Within education, there is the continual search for ‘best practice’, a ubiquitous term that has been applied to a range of approaches from evidence-based practices through to untested commercial programs that form the basis of a profit-making business model. Within the latter category, some programs are based on misconceptions about the brain and learning, which have come to be known as ‘neuromyths’. Neuromyths are the result of misreading, misunderstanding or misquoting scientific facts which can have adverse effects on educational practice.
One example of a pervasive neuromyth is that students have different learning styles and teachers should classify and teach to the preferred learning style or modality of students. However, It is untrue that students learn better through one particular mode of delivery. The learning styles neuromyth is also referred to as the ‘meshing hypothesis’ (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork 2009). Part of the appeal of this approach is that it appears to be a simple solution to the differentiation of instruction. The problem is that research does not support this claim (Moseley, Hall & Ecclestone 2004; Pashler et al 2008). The learning style myth is, however, based on scientific research that visual, auditory and kinaesthetic information is processed in different parts of the brain, but this information is misapplied (Pashler et al 2008). Unfortunately, this misapplication has led to the neuromyth of learning styles flourishing in schools and the false belief that students with disability are receiving appropriate adjustments to the curriculum. Categorising students based on their learning style is an ineffective teaching practice that hinders learning (Kirschner & Hendrick 2020). It can adversely affect the inclusion of students with disability who experience social and academic marginalisation and are often perceived as a homogenous, deficit-based group.
Instead of relying on the theory of learning styles to cater for students with disability, the current approach for ensuring the curriculum is accessible is through Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is a proactive approach to addressing barriers in the environment and general education curriculum by designing, implementing and evaluating accessible learning experiences. This accessibility is achieved by providing alternate representations, expression and engagement. The three areas are explained below:
Multiple means of representation– provide various ways of acquiring information and knowledge.
Multiple means of expression– provide students with alternatives for demonstrating what they know.
Multiple means of engagement– tap into student’s interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.
But, is UDL evidence-based? As yet, there is limited rigorous published research that thoroughly demonstrates that UDL leads to improvement in outcomes for students (Capp 2017; Murphy 2020; Rao, Wook Ok & Bryant 2014). As well, Edyburn (2010 p.34) states
“without an adequate base of primary research, an analysis of research evidence establishing UDL as a scientifically validated intervention is not possible.”
If UDL is not evidence-based, why are schools using this framework? The evidence on UDL is slowly emerging. For instance, King-Sears and Johnson (2020) researched two secondary classes, which included students with disability, who were taught chemistry. One class was taught in the usual manner while the other class utilised UDL principles. Students in the UDL group performed significantly better in the post-test than the comparison group. While this research has several limitations, including the small sample size and only one disability category (learning disability), it does add to the emerging research on UDL. In another research project, Root, Cox, Saunders, and Gilley (2020) successfully utilised UDL for students with disability in lessons on personal finance skills focused on calculating percentages. Other research on UDL reveals positive social and academic outcomes Katz (2013) and social inclusion (Katz & Porath 2011).
While UDL is not yet considered to be evidence-based as it requires more robust studies to strengthen the evidence base, it is moving in the right direction. However, UDL incorporates a number of research-based approaches. The CAST website (2008) states
“UDL draws from a variety of research including the fields of neuroscience, the learning sciences, and cognitive psychology. It is deeply rooted in concepts such as the Zone of Proximal Development, scaffolding, mentors, and modeling, as well as the foundational works of Piaget; Vygotsky; Bruner, Ross, and Wood; and Bloom, who espoused similar principles for understanding individual differences and the pedagogies required for addressing them.”
Consequently, while evidence-based approaches are preferred and should be considered in the first instance, and research-based approaches such as UDL are the next consideration for providing access to the curriculum. And further studies will identify if increased access for students with disability leads to improved learning outcomes. However, the implementation of an evidence-based approach requires an ability to thoughtfully engage with and implement the most appropriate evidence for a given situation within education. Teachers need to be discerning and they require skill.
Capp, M.J. (2017) The effectiveness of Universal Design for Learning: A meta-analysis of literature between 2013-2016 in International Journal of Inclusive Education Vol. 21 No. 8
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review.
Edyburn, D.L. (2010) Would you recognise Universal Design for Learning if you saw it? Ten propositions for new directions for the second decade of UDL in Learning Disability Quarterly Vol 33 no. 1
Katz, J. (2013) The Three Bock Model of Universal Design for Learning (UDL): Engaging Students in Inclusive Education in Canadian Journal of Education Vol. 36 No. 1
Katz, J. & Porath, M. (2011) Teaching to Diversity: Creating Compassionate Learning Communities for Diverse Elementary School Students in International Journal of Special Education Vol. 26 No. 2
King-Sears, M. E., & Johnson, T. M. (2020). Universal design for learning chemistry instruction
for students with and without learning disabilities in Remedial and Special Education
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Kirschner, P.A. & Hendrick, C. (2020) How Learning Happens: Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What They Mean in Practice Oxon: Routledge
Murphy, M.P.A. (2020) Belief without evidence? A policy research note on Universal Design for Learning in Policy Futures in Education Vol. No.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. & Bjork, R. (2009) Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence in Psychological Science in the Public Interest Vol. 9 No. 3
Rao, K., Ok, M. W., & Bryant, B. R. (2014). A review of research on universal design educational models in Remedial and Special Education, Vol. 35, 153–166.
Root, J., Cox, S.K., Saunders, A.F., & Gilley, D.(2020) Applying the universal design for learning framework to mathematics for learners with extensive support needs in Remedial and Special Education, 41, 194–206. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932519887235