approaches to solving problems, and that to me seems to be learning.
I, for one, never read manuals. I jump in, get going, and only when I get stuck do I finally consult the thing. My wife tends to read manuals. The net result of this is we are good at different sorts of things. I tend to be good in any undocumented area, where there are no set practices and there is no good documentation. On the other hand, my wife can outperform me, sometimes even on technical tasks, when the best method is to read-up fully first.
I’m not the one you want putting something together from IKEA, or making a meal from a cookbook. I’m actually crap at a bunch of things that are supposed to be the traditional male stuff too, always getting stuff out of sync on how to change a car headlight. On the other hand, she’s not the one you want troubleshooting the TVersity player, fixing the snowblower, or improvising a meal out of the three final items in the fridge.
This actually works out pretty well. We’ve found our chores over time and it’s partly that knowledge that we supplement each other’s weaknesses that makes for such. I’m a hacker. She’s a master of method. I write code and songs, she executes amazing things like this, one pencil stroke at a time.
So learning styles/problem-solving styles exist. But here’s the question – if my wife is teaching a class on how to assemble an IKEA couch, does it make sense to separate people like me and show us how to do that without reading the manual, or does it make sense to teach me to read the manual, even though my preferred style is to dump all the Allen hex bolts on the floor and see what makes sense?
I know that sounds reductive – there certainly are multiple ways to solve problems – but my point is that even where there are multiple ways, the styles that work are determined in a large part by the nature of the problem, not the nature of the learner. If my wife was to show me how to execute that piece of art I linked to above, there would be a lot in that method that would be anti-thetical to how my mind works, but it might turn out to be necessarily so.
So where does that leave us? Rather than argue about whether we should tailor specific instruction to learning style, presumably so students can better regurgitate material into blue books, why not create environments that function more like the real world, where differences in problem-solving style are the strength of teams and communities (and marriages) – places where the planners can plan and the hackers can hack? That means project- based, collaborative education, education that helps students answer much more pressing questions than the stuff on the test. Stuff like how they might design their place in life better by understanding both their strengths and limitations.
If that’s what learning styles is about, I’m all for it.