Learning styles and bovver boys

I am increasingly concerned by bullying around learning styles arising from a so called globalised spontaneous movement I’ll call the UK Push.  The UK Push into Australia is having a corrosive effect on Australia’s pluralistic educational culture and debates. I do not deny that Australia’s education sector requires attention. I’m arguing that the UK Push is regressive and toxic because it promotes blunt forms of argumentation that do not consider social context. I also consider much of the argument disingenuous in that it is goal oriented and not oriented towards understanding.

Central to my concern is how Australian educators are being harassed in the guise of myth busting using blunt forms of logic. I first became aware of this when I attended my first AARE conference in Melbourne (2016) when sharing coffee with random attendees.  The latest twitter storm was being discussed, and one person said they had abandoned twitter that morning because their AARE session had been vilified by the UK Push.

Many educators approach education from an ethic of care and are particularly prone to bullying. As Noddings (2003) explains, a person who engages others from an ethic of care “is not seeking the answer but the involvement” (p. 176). Care is of primary importance in education. It is through an ethic of care that new insights and understandings become possible. When involvement is inauthentic and hostile, those engaging can experience toxicity and distress. Of course, those who approach life from an ethic of care still need to reason, but this reasoning needs to proceed with an empathy for different perspectives. It requires moral development (Gilligan, 1977; Kohlberg, 1971; Murphy & Gilligan, 1980). This form of reasoning is lacking in the UK Push.

Deciding what is a good decision in one classroom and not in another is important in education. Context matters, and the logic of the UK Push lack this moral and ethical sophistication. By way of example, I was recently watching a video of a UK speaker – who is associated with the UK Push – describing the nature of logic. He was asked about logic and context. One question piqued my interest. The questioner said that while he accepted that it was wrong to kill, he asked if in certain situations and certain contexts this view might be different. The speaker glossed over this question, saying it was a matter of ‘generalisation’, where ‘generalisation’ refers to saying things like ‘dogs have four legs, and know that there might be some dogs without, without worrying about being inaccurate’. While acknowledging that the context may have been rushed and informal,  the speaker floundered on the question of assumptions underlying an argument, and floundered when presented with a moral and ethical question.

The UK Push lack the kind of sophisticated reasoning that is central to education. For example, the field of educational assessment has highly evolved evidentiary approaches to reasoning  (Mislevy, Steinberg, & Almond, 2003). Newton and Shaw (2014), also from the UK, provide an excellent analysis on the historical vicissitudes of educational assessment validity. A recent special edition of Assessment In Education scientifically progressed this debate (Newton & Baird, 2016). The USA also has a strong tradition through the work of Messick (1989) with its concern for social consequences, and the argument-based approach of Kane (2006). Many educators in Australia are well versed in these approaches. Not so the UK Push.

Justifying generalisations and presuppositions to an argument are key to the process of argumentation. In not providing these justifications, the UK Push are blind to the a priori assumptions behind their uses of data and evidence. Bex, Prakken, Reed, and Walton (2003, p. 142) argue that generalisations may be validly challenged on three grounds: the source of the generalisation, the circumstances in which the generalisation applies, and on the nature of the generalisation itself.

The arguments of the UK Push lack moral and ethical reasoning. Their approach to argument is based on forms of logic and reasoning that are tautological.  This is a form of argumentation where an argument’s conclusions are embedded in its presuppositions; for example, “Anne is one of Jack’s sisters; All Jack’s sisters have red hair; So, Anne has red hair.” (Toulmin, 1958/2003, p. 115).

The UK Push lack the sophisticated form of arguments that calls for the justification of claims based on evidence, and which provides opportunity for rebuttal. This is the approach advocated by British philosopher Toulmin (1958/2003),  and adopted in contemporary approaches to educational assessment validity (Kane, 2006; Mislevy, 2006).

The UK Push rely on blunt forms of reasoning that ignore claims to normative rightness and subjective truthfulness. They ignore Australia’s context and the unique legal, social, cultural, and economic constraints that Australian teachers work in. This is illustrated in the UK Push’s desire to arbitrarily translate programs such as the phonics test directly to Australia. These claims are made without justification of the appropriateness of the test for the local context. They do not reference the knowledge that Australian teachers have on phonics, nor Australia’s research on the matter, including a National Inquiry.  Further, the efficacy of the UK program remains moot (Clark, 2013; Bradbury, 2014).

