Should Teachers Care About Research?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 21st, 2009

Even if cognitive scientists says “learning styles” don’t exist, should teachers care?  Is it all just a big “so what?” 

That’s the question veteran California middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron asks at her tweenteacher blog.  Her point is that as a practical matter, well, it doesn’t matter.  Research notwithstanding, her experience tells her that this student focuses better when she’s teaching with the Interactive Board.  That one “phases out when we’re reading, but as long as someone’s talking about the material, she’s in.”

When people get all up at arms about this research or that research being unsupported, I beg them to remember: some teachers must learn how NOT to be boring.…So providing the theory that there are different learning styles, and categorizing those learners, helps those teachers to remember what they are charged to do: teach ALL students. So why diss any theory that helps build a ladder up from our current descent into standardization? It seems to me that we aren’t doing students a disservice by thinking of themselves as individuals as long as we’re also preparing them for the shared world we live in.

In short, Heather’s argument seems to boil down to this: Learning styles may be a myth, but it’s a harmless myth, since it encourages teachers to be inventive, creative and place a premium on engaging students.  That’s a reasonable, commonsense take that may help teachers today.  But ultimately it risks doing a disservice to the profession. 

A few centuries ago, doctors thought malaria was caused by “bad air,” which was associated with swamps.  Drain the swamps and the disease seemed to go away.  Of course, we later learned it had nothing to do with bad air.  Malaria is carried by mosquitoes.  When you drain the swamp, it’s not the bad air that goes away, it’s the mosquitoes.  It’s unlikely we would say “so what” as long as the malaria goes away.  Understanding why something works is fundamental knowledge.  It also provides a provable or disprovable hypothesis, which is critical as we try to understand teacher effectiveness.  Suppose our 19th century scientists came to believe that in draining the swamps, it’s not the bad air, but the standing water that causes malaria.  Quick, no more bathing! You’ll catch malaria!  The problem with a half truth, as has often been observed, is that you might be holding on to the wrong half.

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is not necessarily benign.  On my second day of teacher training I was taught that it was our responsibility to determine each students learning style (by means of a questionnaire) and differentiate lessons to accommodate each.  My time would have been better spent — and my students better served — if I had focused on ways to make material come alive in my classroom.  More recently, Jay Mathews published a teacher’s evaluation where a veteran teacher was dinged for, among other things, not accommodating different learning styles during his observation–a real-world consequence of junk science.  Perhaps we should also hold teachers accountable for reading their students’ auras before beginning a lesson. After all, if it helps teachers to consider the whole child, where’s the harm?

It’s easy to say “no big deal,” but it is a big deal when unproven theories and junk science robs time from good practice, becomes a time-wasting hoop to jump through, or damages a teacher’s career.  Not understanding why something works but doing it anyway is a prime example of cargo cult education.  Sure, if doctors were amputating gangrenous limbs to cut out evil spirits and offering the severed limbs as a sacrifice to the Gods, it would clearly be better than leaving the limb alone.  But medicine, like all bodies of accumulated knowledge, advances by not by learning that something works, but why it works.  Teaching should do the same.