There are at times some interesting observations in the piece but what there is is obscured by the poor reasoning Black employs to make her case. In fact Black’s piece can be used to illustrate a number of well-known cognitive fallacies and techniques which are commonly used to make persuasive looking arguments in lieu of evidence. I will examine these in detail below.
Teach the controversy
The problem is that Black has already made up her mind and no amount of evidence is going to convince her otherwise. So what we see in her post is the pulling on of any strand, no matter how unpleasant, in order to bolster her preconceived beliefs. In short, this is a masterclass in motivated reasoning.
Despite claiming there are reputable scientists on both sides, she is happy to make the argument that ‘debunkers’ are mostly men talking down to women. She ignores the fact that her 1/3 of the panel of “respected scientists and education researchers” who agree with her, are also male. She also ignores female researchers, like Lethaby and Harris or Rogowsky, Calhoun and Tallal; all women and all ‘debunkers’ of learning styles. This omission is particularity ironic in a section in which she is complaining about Willingham “failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views.”
So does the existence of researchers who still carry out research into learning styles mean it’s wrong to say to say LS shouldn’t be dismissed? There are two problems:
- Here‘s a paper from Alison Fixsen. It was published in 2018 and shows that homeopathy, maybe, possibly works! This is despite the overwhelming body of evidence showing it does not.
- Another paper suggesting graphology might help with depression. Again this was published in 2018 in a journal with an actual impact factor. Does this mean the debate about handwriting analysis is still ongoing? No, it does not.
The homeopathy example is especially interesting in light of this tweet.
So why is Black so dismissive? Why is she “failing to mention the existence of legitimate competing views” about homeopathy? The answer is that Black has an ideological investment in the idea of learning styles that she does not have in homeopathy. Science and evidence only matter to her when they can be usefully marshalled to defend things that align with her worldview.
This is a frequent feature of Black’s work. In another article she dismisses all the research evidence about phonics teaching because her home-schooled daughter didn’t seem to like the approach. It should go without saying that anecdotal evidence is not good evidence. Black writes:
The “scientific consensus” about phonics, generated by a panel convened by the Bush administration and used to justify billions of dollars in government contracts awarded to Bush supporters in the textbook and testing industries…
Science is “science” when Black disagrees with it. When in produces results she agrees with it becomes plain old science again. Note too in this quote that Black attempts to poison the well by linking phonics to the educational boo words of ‘textbooks’ and ‘testing’. That Bush convened a panel and that billions of dollars were awarded to various companies tells us very little about whether the conclusions of the research were valid or not. I do not know very much about phonics research but if Black wanted to persuade me she was right, a few links to good research would do far more than innuendo and smear. Learning that Einstein was a racist does not mean E no longer equals Mc2.
Li-Fang Zhang, editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Education Psychology…
…And, as it happens, the Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology chapter on “Cognitive Styles” by Harvard researcher Maria Kozhevnikov says the same thing. Researchers Carol Evans (University of Southampton), Elena Grigorenko (Yale), Stephen Kosslyn (Keck Graduate Institute), and Robert Sternberg (Cornell), agree.
- Person A claims that learning styles are real and can help with students learning.
- Person B tests this claim and finds it false
- Person A says the tests were not sensitive enough to find the results
- Person B tests again with more sensitive tests and still finds it false
- Person A says the tests were STILL not sensitive enough to find the results