Some thoughts on Learning Styles

The rusting can of worms that is Learning Styles has been prised open again and the wriggling mess is crawling all over the educational twittersphere. And on that note I will stop extending the metaphor.

A visual metaphor for the visual learners who didn’t get my first sentence

Last week Ian Gilbert wrote Learning Styles are dead, long live Learning Styles. He said:

I have been in too many situations where young people who weren’t ‘getting it’ one way then started ‘getting it’ when we tried a different way, to dismiss the whole learning styles thing as a fad.

As a teacher, I don’t care what the different learning styles a class of children have (although knowing such things when working with individual learners can be useful in my experience) and I don’t care what you call it. All I know is that a variety of learning approaches (you can call it VAK, you can call it multi-sensory learning, you can call it the application of the Dunn and Dunn Learning Styles Model, you can call it what ever you want) makes a difference and helps me as a teacher and them as learners.

An understanding of learning styles was a big move forward in the push to ensure classrooms were places where children learned not just where teachers taught. Retreating to the ivory tower and insisting you aren’t going to countenance learning styles until there is irrefutable academic evidence to prove they exist, other than the fact they do, could simply prove a backward step when it comes to 21st century learning.

This was later echoed by Bill Boyd who attacks Daniel Willingham’s proposition that Learning Styles don’t exist and drags Gardner and his theory of Multiple Intelligences into the mix. Poor old Gardner can’t seem to extricate himself from Learning Styles and has clearly stated that any link between the two ought to be regarded as a myth.

I’m not really interested into getting into a dispute about this but I will point you in the direction of  Old Andrew’s searing criticism of Learning Styles here and you can make up your own mind.

So why am I getting involved? What’s rattled my cage? I want the opportunity to set out my stall on Learning Styles and clarify for myself, once and for all, exactly what my own views are. So, please bear with me as I grope my way towards coherence.

Firstly, it would appear that no one is seriously claiming that people actually possess a preferred learning style in which they must be taught else their ability to learn will be severely impaired. If I’m wrong on this and there is anyone out who does believe this then please let me know.

There is however some disagreement over whether children sometimes prefer to learn in a particular style. To take myself as an example, I prefer to learn with a good cup of coffee and a chunk of dark chocolate. Also, I prefer not to have to listen to a really boring speaker (although listening to a great speaker is fab!) I get bored. As teachers we’ve all experienced bad INSET and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s fallen asleep or gotten a little leary when subjected to an excess of nonsense. This does not mean that I am incapable of retaining information delivered in this way, just that I would prefer not to have to and would find it a lot easier if I was also give something to look at and something to do.

Similarly, being asked to do stuff for too long would be confusing and pointless. I’d very much like to be told why I was doing it and if the teller could manage to inject a modicum of warmth and wit into their telling then I’ll always be exceedingly grateful.

D’you see the point? I can learn in any way but attempting to force me into learning in any one way will make the process potentially painful. What I want, and what my students seem to like also, is variety. It’s the spice of life, don’t you know?

As an English teacher I’m always banging on (interspersed with showing pictures and providing engaging activities) about variety. Varied punctuation, varied paragraphing, varied sentence structure, varied vocabulary etc. It seems somewhat hypocritical to refuse to vary the manner of my banging.

That said, it strikes me as remarkable and misguided that someone like Daniel Willingham should to go to the trouble of producing this:

It’s so self-evident.

But it’s even more astonishing that anyone would take issue with it. The idea that the best way for a so-called auditory learner to learn a shape is to describe it to them instead of showing them a picture or that a visual learner will best learn to serve a tennis ball my watching the movement instead of practising it is patent nonsense. In my classroom it’s rare that I want students to learn sounds, pictures or movements.; as teachers what we want students to learn are meanings.  So the idea that I need to use visual, auditory or kinaesthetic (VAK) teaching methods to ensure every child has the opportunity to learn is ridiculous and offensive.

