Is criticising learning styles an attack on the poor?
Richard Olsen is a PhD candidate at Monash University studying “pedagogical capacity, effectiveness and quality in a changing world”. He recently linked to this Australian Research Summary of Learning Styles saying, “Attacking learning styles isn’t about learning styles, rather promoting instruction & learning as recalling facts.” This is an interesting idea and not one I’d encountered before. He goes further, claiming, “the sustained attacks on learning styles are really attacks on feminist pedagogy, pedagogy of the poor and inquiry.” I was curious enough about this to ask him what feminist pedagogy is. He didn’t tell me.
In fact his only interaction with me in response to being asked two very neutrally worded questions was this:
@LearningSpy All you have is ridicule and mob behaviour. It is very sad to witness. You are blocked, please leave me alone.
— Richard Olsen (@richardolsen) December 4, 2016
This is a great shame as maybe I could have learned something which might have changed my thinking. Thankfully, I’d copied a series of tweets Richard posted before he managed to block me, and as I now have no way to interact with him, my only recourse is to interrogate what he’s actually said.
So, here they are:
Whatever else he is, Olsen is clearly meticulous. The fact that he knew from the first that his rant would be in 23 parts is impressive. For convenience, I’ve collected these tweets into a single text. As I’m unable to question Olsen directly about his thoughts, I’ve instead responded via footnotes in the style of one of my favourite novels, Nabokov’s Pale Fire.
Sorry, I’m going to rant on learning styles and the educational right wing. The UK right wingers have found me again. I’m not planning to engage with them, as their only response is mistruth and ridicule. I dared to suggest there was a hidden agenda behind all of the learning styles attacks they engage in. I didn’t name them, I wasn’t talking to them, yet they swoop in with their sarcasm and ridicule. What is missing from them however is an actual argument, or any actual evidence in their vindictive tweets. What I was suggesting is that there is a subtle, hidden agenda in their tweets, blog posts and papers against learning styles. Their highly instructional approaches rely on every student to respond the same way. Their control of how schools run and operate rely on every student to respond the same way. Yet they know this position is completely indefensible, and completely wrong. All evidence says the opposite. Everyone knows we are all different, that we respond differently to others even in identical situations. Rather than reconciling their beliefs with how students actually learn, they use learning styles to spread misinformation. None of these right wingers suggest an alternative reason for explaining why students respond differently to learning experiences. That is, they don’t search for an alternative to learning styles. Rather they attack learning styles in an attempt to “prove” all students learn the same. It is a sick game to them. It doesn’t prove anything of the sort, and deep down they know it. What they do leads to a even [sic] bigger problem, if you believe Freire, Papert and others. Which I and many others also do. By suggesting everyone responds to learning the same way, they assert their white middle class voice and ideas. If they are right that everyone responds to learning identically, then their dominant position is maintained. If they are right that everyone responds to learning identically, then we don’t need female voices on gender education. If they are right that everyone responds to learning identically, then we don’t need the voice of the poor on inequality. If they are right that everyone responds to learning identically then we don’t need the voice of teachers on schools. Of course, they’ll dismiss my ideas, because they think they speak for me. They don’t and they never will. Though they speak with confidence, their arguments are mistruths and all they do is respond with ridicule.
 I wonder what Olsen means by ‘educational right wing’ in this context? Usually the term is political and used to refer to those on the right of a spectrum of opinion from communism and socialism on the extreme left to fascism on the extreme right. ‘Right wing’ could mean that Olsen thinks those who criticise learning styles to be fascist, but more charitably, maybe we should assume he means conservative. If this is the case, does he believe all critics of learning styles to be politically right wing, or is educationally right wing fundamentally different? Maybe he’s trying to position his beliefs that attacks on learning styles constitute an attack on feminist pedagogy on the left and the ‘white middle class’ voices who undermine these marginalised pedagogies occupying the right? It’s hard to know. It may be more helpful to separate the continuum of thought from progressivism to traditionalism from the political continuum of left to right. Unless that is you just want to toss around insults in which case ‘right-wingers’ is a neat way of ‘othering’ those with whom we disagree.