The pernicious nature of the UK Push’s use of argumentation is evident in learning styles.  The UK Push pillories those who engage with learning styles, yet provide no original research on the matter. Refusing to even consider the various constructions or models of learning styles.  Engaging not for progress, but for power and control. Scientific progress generally occurs when better ideas supplant problematic ones (Kuhn, 1970). Paradigm shifts requires real research, not badgering through cherry picked arguments from other researchers. For example, I suggest to move from learning styles towards Kress’ (2010) notion of semiotic resources. But the UK Push do not seek to progress the debate, illustrating a strategic orientation, and not an orientation towards new understanding.

While hounding people about learning styles, the UK Push do not explicate or describe the theories about which they seek to engage. The term “learning styles” is used as an empty signifier, without explication. This leads to a form of debating that Carnap (1928/2005), for example, considers pseudoproblems of philosophy, and illustrates that the UK Push are not interested in scientific discourse, but rather, in gaining power and control over other educators and educational research.

It is clear to me that the debate about learning styles is not a scientific debate. It’s a commercial pursuit into Australia’s educational fabric. Lewin (1947), for example, developed the notion of unfreeze, change and freeze in the study of group dynamics. It seems that a bastardised version of this model is happening with the UK Push.  Where bovver boys are attempting to unfreeze so a UK saviour can emerge in its wake. That Australian academics are legitimating this push is even sadder.

Bex, F., Prakken, H., Reed, C., & Walton, D. (2003). Towards a formal account of reasoning about evidence: argumentation schemes and generalisations. Artificial Intelligence and Law, 11(2), 125-165.

Bradbury, A. (2014). ‘Slimmed down’ assessment or increased accountability? Teachers, elections and UK government assessment policy. Oxford Review of Education, 40(5), 610-627.  10.1080/03054985.2014.963038

Carnap, R. (2005). The logical structure of the world: and, pseudoproblems in philosophy (R. A. George, Trans.). Chicago: Open Court.  (Original work published 1928)

Gilligan, C. (1977). In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review, 47(4), 481-517.

Clark, M. (2013). The phonics check for Year 1 children in England: Unresolved issues of its value and validity after two years. Education Journal, 177, 13-15.

Kane, M. T. (2006). Validation. In R. L. Brennan (Ed.), Educational measurement (4th ed., pp. 17-64). Westport, CT: American Council on Education and Praeger Publishers.

Kohlberg, L. (1971). Stages of moral development as a basis for moral education. In C. M. Beck, B. S. Crittenden, & Ε. V. Sullivan (Eds.), Moral education (pp. 23-92): University of Toronto Press.

Kress, G. (2010). Multimodality: A Social Semiotic Approach to Contemporary Communication. London: Routledge.

Kuhn, T. (1970). The structure of scientific revolutions (Second Enlarged ed.): The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method, and Reality in Social Service: Social Equilibria and Social Change. Human relations, 1(1).

Messick, S. (1989). Validity. In R. L. Linn (Ed.), Educational measurement (3rd edition) (pp. 13-103). Washington: American Council on Education.

Mislevy, R. J. (2006). Cognitive psychology and educational assessment. In R. L. Brennan (Ed.), Educational measurement (4th ed., pp. 257-305). Westport, CT: American Council on Education and Praeger Publishers.

Mislevy, R. J., Steinberg, L. S., & Almond, R. G. (2003). Focus Article: On the Structure of Educational Assessments. Measurement: Interdisciplinary Research & Perspective, 1(1), 3-62.

Murphy, J. M., & Gilligan, C. (1980). Moral development in late adolescence and adulthood: A critique and reconstruction of Kohlberg’s theory. Human development, 23(2), 77-104.

Newton, P. E., & Baird, J.-A. (2016). The great validity debate. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 23(2), 173-177.  10.1080/0969594x.2016.1172871

Newton, P. E., & Shaw, S. D. (2014). Validity in educational and psychological assessment. London: SAGE.

Noddings, N. (2003). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Toulmin, S. E. (2003). The uses of argument (Updated ed.). New York: Cambridge university press.  (Original work published 1958)

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