Easy targets: learning styles, ‘ability’ grouping and the politics of research use in education

This month saw the publication of a report into evidence-informed teaching written by a team from the SIOE with colleagues from Durham and UCL. The report highlights the difficulties teachers can have in assessing research quality, and this brings to mind recent complaints in the press about a lack of evidence-informed teaching. Schools are using a practice that labels children as particular kinds of learners in a way that limits their opportunity to take part in a broad range of teaching and learning activities and may harm their futures. Not only that, but the underlying evidence base for this practice is limited at best.

I’m referring, of course, to grouping pupils by attainment…except – of course – I’m not. I’m referring to every research-engaged teacher’s neuromyth enemy number 1: Learning Styles. Yet the comparison with what is usually called ‘ability grouping’ is instructive. Learning styles are now increasingly rarely used in schools: ability grouping is almost ubiquitous. There is decades of evidence of the harmful effects of ability grouping on learners especially those that are lower attaining: there is no strong scientific basis for learning styles, and a weaker but persuasive evidence base regarding their negative effects on children’s learning.

So why do policymakers, bloggers and education pundits get so exercised by one but not the other?  The answer – at least in part – is simple: it’s politics. There is no political force behind the use of learning styles. The damning of schools, teachers and leaders that use them costs no political capital for anyone involved: and it has the added bonus that learning styles have a whiff of failed progressive education about them that allows politicians and pundits to feel even better about sticking the boot in.

In contrast, grouping by prior attainment has very different political connotations. It is traditional; it is common sense; it is very far from progressive education. The policymakers and commentators in the social and traditional media may not want to admit it, but the silence around ability grouping is a silence not borne of evidence but of political agendas.

To be clear: the evidence is persuasive that learning styles approaches are at best neutral and at worst detrimental, as the link above indicates. I am not advocating using learning styles. Yet I can make exactly the same claims about attainment grouping.

The research evidence movement has been presented to the teaching profession as neutral, dispassionate and unbiased. And whilst that is arguable in relation to the provision of research evidence from organisations like the EEF, it is clearly not the case in relation to the use of research evidence by those in the political sphere. (It is worth noting here the new work of Becky Francis and colleagues – summarised here – on looking more deeply at why policy makers won’t hear the evidence, and an argument for a strong counter-narrative based on the call to science).

We are advised to treat claims about new approaches to education with scepticism; to dig under the surface and look for what evidence lies beneath. Sound advice. The implication of this short blog is that we need to apply the same healthy scepticism to the political discourse and media coverage of research evidence. We should dig below the surface for the political agendas that drive the focus on learning styles, but are silent on the evidence on attainment grouping.

Mike Coldwell is Head of the Centre for Research and Knowledge Exchange in the Sheffield Institute of Education