 This sounds sinister. It conjures images of Olsen as part of some sort of resistance movement continually on the run from the dark forces of traditional education (or maybe fascists – see #1.) It would be interesting to know whether Olsen does feel himself under threat, but if so, speaking openly on a social media website is probably not the best way to go about hiding.
 It’s a pity that from the outset Olsen makes it clear he has no plan to interact with anyone who disagrees with him. Not only does he insulate himself from discovering whether his views of those he caricatures as ‘right wingers’ are accurate, he also prevents others from learning from his wisdom. It’s interesting to note the tools of oppression employed by the shadowy ‘right wing’: “mistruth and ridicule”. A mistruth can be defined as either ‘a false or incorrect proposition or statement’ or, more baldly, as a lie. Either way, Olsen clearly sees no possibility that a ‘right winger’ might say anything that wasn’t wilfully untrue. This is a serious charge, but he also invokes his fear of mockery. The idea that ‘right wingers’ might pour scorn on his ideas is seen as alarming as the idea that they might lie. Lies are relatively easy to dispute as those who have truth on their side can always point to some external verification of the disputed fact, but ridicule is harder to fight. For instance, if Olsen is correct in his views that academics such as Frank Coffield or Harold Pashler are really engaged in trying to undermine feminist pedagogy he can point us to the supporting evidence, but if people are just poking fun at him, what can he do? There’s just no reasonable way to respond to such pernicious jocularity.
 Again, Olsen highlights his personal bravery in daring to point out the secret agenda of those who insist on asserting the lack of evidence for learning styles.
 I’ve had a good look and I’ve struggled to find any examples of ‘vindictive tweets’. Now clearly, we could argue about what Olsen might mean by vindictive but if we were to accept the commonly agreed on definition we would be looking for tweets characterised by a strong or unreasoning desire for revenge. Revenge for what one wonders? Could this be a reference to some earlier exchange with the ‘right wingers’ in which Olsen rubbed their noses in their own foolishness? We don’t know. But what we do know is that there appears to be an absence of vindictiveness on Olsen’s timeline. Maybe the ‘right wingers’ have removed the offending tweets lest their crimes come to light? The broader point though is that Olsen has identified the lack of an argument in his opponents’ responses, vindictive or otherwise. I would have loved to have suggested an ‘actual argument’ but wisely Olsen blocked me before I could do anything so vindictive. I will attempt to make one here.
 Finally we’re getting to some substance. Olsen notes that the methods of ‘right wingers’ depend on all students responding identically in any given situation. I’m not sure what these “highly instructional approaches” might be, but we can perhaps assume that he means explaining things, asking questions and directing practice.
 The accusation that the ‘right wingers” approach to education depends on all students responding in the same way is repeated, but now we also have the idea that the ‘right wingers’ control schools. If this is the case, Olsen fears seem more reasonable and his personal courage more sharply delineated.
 Everyone does indeed know that we’re all different and as such respond differently to others even when we’re in the same situation. Clearly Olsen and I are very different and, when confronted with the lack of confirming evidence for the idea that teachers should match their instruction to students’ preferred learning styles, we each respond quite differently.
 There are two ideas to unpick here: the spreading of misinformation and the mismatch between ‘right wingers’’ beliefs, and the truth about how children learn. Disappointingly, Olsen doesn’t tell us the truth about how children actually learn (although we can guess that it has little to do with ‘recalling facts’.) Let’s take the charge of spreading misinformation first: if the scientific consensus is that there is no evidence to support the theory that instruction should be matched to learning styles (and it is) how is it spreading misinformation to point this out? Normally we would expect the reverse to be true. Then there’s the suggestion that how children learn doesn’t have much to do with ‘recalling facts’. We might need to discuss what Olsen means by ‘facts’ but in his absence let’s assume he means ‘knowledge about the world which is true’. I can’t think of any definition of learning in which recalling knowledge about the world which is true wouldn’t be important, but that’s probably only evidence of my limitations.