But, before you start clapping me on the back for my clear sightedness I don’t for a moment think that having a range of VAK activities in my classroom is bad idea. In fact I think it would be a bit on the rubbish side not to include VAK elements in my lesson. Not because I think students need them in order to learn but to minimise the likelihood of them nodding off.

So, the debate seems to over the muddied no-man’s land of semantics. Most teachers would agree that serving up the same old same old, ad nauseam isn’t a great way of connecting with young minds. It would appear unassailable that it behoves us to vary the way we deliver out lessons. And on that basis I’m more than happy to embrace, and perhaps even fondly fondle, teaching styles.

The learning style, on the other hand, would appear to be a bit of a lame duck. A sick parrot. A dead dog etc. You see, it’s been thoroughly tarred with the brush of scorn and derision. It spawns confusion and misunderstanding. It gets people talking about stuff which doesn’t matter instead of focussing on what does. And what matters, what’s really worth focussing on is making sure every lesson contains solid formative assessment that is more than merely fooling around with mini whiteboards and lolly sticks but is predicated on the fact that assessment for learning is only assessment for learning if it impacts on tomorrow’s lesson and helps learners make progress.

Let’s agree to abandon learning styles and start referring to teaching approaches instead. We’re less likely to confuse each other and more likely to deliver a decent lesson. If the learning style isn’t dead it really should be. Let’s kill it off and call it something else.

16 Responses to Some thoughts on Learning Styles

  1. GeogJo says:

    Thanks for this post. I often regard myself as a hugely ‘visual learner’, so I have always been interested in this.

    However, since starting teaching ‘properly’ this term I have found a few things.

    1.) AUDITORY: Quite apart from any other theories a range of ‘teaching approaches’ creates more novelty in the classroom and more likely to jolt a memory response from learners. i.e. I played ‘Miami’ by Will Smith as my AS level class walked in last week as we were learning about pressures on the Florida Coast. The following lesson they asked me if I could find a song for every case study to help them remember. This was regardless of them being auditory learners. Its just a more novel/memorable moment in their day.

    2.) VISUAL: My preference for visual information isn’t all that unusual. I have found that most people find say, a mind map, a useful way of grappling with information and sorting information in their minds, regardless of a VAK preference.

    3.) KINAESTHETIC: My year 7 form had to fill in a questionnaire of what VAK learner they are so that the school can make this info available to teachers (it may be my school is a little behind the times). Anyway, almost all kids were a pretty even spread across all three. And in fact more had a kinaesthetic bias. When I asked why this was they said responses along the lines of “its more fun”, “we don’t often get to do stuff like that very often”. Again, possibly quite apart from them being better at learning that way, it may be the novelty.

    So anyway….I think I agree with you!

  2. NWhite1 says:

    After having been fortunate enough to listen to Dylan Wiliam giving a lecture today, this is something that has been formed part of our teacher discussions.

    Wiliam quoted Daniel Willingham’s study that there is no evidence for VAK learning styles increasing value added. In fact, he said that variety is the best method for learning – different styles make way for deeper learning.

    Wiliam used the following analogy:
    a) Fold your arms
    b) Now fold your arms the other way.
    c) How does it feel and what do you notice?

    When you fold your arms the other way, it feels slightly odd, maybe uncomfortable, but what you do notice is where your hands are – one pointing up, the other down. If you hadn’t have folded your arms differently, would you ever have noticed this?

    This links to learning.

    If we change the way we deliver something, it can open up possibilities for learning that we had not expected or did not realise the extent to which something can be learned.

    Therefore, using a variety of styles, not just the usual routine, can expose opportunities to learn that may well be missed otherwise. Doing the same routine because you think it fits with the class who are mainly visual learners may mean that their expectations of the lesson to be visually-based do not stretch them or interest them. Opportunities for learning are then lost.

    Can you imagine what it is like to be a student coming in to expect the same routine from a teacher 2-4 times a week? And if teachers are all taught to teach the same way, can you imagine how boring it is to be taught like that for EVERY lesson a week?!

