Teacher educators and learning styles in the learning and skills sector

Wilson Andrew R.

October 2015

Thesis or dissertation

© 2015 Wilson Andrew R. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

The aims of this thesis were to describe the use of learning styles within the Learning and Skills sector; to investigate the reproduction of the conceptual confusion by teacher educators, to critically analyse the underpinning evidence in the learning styles debate and identify the reasons for the promotion of learning styles. The central research question investigated the extent to which teacher educators within the sector were aware of the debate around learning styles. The sub questions uncovered the beliefs of teacher educators towards learning styles and the rationales they used to justify their use.

A critical realist ontology was paired with a social constructionist epistemology and a qualitative design was applied. The chosen methodology was the in-depth, semi structured qualitative interview with a grounded theory approach to the data analysis. Sixteen respondents were recruited by theoretical sampling with nine of them being identified as ‘supporters’ of learning styles and six of them as ‘detractors’.

The interviews took place outside of the interviewee’s place of work and all relevant ethical guidelines were followed. The conversations were digitally taped and transcribed using a denaturalised strategy. The transcripts were coded using QSR NVivo and six major themes emerged. Two were In vitro themes ‘Knowledge and Use of VAK’ and ‘Conceptual Confusion’. The rest were in vivo themes, ‘Beliefs About Stereotyping’, ‘The Ofsted Hypothesis’,’ The Learning Styles Debate’ and ‘Enthusiastic Socialisation’.

The analysis of the themes provided a number of elements of interest and relevance. It was found that the VAK approach was not the most popular inventory used within the sector. That the conceptual confusion recorded in the literature, concerning learning styles, was reproduced almost identically amongst the supporters’ beliefs. Both supporters and detractors believed that learning style diagnosis was unlikely to lead to the stereotyping of student approaches to learning. The belief that Ofsted supported and rewarded the use of learning styles’ practice at inspection was influential amongst both groups. The supporters tended to suppress and distort the implications of the debate surrounding learning styles; they were shown to be less willing to present the debate as a part of their teaching practice when compared to the detractors. The analysis also showed that supporters were more likely to experience an enthusiastic introduction to learning styles. This analysis provided answers for all of the research questions as it highlighted that all of the interviewees were all cognizant of the styles’ debate. The beliefs of the supporters and detractors alike regarding learning styles were compared and contrasted and their rationales and justifications were highlighted.

The grounded theories that emerged from the analysis offered a number of strands of new knowledge. The most important new knowledge to emerge regarded the role of initial teacher training and/or colleagues in providing an enthusiastic socialisation into learning styles theory and practice. If such an introduction occurs it can facilitate a confirmation bias that leads to a robust and positive belief system that rejects modifies or ignores contentious research evidence. The supporters of learning styles exhibited a reliance on personal opinion and experience in preference to empirical evidence as a result of the bias.

Recommendations were proffered to modify the practice of teacher educators to ensure that the debate around learning styles was presented accurately. Directions for future research were described.

Department of Education Studies, The University of Hull
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