 Here we get to the crux of Olsen’s complaints: none of the ‘right wingers’ has offered him an explanation of why people respond differently in the same situation which doesn’t include a belief in learning styles. There are plenty of reasons out there, but let me offer just one: The most important individual difference between people is the quality and quantity of what we know. In order to learn something we must pay attention to it and the more we know about a subject the easier it is to acquire further knowledge of that subject. If we know little or nothing about a subject then we will find it harder to learn than someone who knows a lot. I for instance am woefully ignorant of feminist pedagogy. I know what each of the words mean in isolation but am confounded when I try to make meaning from putting them together. Does it mean pedagogical approaches that only work with female students or teachers? Does it mean pedagogical approaches designed to liberate women from the tyranny of the patriarchy? If so, what might they be? I’m not sure and was hoping Olsen might tell me.
 Children don’t learn the same things because they all know different things to begin with. But, if all children did know the same things then they might well learn the same way. For instance, the vast majority of children will best learn what a map of Africa looks like by being shown a picture. Clearly this wouldn’t hold true for blind children – their inability to receive visual signals invalidates such an approach. But for the rest of us, being shown a picture will be the best approach. Then, because children will have varying degrees of experience with maps, each will learn what Africa looks like slightly differently.
 I don’t think this is a ‘sick game’ for anyone, not even Olsen. Clearly though if we dismiss those who hold opposing views as ‘right wingers’ it’s much easier to see them as child-hating monsters.
 If you believe in the ideas of Friere and Papert, you might well end up with some confused notions. Friere saw attempts to teach working class children what was held to be true by the middle classes as an oppression. Papert believed that children learn best in naturalist environments in which they can play. Clearly, if you believe these positions you might well come to the conclusion that corralling children in schools and making them learn science and history is wrong. But what if Olsen’s heroes are wrong? Evolutionary psychology suggests that Papert’s methods are only likely to work with biologically primary adaptations – like learning to speak – but are unlikely to be effective ways to get children to learn mathematics or reading. Friere was primarily concerned with freeing the masses from oppression, but what if his ideas just entrench social divisions? What if the most liberating approach is to give underprivileged children access to the knowledge that their more privileged peers take for granted? Not doing so might just ensure a continuing Matthew Effect with the rich getting richer and poor becoming comparatively poorer.
 The irony that Olsen is asserting his white, middle class values shouldn’t escape us here. But what’s wrong with that? He has as much right as anyone to say what he thinks even if he’s mistaken. The only caveat is, as Hitchens points out in Letters to a Young Contrarian, “while people are entitled to their illusions they are not entitled to a limitless enjoyment of them and they are not entitled to impose them on others.” If you’re going to make public and controversial claims you oughtn’t be surprised when other people challenge your world view.
 As we’ve seen, it’s not generally believed that all children learn identically. Some people might believe this but they are as mistaken as Olsen. What causes children to learn differently is the disparity between what they know. Typically those from more privileged backgrounds tend to know more. If we insist on spreading misinformation about the value of learning styles then all we do is perpetuate the injustices we might otherwise hope to solve. What minority voices most need is equality of access to a culturally-rich curriculum. We can only really critique the status quo from a position of knowledge. A belief in the efficacy of learning styles is to champion ignorance, and who is that likely to benefit? The poor and oppressed?
 No. I don’t dismiss Olsen’s ideas because I think I speak for him but because a) he won’t speak to me and b) because the weight of evidence is against him.
 Are any of the alternative perspectives I’ve offered ‘mistruths’? You decide. As for ridicule, it’s hard not to scorn someone who goes out of the way to scorn others but I hope I’ve tried to engage in Olsen’s arguments, such as they are.
All that remains is to wish Richard well with his PhD.