    So, how I interpret it as is don’t just assume because little Jonny is a visual learner that all tasks for him need to be visual. He will likely get bored and will not be stimulated to learn.

    Variety is truly the spice of life – for us and the kids!

    • learningspy says:

      Yes. Good points. I’ve also found that even constant variety gets dull. My Year 11 asked me the other day if we could ‘just have a normal lesson for a change’. Rather took the wind out of my teaching sails.

  3. NWhite1 says:

    I think we have to be careful not to see variety as a ‘whizz bang’ lesson with sparklers and fairy cakes (if you see what I mean).
    Simply, we need to just vary what we do: a reading and discussion lesson, a group task lesson, an independent drafting lesson, etc. (perhaps not inspiring examples but you catch my drift).
    I think it’s potentially dangerous to assume that teachers should be delivering/planning lessons that finish with the splits.
    I do think though that thought should be put into how to get the most out of students, and I would argue that it is rarely by delivering the same format every lesson.
    My worry in our school is that the robotic starter/intro/development/plenary with all learning objectives written on the board or indeed every Power Point slide is just killing motivation and enthusiasm amongst staff and students. I think this is mainly driven by Ofsted targets and the need to tick boxes. We need to feel empowered to deliver lessons that are rich in learning opportunities using AfL techniques (proven to work) rather than conforming to a school wide policy which wants us all teaching like clones.

  4. learningspy says:

    You’re right – too much whizz bang is a distraction from learning, although I like to see that splits finish!

    The three (or four) part lesson structure can be a straightjacket but it’s also the basis for good direct instruction which has the biggest effect size of all teacher strategies on pupil progress after formative assessment.

    Sadly though not even Ofsted have been that keen on it over recent years.

    Point is that one size does not fit all and while variety is the spice of life sometimes we want bangers and mash.

  5. NWhite1 says:

    Absolutely. The foundations of a lesson are necessary.

    Thank you for the thoughtful conversation this evening – all very interesting! I look forward to hearing from anyone else on this…

  6. Rosanna Thorslund says:

    David-I’m in total agreement about your statement about formative assessment.
    We have 100 minute lessons-which are fantastic for deep learning and such assessment.
    You can’t get by on ‘bells and whistles’ as I call it in 100 minutes.The teaching strategy has to have a purpose and help learning, not just because it is deemed ‘snazzy’ or fashionable-how it is helping students make progress?That’s the key!

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks Rosanna. Obviously I do agree with you but perhaps there are times when it’s OK not to know what the point is? I wrote a post called hula hooping about literature which was about a lesson where I just did something for the hell of it. And it worked.

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  9. Gwen Nelson says:

    I just noticed you last post re. It’s Ok to not know what the point is? I totally agree with that idea. I have a yr 8 group, able, who are nevertheless quite lively. So often I’ll give them a set of stimuli, a choice of aims, and let them run with it. Am not always sure what the outcome is going to be.
    The last time I did this was as at the end of reading ‘Alone on a Wide Wide Sea’ by Michael Morpurgo. They were given a list of ideas to create their own interpretation of Allie’s (one of the protagonists) journey in the novel – and often their own ideas are better. 1 group helped make a classroom display, another a scrap book of her journey. We had radio interviews and TV Shows, all produced, scripted, acted and compiled by the students.
    The outcome of their efforts and being given the freedom to produce their own interpretation of a text, was that they (excuse the cliche) took ownership of it. It is THEIR novel interpreted in THEIR way.
    I was exhausted from the dreaded yr 11 revision timetable but their ‘show and tell’ lesson was worth getting out of bed for.
    So, can’t you leave the Learning Intention or Objective to the end of a lesson or a series of lessons and, with the students, review what was learned and how it was learned together?

    • learningspy says:

      Of course you can leave revealing (although perhaps not planning) objectives to end of the lesson (less sure about series of lessons) as long you have a well thought out reason for doing so.

      Why can’t Year 11 revision lessons be conducted in the same – or similar – way to you Morpurgo lesons? They sound great.

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