The School Doctor: The Style Police

In the latest column for Schools Improvement, The School Doctor gives his thoughts on learning styles.

Learning styles have come back into the spotlight, taking their turn on the perpetual carousel of pedagogical debates that go away for a couple of years, just to come back, just to go away, just to come back again. There is already a long history of teachers being told they should cater for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners (let’s stick with VAK, though there are other acronyms and alternative ways of delineating learning styles). And there is almost as long a history of educationalists taking issue with the concept of learning styles, either in totality or in how the idea has been applied to classroom practice.

They are by no means the first to do so, but the Educational Endowment Foundation has argued that focusing on learning styles leads to ‘Low impact for very low cost, based on limited evidence’. In March 2017 thirty preeminent neuroscientists, psychologists, and educationalists wrote to The Guardian condemning ‘neuromyths’, suggesting that ‘there is no coherent framework of preferred learning styles’, ‘categorising individuals can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adept’, and ‘systematic studies … have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment’.

The ideas behind learning styles are not totally indefensible. It is hardly controversial to suggest that some people are better listeners than others, some better readers than others, and some are manually more dexterous than others. It is not a totally illogical leap to apply this to young people and their learning. The better listeners may gravitate towards spoken delivery, the better readers towards written, and the manually dexterous towards physically active curriculum delivery and receipt. The issue comes with how we progress from this point.

Treated judiciously, a focus on different learning styles may not inherently be a bad way to think about learning and teaching (see below). But like any educational development, in the wrong hands it can be turned into a gimmick, something else with which to pepper our paperwork, or to put on a poster and then leave to fade – a kind of pedagogical virtue signalling that shows how caring and ‘right on’ we are, compared to those heartless bastards who used to just, you know, tell people things.

Just to be clear again, there are some positives to be taken from the learning styles focus, but it is important to look at the dangers. There have certainly been some corrosive side effects of a focus on VAK learning styles. One of these is the impact on some pupils’ mentality when they have engaged in over-personal over-diagnosis. When pupils are asked to assess their own learning style, believe it or not they tend to discover that they are kinaesthetic learners, because that is the style that features the most games, and games are fun. Some of those games will have educational benefit, but many will just be vapid gimmickry. Very few young people suggest, of their own volition, that they really respond well to someone talking to them for half an hour, even if they have actually learned something by the end of it.

There is nothing wrong with young people thinking about how they learn, and applying that self-awareness to the classroom. The problem comes when this is taken too far and their chosen learning style becomes a stick with which to beat the poor teacher who is being expected to deliver their curriculum, every day, in various contorted ways. I remember observing a lesson in which a Year 10 pupil threw down their pen on the desk, crossed their arms, harrumphed that they weren’t going to do anything in the lesson, because ‘I’m a kinaesthetic learner and the teacher hasn’t catered for me’. This pupil had demonstrated elsewhere that they could a) listen and b) read, while remembering and applying the information they had gleaned. But, no, they were kinaesthetic and if there weren’t pipecleaners or post-it notes on hand, they were electing out. On another occasion, a parent told me very sincerely that their child was, of course, a kinaesthetic learner (which is why they kept underperforming in written assessments). This was especially puzzling because that same pupil had just learnt about Romeo and Juliet to a pretty high level – through a combination of reading, talking and listening – and without any sandcastles.

Where the value of focusing on learning styles does reside is not necessarily in VAK but in DBB – Don’t Be Boring. I am not advocating that teachers should be clownish children’s entertainers. But thinking about VAK across weeks and months – not necessarily in every individual lesson – is a useful way to think about varying the curriculum and its delivery. Some lessons will have largely visual content, some largely auditory, and some kinaesthetic, but our pupils need to progress to become better at each one – they should not think, nor be encouraged to think, that their capacity for each is fixed. I.e. the good listeners will always want and respond most effectively to the spoken word, and so on, so let’s leave it at that. Part of learning is learning other ways to learn. This is partly for our own breadth of experience and flexibility in the classroom, but it is also because when we leave that classroom, we enter a world where the vast majority of people (including our employers) could not give a toss about how we prefer information to be imparted, and how we prefer to receive it. Sometimes that information will be transferred visually, sometimes aurally, sometimes kinaesthetically, and our pupils need to be able to respond effectively to all methods of information (and skills) transmission. Our pupils need to learn coping mechanisms – for example, bad listeners may not take in all the information being told to them, but they can mechanistically take good notes to be read through later. What they can’t do is engage in some kind of pedagogical quackery and then throw their toys out of the pram, if the teacher does not provide those toys in the lesson.

My flippancy should not be mistaken for contempt. There are occasions when manually dexterous activity can indeed improve learning. But this should not mean that pupils are allowed to choose one style and stick to it, nor that teachers should be expected to slave away every evening working out a way of teaching quadratic equations verbally, visually and with a box of tricks. Thinking about learning, and thinking about learning styles, is valuable. We should just resist a literalist and inflexible application of those styles to our lessons, for the sake of the breadth of learning of our pupils and the wellbeing of our teachers.

The School Doctor is a practising teacher at a UK school, using a pseudonym to allow more freedom in his/her regular columns for Schools Improvement.

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