Case study: St Vincent's primary school, Birmingham
Our school is in a part of Birmingham that suffers from high rates of crime. Many of our pupils live in difficult circumstances, so it's important that we make school a comfortable place in which to learn.
Acknowledging that different children have different learning needs has been a crucial part of that.
We had been using VAK for some time when we discovered the work of Barbara Prashnig. Her ideas are based on VAK teaching styles, but her model offers a more sophisticated analysis which assesses whether children are right-brained or left-brained thinkers; what kind of working environment they prefer; whether they like to snack or chew and move around the classroom; and whether they prefer to work in groups or on their own. It sees children as individuals with a wide-ranging profile, rather than fitting them into three broad categories.
The Prashnig programme offers analysis of the teaching and learning styles of staff as well as children. It's difficult to teach in a different way from your preferred style, but once you become aware of how you work, then you can start to change things. Our staff are encouraged to vary their delivery techniques across the day or the week, so that children get a mix of activities, with no learning group being left out.
We use this information in staff meetings to group pupils when planning an activity. We take their learning styles into account to ensure each group has a good mix, drawing on each other's natural strengths. In this way, we've developed an ideas bank, with suggestions for making the curriculum accessible to everyone. If we are doing story-writing for example, different children will need different activities to get their ideas flowing. Visual learners might watch a video, auditory learners might record some ideas on to tape, and kinaesthetic learners will perhaps get up and act things out. These ideas banks give teachers basic activities which they can apply across the curriculum.
But it's not just about how children like to receive information, or the activities they prefer; it's also about the physical surroundings that suit them best. An analytic thinker might choose to work at a desk, in a well-lit area, while a holistic thinker may prefer to sprawl on a beanbag.
Providing a range of learning environments in one classroom has not proved difficult. We've chosen calming colours, such as blues and greens; furniture is a mix of comfortable sofas and formal chairs. Children have a place in the classroom - their "home seat" - but are free to move to a different spot as appropriate. We use lamps, rather than overhead strips - which interfere with the brain's natural frequencies - and some areas are bright and others dimly lit. In one corner there will be music playing, but the volume will be low so that it doesn't disturb those on the other side of the room. We also have earphones for anyone who wants to block out noise altogether. Children are free to eat while they work, as long as the food is healthy. At key stage 1 we use spare fruit from the fruit scheme to give pupils access to snacks throughout the day rather than just at a designated "fruit time". These things quickly become normal and pupils learn to make sensible choices.
The danger is that teachers think just putting down a few beanbags and playing music is enough, when it can merely lead to chaos. Teachers must realise that they are still the learning experts and have to use their professional judgment to monitor their pupils' progress. You have to guide children if they are making the wrong choices and teach them how the brain works and why their choices are good or bad for their individual learning.
Once children understand how they work best, they take charge of their learning. So, if you set them a task, some will plan using bullet points, others will use diagrams, others will talk it over with a planning partner.
The tasks are the same, but now they are aware of different ways to approach them.
When our children move on to secondary school they may no longer be allowed to work in their preferred way. So we teach them to adapt what they know, so that they can, for example, take notes effectively or work at home more effectively. Some people are suspicious of learning styles, but when you see the difference it makes, it's hard to be sceptical. Here at St Vincent's, the children are dramatically more engaged. Giving children an understanding of how they learn is the most important thing we can do. It will make them effective and empowered learners for the rest of their lives.
Erica Hewetson is teaching and learning co-ordinator at St Vincent's RC primary school, Vauxhall Grove, Birmingham. She was talking to Steven Hastings. The Power of Diversity by Barbara Prashnig (Network Educational Press, Pounds 14,95)