One of the more recent educationist fads has been learning styles: verbal, visual, kinesthetic, etcetera. These have been promulgated through universities and into elementary- and high-schools. Students are eager to identify their type, and teachers are supposed to provide instruction that matches up; to do any less is to oppress by preferring some students and their innate qualities more than others (never mind that to teach in 8+ ways would still mean that each student gets non-preferred methods 80% of the time).

But some recent research has shown little empirical support for anything like learning styles mattering -- and this despite some very hard looking by proponents. It shouldn't really surprise us that another educationist fad turns out to be bunk (see: whole learning, new math). But so many were so enthusiastic for the idea, and identified so strongly with their type, that we must ask: Were they completely self-deluded? Personally, I will readily admit that there are major differences between students. Whatever the problems of the learning styles, the assumption behind them seems uncontroversial: humans have different habits of mind, which could even create very distinct modes of operating. So what exactly is wrong with the learning styles?

Educationists assumed that learning styles existed both in people's thoughts and as modes of communication. As communication modes they could be interposed (by teachers and business consultants) between a student and a subject -- which was merely a body of facts, to be imbibed in whatever way was most congenial. This conception is deeply mistaken, resting on several naive (one is tempted to say naively academic) assumptions.

Let us assume that a subject like biology has traditionally been taught verbally, and such teaching unfairly disadvantages the non-verbal student. The modern, sensitive teacher should properly remove the verbalism, at least some of the time, and employ visual or kinesthetic methods instead. One immediately wonders how something like biology might be taught kinesthetically. Even if some exercises could be cooked up, there is a far greater problem: how could you use only kinesthetics? How could greek and latin nomenclature be taught nonverbally at all? The conclusion should have been obvious from the beginning: you cannot remove verbalism from biology and still be left with biology.

The educationists assumed that an academic subject (and any other activity) contained only facts, and not habits of thought. But habits of thought are exactly the most important part of any discipline or training; to take that away leaves a "subject" consisting only of brute facts, and no methods for organizing or making sense of them. Now, one could take the subject treated by biology, "nature" or "life" perhaps, and explore them in a non-verbal way -- kinesthetically or however you want. But that is not the academic discipline of biology. And you cannot substitute it for biology either: the kinesthetic-nature-studier may be doing something very valuable, but he cannot do academic biology research or discuss nature as biologists do; it is fundamentally different, despite a shared subject. We must remember Marshall McLuhan's mantra, "the medium is the message." The medium of biology -- the mode of discussing and thinking about biology -- is biology.

In reality, the "styles" are not interchangeable communication modes, as the educationists presumed, and therefore if these styles are to exist at all, "learning" is the wrong prefix. Modes of thought are learned throughout life. When a student finds a discipline difficult, it is because he has not yet learned to think in its mode. That deficit cannot be resolved by employing a communication style that has nothing to do with the subject. Instead, the student must gradually learn to adopt the discipline's modes of thought -- or abandon it. Learning to think like a biologist is what we call "education in biology."

There is no mystery in why politically-correct education theorists shirked from the conclusion above. By assuming that subjects have no style of their own, they could maintain the ego-affirming notion that students do not have to change themselves to learn those subjects -- instead remaining, happily, who they already were. But in so doing, the educationists omitted thinking from education, and reduced it to the mere acquisition of knowledge. There is also no mystery about why that failed so miserably.

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