The Empire Strikes VAK: How far does this rabbit hole go?

26th April 2014 at 12:10




Last week, I wrote about my surprise that VAK and Learning Styles were still being advocated and taught as part of at least one PGCE course. It was more of an eye-roll than a polemic (though, to be fair, even my sneezes sound like polemics). But the reaction to that post has convinced me that the problem is even worse than I had thought, as I received message after message confirming that the beast still prowled the campuses and colleges of education. I thought VAK was all but exterminated, like polio. But like a virus, the idea of it has propagated and put down deep roots. 


For example, did you know that Learning Styles were on an examinable syllabus? It isn't just teachers that have to study and swallow this faeces, it's students too. For example, on the Edexcel Level 3 BTEC in Health and Social Care, Unit 6:


"This unit explores the different ways in which learning can take place and how learning from individual experiences can be used to enhance the quality of knowledge, skills and practice. Learners will explore concepts of learning and relate these to their preferred learning styles and other factors that influence their learning."


On your belly, Edexcel! How long is it since Honey and Mumford bought you? Not only that, but Unit 45 in the same subject has the same thing:


"3. Be able to plan and manage own learning

Learning styles: Honey and Mumford typology (reflector, theorist, activist, pragmatist); own preferences; limitations of identifying with a single learning style; holistic approach to learning styles"


This is supposed to be helping students – often less able students – improve how they learn, god help them. Presumably Unit 46 went on to discuss blood magic, rune-reading and the creation of golems, but I bailed.


One school (anonymous; a lot of these examples were sent anonymously) told me that their Year 12 had just been taken for a study skill course. First activity? If you guessed Learning Styles, then I tip the rim of my Thinking Hat at you. A teacher in the Midlands told me that it was being hustled as a big deal at a recent SLT meeting (where bad ideas can become big mistakes far more quickly than in just one classroom)


Senior staff have a duty to be up to date on these kinds of things. Teacher trainers have a moral and professional duty to be so, otherwise how can they sleep? A mistake at this level poisons the well for hundreds of teachers and thousands upon thousands of children. The higher your pay grade, the more should be expected of you; them's the breaks.


It even appears to be quite widely prevalent in the legal industry, which amazed me, so married to evidence and testimony are they normally. Read this paper to find out more


VAK is still common in many schools, used by people who should know better, like senior staff:



That last message also indicates that it can be used as an ugly shibboleth for brainless, one-dimensional lesson observations, which gives more evidence, if any were needed, that there are few things more damaging to education that lions led (and judged) by donkeys.


Children have their time wasted by moronic non-learning activities that no one in their right minds would have considered prior to Learning Styles:



Then students absorb this rubbish, and start believing that it poses a problem to the way they learn:




Still being taught in adult education, and MAs....



Schools shoehorn kids into ludicrous pigeonholes, which I imagine does them no harm socially at all:



Christ, it's like West Side Story: gangs of visual learners all hanging out by the CCTV.


Schools now have it coded into their DNA, approved by Governing Bodies who no doubt feel very groovy:



And it's in primary and secondary schools:




There are the odd beams of sunshine though:




...quickly dashed by a flood of this:




Incidentally, supply teachers are like the spies of the teaching world; listen to them carefully.


Moving into postgraduate study, the sickness is swarming nicely:



IT'S REACHED AUSTRALIA. NOWHERE IS SAFE. It really is starting to feel like World War VAK. And how many teachers will nod their heads sadly at the following?



Lord Lucas raises a good point here:



And the simple answer is that most of the people labouring under the yoke of this cartoon research have got something to lose by criticising their school, especially for something so ostensibly trivial as Learning Styles. You might go to the wall to blow the whistle on corruption, but Thinking Hats, etc? Not so much. 


And finally, I also heard a lot from people about this kind of thing:



Some students have learning preferences, it's claimed. Well, there are two things to say to this:


1. They might do. But is that important? We have to teach children to work in ways that they might not normally. We can't cater a lesson to everyone's preferences. And their preferences might not be the best way to learn. 

2. I think what they actually mean is they have 'activity' preferences. What child knows how best they learn? Even the grown-ups can't agree. 


I pulled a thread on this tapestry, and it just kept on going. So what to do? Well, apart from shouting VADE RETRO SATANUS at them, challenge people when they ask you to use Learning Styles. Inform them that they have absolutely no credible evidence base whatsoever. Ask them to produce any evidence to the contrary. This virus will keep on replicating until we snuff it out. Burn it with fire. And the only way to defeat a bad idea? Better ideas. That's the vaccine, the treatment and the cure. Better ideas.