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“Learning styles debunked”, research-based instruction, and the role of institutional review

September 6, 2011

When developing curriculum and instructional standards, the topic of “learning styles” is commonly referenced.  Two common structures in the learning styles field are VATK (visual-auditory-tactile-kinesthetic) and multiple intelligences.  The difference between visual and auditory learners has been conventional wisdom in education for decades, and materials capitalizing on these characteristics have been in use for at least as long.

NPR notes the growing evidence against learning style theory, though much of the summary work has been published for years.  A study released by the Association of Psychological Science in 2009 calls into question this understanding of learning.  A team of researchers surveyed existing studies into learning styles and found no compelling evidence that people learn best either visually or aurally.  “Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity,” reads the APS website.

Multiple intelligences, as defined by Howard Gardner, has a stronger research base, but is not without its critics and may rely on some of the same disproven premises as the learning styles concept.  Educators and curriculum designers have continued to use both approaches, despite research to the contrary.  Teachers often adopt teaching practices and techniques  based on intuition or limited experience; many of these practices would not pass a review of their research-based validity.

Many districts have standing policies for reviewing the validity of research-based practices.  An institutional review board will entertain requests for curriculum or will approve pedagogical and instructional policies, classroom tools and practice, and materials and commercial curriculums.  These content-area experts, educational psychologists, and researchers may also design or approve professional development, approve internal research projects and research conducted within the district by outside agencies such as universities, and may even conduct and report original action research.  Smaller districts, however, may not have the funding, personnel, or expertise to staff such a board.  For agencies in this situation, alternative solutions include:

  • Partnering with a local university or consulting firm
  • Forming ad hoc boards for periodic reviews or curriculum purchasing
  • Requesting from vendors not only internal white papers and validation of effectiveness for curriculum and materials, but third-party, peer-reviewed research as well
  • Directing curriculum and instruction specialists or professional development boards to review research supporting initiatives and to publicize those results.

Books on the topic include Evaluating Programs to Increase Student Achievement by Martin Jason and the well-regarded Evaluating School Programs by Sanders and Sullins.

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