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.
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.