Zombie bølløcks: World War VAK isn't over yet

23rd April 2014 at 23:33


How do we keep a corpse from escaping its coffin? How many stakes, how many silver bullets, until dead means dead? Regular readers will be familiar with my Holy Crusade against silly science in the classroom. Brain Gym is lying stiff in a morgue with a paper tag hanging from its toe, but the cabinet door has a padlock on it – just in case. Ideas are notoriously difficult to kill.


I was presented with evidence of that fact in a study, which showed that myth-busting is harder than it seems. You might think that it would be sufficient to simply present the evidence surrounding a popular but erroneous piece of folklore and watch as as illusions melted: the truth is far from it. In fact, studies have shown that people confronted with careful deconstruction of such pseudo-science as homeopathy or MMR-related autism often remember the wacky claim more than they remember the debunking. 


Shït, it appears, is stickier than soap and water – and I managed to unwittingly step in a huge pile of it the other day. It began with an innocent Twitter request; someone asked me if I could help them answer a question about Visual Auditory Kinesthetic (VAK) learning styles, something which, along with Brain Gym, was hotter than heroin when I was a teacher trainee. I'll cop to being a bit surprised; I believed we lived in a post-VAK world. World War VAK was over, I thought.


Apparently not. This undergraduate had been asked – in seriousness, without a trace of irony or accompanying shame – to observe a lesson and write about it "from the perspective of VAK". I nearly choked on my own tears. You might as well ask ask Dr Barnardo to write up his case notes "from the perspective of Japanese Noh Theatre".


VAK, as I'm sure you're aware, is the now-utterly-discredited proposition that children possess different modalities of learning. Somehow, the Sorting Hat of learning divvies us all up into these categories, and unless their delicate modalities are attended to, our learning suffers. Visual learners process, interpret and understand the world best through images, seeing with their own eyes, and talk in imagistic metaphorical argot. Kinaesthetic learners need to feel, to move, to wave their little fists in order to do the same. And so on. The list strangely stops short of olfactory learners or gustatory learners, thankfully. I have no idea how we would teach those kids, unless school became some kind of tasting menu, a smorgasbord of the First World War, garnished with a jus of trigonometry and syntax.


It's all bølløcks, of course. It's bølløcks squared, actually, because not only has recent and extensive investigation into learning styles shown absolutely no correlation between their use and any perceptible outcome in learning, not only has it been shown to have no connection to the latest ways we believe the mind works, but even investigation of the original research shows that it has no credible claim to be taken seriously. Learning Styles are the ouija board of serious educational research. But still, they lurch on. Some people shrug their cardigans at this kind of news. "Sure, Learning Styles are a bit ropey," they say. "But it's harmless. Besides, kids enjoy it when you get them moving around after a writing task, or talking after a period of listening."


This view misses the point on three counts.


1. The fact that a Initial Teacher Training provider – you know, the laboratory of the next generation of teachers, who are in turn the midwives of the ambitions of thousands of children – could even go near this kind of guff, is a potent, pungent litmus of what is still considered acceptable in teacher training. I teach philosophy and RS, and I am, at least, expected to know a good deal about my subjects, and to know when something is a fact, and when something is an opinion. If Faculties of Education are expected to be intellectually, academically respectable and if, more importantly, we are supposed to treat their professional guidance as expert in nature, they need to be not just bang on-trend, but far ahead of the curve. They need to know the whole fashion has been overturned. In fact, were I to wear my black Thinking Hat of reprobation and fury, I might ask, where the hell were you in the first place when this was high in the hit parade? Where were the educationalists who read the papers, questioned the credentials and demanded the evidence?


2. It's a waste of goddamn time. It's easy to laugh at such things – in fact I'd say it was compulsory – but it really isn't funny. Time spent learning this kind of guff is time that isn't spent on learning about more evidenced theories of learning. What a waste of time for kids, forced to endure grim carnivals of forced activity and artificially construed learning games. All that planning and evaluating, with no purpose or end, is like being assessed on how much your soul weighs or what colour your aura is. Time is one thing we don't have in teaching. Anything that wastes a second of it is a sin.


3. The attitude towards the truth that it betrays. I have no issue with teachers alternating the style of their activities – in fact I would encourage it, for reasons of interest, attention span and simple variety. The wisest of lecturers can still fail to capture the attention after an hour or so. The liveliest of physical trial becomes tiresome eventually. But to base an activity on a set of axioms that is so thoroughly speculative is poisonous. Once you say that something must be merely useful rather than true, you dismantle the scaffold that underpins rationality, and anything is permitted.


After I heard that VAK was still being pimped by some teacher trainers, I learned from another contributor that it was still quite common in some FE colleges, at both a student and staff level. How depressing. Is this the best that we can do?


This one, it seems, will take more than one stake in the heart.