New study demystifies learning styles

New study demystifies learning styles


Over one decade into the 21st century, more than a century and a half since the birth of Pavlov, a group of theorists has constructed a cognitive framework that is both well-founded and useable.

It comes after an incalculable number of learning theories have at times assisted – but just as often stymied – educators in the search for principles applicable to a classroom full of learners with diverse needs and competing mental capacities.

The problem in the schools has never been a dearth of approaches for conveying information or encouraging thinking. The issue has been that there are too many.

But finally there is a synthesis of the best research in cognitive and neuroscience that not only compiles the literature but arranges it in a taxonomical matrix that can guide instructional planning and decision making.

This taxonomy is presented and its implications discussed in great detail in the May edition of Psychological Science in the Public Interest in an article entitled “Cognitive Style as Environmentally Sensitive Individual Differences in Cognition: A Modern Synthesis and Application in Education, Business, and Management” by Maria Kozhevnikov, Carol Evans, and Stephen M. Kosslyn.

The concept of “cognitive styles” is not new to psychology or education. John Dewey makes the point in “Democracy and Education” (originally published in 1916) that “Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.”

And, as Kozhevnikov et all mention in their article, the idea was popularized (though deceptively simplified) in the 1970s with the left-brain vs. right-brain paradigm.

But universities have been slow to integrate rigorous research on cognitive sciences into teacher preparation programs and in the words of Robert Sternberg of Cornell University, “The field of cognitive styles has been one of the orphans of modern psychological science.”

More’s the pity because the success of Common Core, now poised for implementation in almost every state, depends on teaching that is rooted in the comprehensive appreciation for the myriad mental operations that drive content acquisition, application, and understanding.

According to the State Standards Initiative, “The Common Core focuses on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful.” For students with disabilities, success will be dependent on “Instructional supports for learning…which foster student engagement by presenting information in multiple ways and allowing for diverse avenues of action and expression.”

Based on empirical studies, the construct outlined in the piece published in “Psychological Science,” proposes “a hierarchical model” for cognitive styles defined by analytic versus holistic perspectives, stressing that individual differences in learning are potentially sensitive to environmental influences and negating the rigidity linked to teaching to static characteristics that has been partially responsible for discrediting advances in cognitive pedagogy.  

A primary point is the call to “style flexibility … that is, teaching a student to select among styles and monitor how effectively he or she is learning – and know how to switch styles if necessary.”  

That sort of strategic instruction, involving learners in conscious awareness of their own thinking, is more than a mere component to diversified instruction – it’s the hallmark. more