We’ve Been Conned

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Do you believe in the learning styles approach?

Remember last June when Nigel Farage said to the EU Parliament,

“When I came here 17 years ago and said I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the Europeans Union, you all laughed at me. Well, you’re not laughing now!”

Learning Styles!

Some teachers are ‘doing a Nigel’ today in relation to VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) learning styles. VAK was ‘all the rage’ once and some teachers fell ‘head over heels’ in love with it – some still are. But, some of us didn’t and said that VAK was a waste of money, ineffective and a neuromyth. Our chief concern was that it had no scientific muscles and children would soon be labelled.

Today we can be applauded for our common sense thanks to the 30 distinguished academics from the worlds of neuroscience, education and psychology who signed a letter to the Guardian expressing their concern about the popularity of the learning style approach among some teachers.

“There is widespread interest among teachers in the use of neuroscientific research findings in educational practice. However, there are also misconceptions and myths that are supposedly based on sound neuroscience that are prevalent in our schools. We wish to draw attention to this problem by focusing on an educational practice supposedly based on neuroscience that lacks sufficient evidence and so we believe should not be promoted or supported.”

Their timing is impeccable, because this week it is Brain Awareness Week and scientists want us to stop and think about commonly-held beliefs, about improving learning based on research but devoid of scientific evidence.

Vacuous

Of course, we all have known in our heart of hearts that ‘learning styles’ has been just one big con. When we were first told many years ago to differentiate our lessons according to VAK principles, this caused many teachers to grind their teeth, roll their eyes and to run at the playground wall without stopping.

We have to be grateful that some teachers were prepared to stick their necks out and say what many were thinking. Tait Coles in his book Never Mind The Inspectors refers to a whole bunch of initiatives, systems and routines that make us squirm including Brain Gym, Six Thinking Hats, Bloom’s taxonomy, Lollipop sticks and “Learning styles. Often simplified to VAK, which stands for … bollocks!”

One school I worked at bought into the idea of VAK and after an expensive training day; the next day we were handing out questionnaires for children to complete which would then reveal their preferred learning style. Once we knew that Fawaz was a visual learner, Robyn was a kinaesthetic leaner and Samraj was an auditory learner, then all we had to do was differentiate our lessons on top of the other differentiations we were already doing, and everyone would become brilliant.

Before you knew it, children were pigeon-holed and stereoptyped and could often be heard  describing their preferred learning style and refusing to accept that they might actually learn in different ways. The language of parents’ evenings changed too. Mr and Mrs Grainger said their son was unhappy because he was an auditory learner, but his friends were visual learners. It had become a theoretical virus.

The whole VAK approach was always an empty-headed approach for some of us because no one learns in just one style. VAK is far too simple, it is misleading and wrong with no research evidence to support it.

The Educational Endowment Foundation has also voiced its concerns about a learning styles approach saying,

“There is very limited evidence for any consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that can be used reliably to identify genuine differences in the learning needs of young people, and evidence suggests that it is unhelpful to assign learners to groups or categories on the basis of a supposed learning style.”

Nature Abhors A Vacuum

The VAK Learning Styles Model was developed in the 1920s by psychologists who classified the most common ways that people learn. In the late 1980’s VAK was changed adapted to include Reading/Writing and called VARK by Dr. Neil Fleming.

Other educators and researchers have identified further learning styles, with some models even showing a whopping 70 different styles! But we have been sold a pup. Teachers don’t need time-wasting initiatives and schools can’t afford to waste their precious resources on things that don’t work. Put VAK in the dustbin, it is a neuromyth.

Source: Lethaby, C. and Harries, P. (2016). ‘Learning styles and teacher training: are we perpetuating neuromyths’? ELT Journal. 70/1. 16-27.

In my home city, there is an ‘experience’ place called the Rage Cage. This is basically an anger room where people can go to let off steam and smash things up. You take with you whatever you want to smash-up, put on a hard-hat, goggles and gloves and let rip using a baseball bat, crowbar or hammer. Perhaps we can take our expensive VAK manuals and DVDs into the cage and have a really smashing time?

Perhaps every school should have a ‘Farage Cage, where we can go and laugh at the ideas and silly systems we are sold ? … Oh yes, it’s called the staffroom.

Now, what will we replace VAK with next?

 

John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. I am the teacher without a tongue. www.johndabell.com

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