Learning Styles - How do you think and learn best?

Which do you prefer? VARK or Activist, Reflector, Theorist, Pragmatist. Or do you prefer to think of this around Gardner’s seven intelligences? Wikipedia on learning styles states “It has been proposed that teachers should assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their classroom methods to best fit each student's learning style. The alleged basis and efficacy for these proposals has been extensively criticized.”

The key question for teachers is how best to help pupils learn. It seems the research community are not a lot of help when it comes to learning styles. Teachers will have to make their own minds up.

For a start I don’t believe in the statement from Wikipedia. Surely it’s not a question of always presenting learning to students to best fit their learning styles. I would much rather try to help children to develop different kinds of learning capability, to become ‘well rounded’ learners. That may well mean presenting work to fit their learning style so they can get success in learning, but also challenging them to learn in ways they are less comfortable with, in order to improve.

History teaches us that that there is no pre-eminent learning style. How to learn best is determined not only by the individual but also by the society they live in. In societies without writing materials epic poetry was developed to transmit learning. It would seem from the Lascaux caves however that even many thousands of years ago the desirability of visual images was recognised. It is quite natural that we currently have an education system heavily focused on reading and writing, staffed by teachers who have risen academically largely because of their reading and writing ability. The explosion of knowledge from 1750 to 1950 was heavily dependent on text and printing. By the mid 1950s my Meccanno instruction books were rapidly moving away from text, to pictures and exploded diagrams, as were the Ladybird books. Text has been on the slide for a long time.

And it should not be surprising that people who have gained their career and status in society through their reading and writing ability are somewhat reluctant to move the assessment system away from the written exam to assessment through doing. Design & Technology teachers have pioneered a lone route in this respect, putting as much emphasis on what is learnt in the design process as on the end product. But the job of teaching is to educate the next generation properly not to inhibit necessary change.

A couple of stories:

In the early days of use of computers a teacher-training student did a small project at Rowlinson School in Sheffield. They selected a group of pupils across the full range of ability as assessed by the school. They asked each pupil to write a story, and to tell a story, which they recorded. They then typed all the written and spoken stories so that it was impossible for handwriting or diction to have an impact on assessment - and asked the English teachers in the school to assess the stories without knowing which pupil was responsible for which.

The teachers got a surprise. Some of the stories were very linear and predictable, with little interest and only average descriptive style. Some were exciting stories with colourful description and unpredictable and interesting twists. The exciting and colourful stories that the teachers assessed as best were in large measure the stories that had been told to the researcher by the ‘less able’ pupils. The predictable and boring stories were often those that had been written by the ‘more able’ pupils.

A teacher at a school in Hull was very interested in logical thinking and developed a game he played with his class to help them develop their thinking skills. He created a programme on the BBC Computer that would randomly present clip-art images of things; a hat, a house, a dog, a pin and so on. He would invite one pupil to be the game leader, who would have to think of a Yes/No way of categorising whatever object was displayed. The category might be “its made of wood”, “it’s alive”, “We have one at home” or anything the pupil wanted that would split the objects into Yes and No groups. This categorisation was of course secret from the pupils.

The pupils were split into groups of three or four and the game began. When each object was displayed, the game leader would say Yes or No as to how it fitted the secret categorisation. The prize was won by the team first to guess the categorisation. Sometimes a team would have early success, when their hypothesis as to the category worked correctly as several objects were displayed - only for the hypothesis to completely fall at the next object. A new hypothesis was therefore needed quickly, on the basis of what had gone before.

There were two or three pupils in his class who really enjoyed the game and were very good at it. And there were a couple of pupils who hated the game. The successful pupils were known in the school as somewhat troublesome middle-lower ability boys. The two pupils who really hated the game were both high-ability, high-achieving girls.

We may be stuck with an assessment system and education system that insists on giving qualification and career advantage to pupils who prefer reading/writing approaches to learning. But this should not prevent schools from using VAK approaches just as much as R approaches. If you need to find out how to do something, you are now as likely to find an answer in a YouTube video as in printed instructions. There is not a company in the Western world that does not make extensive use of visual and auditory approaches to explain its capabilities and services to customers.

But only a short while ago I heard of a student who wanted to visually capture the explanations the teacher had created for the class on the board, but who was forbidden from using his mobile phone to do so - a practice that is now absolutely normal in business meetings.

It doesn’t matter if researchers continue to argue as to whether there is any neural basis that explains teachers’ practical observations of what approaches engage their pupils best in learning. Our society is now visual, auditory and fast moving, requiring learning on the job and collaborative learning. Computers have made this happen. And pupils (and teachers) need computers immediately to hand to change education to reflect this.