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 criticised.”

The extensive criticism has come from educational and neurology researchers who have respectively failed to measure differences in learning styles between students, and failed to find a neurological basis for different learning styles. Every individual has different strengths and weaknesses in their thinking. Some absorb information best when it is presented orally, some textually, some pictorially and with graphics. Your own personal experience in how you make notes on things you are learning will tell you your strengths. I am very good spatially, so like to make diagrams of how things are inter-related. But I have taught people who cannot relate diagrams to things in the real world. I can concentrate by just ignoring what is happening around me, yet I had a work colleague who just had to move in order to concentrate fully. Whenever his mobile phone rang he would get up and pace up and down the office while he talked.

I assure you that learning styles exist. But wikipedia is wrong about teachers needing to adapt teaching to pupils' individual learning styles. The job of a teacher is to help students become proficient in a wide range of learning styles, helping them gain success by using styles they are good with, but challenging them to use learning styles they are not good at and still uncomfortable with. Information is going to come at them in many forms through life, they need to be competent in decoding and understanding it no matter how the information arrives.

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 stories and epic poetry were developed to transmit learning. However it would seem from the Lascaux caves that even many thousands of years ago the desirability of visual images was recognised. In medieval times religious painting was developed to communicate ideas, it was not meant to be a realistic portrayal of scenes.

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 Meccano 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. Learning styles also apply to how you wish to present information to help others learn. In this matter our whole concept of ability is skewed to reward students highly competent in textual presentation, failing abjectly in most subjects to reward students who are highly capable in oral and visual presentation. Now that schools are full of digital learners, and our world is one of pervasive digital multi-media, this urgently needs to be changed.

A couple of stories:

In the early days of use of computers, about 1985, a teacher-training student did a small project at Rowlinson Secondary School in Sheffield. They selected a group of pupils across the full range of ability as assessed by the teachers in the school's English department. They asked each pupil to create two stories, one written and one told to the researcher, which they recorded. The researcher 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 secondary school in Hull (1984) 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 spinning wheel, 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. This 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 kept 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 fail 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 really 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 considered by the school to be 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 I have heard several times of students wanting to visually capture the explanations the teacher had created for the class on the board, but who were forbidden from using their mobile phones to do so - a practice that is now absolutely normal in business meetings.

Researchers may continue to argue that there is no 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, and need to use them to the full. Changing assessment to give credit to pupils highly competent in digital learning and the digital world is going to be a longer battle.