Does kinaesthetics do it for you?

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
Teachers have learning styles too. If your training day proves hard going, perhaps the presentation is not right for you, writes Sara Bubb

Do you know how you learn best? Is it something you even think about? If you're going to make the most of your training opportunities, it's an important question because there are many ways to achieve the same end - you need to choose what works for you. There has been lots of debate about children's learning styles but not much on how to help the adults in schools learn - and, goodness knows, there's lots needed with the pace of change. Any school has a variety of people working within it, with different levels of experience and needs, so a one-size-fits-all approach to professional development is unlikely to have much impact.

Thinking about "andragogy" - how adults learn - as well as pedagogy - how children learn - is important. Although there are similarities, there are important differences.

Some consider that adults have preferred learning styles. Probably the best known analysis of this is by Dr Peter Honey and Alan Mumford who identify four different types: theorists, pragmatists, activists and reflectors (see box, right).

Honey and Mumford devised a questionnaire that aims to help people pinpoint their preferences so that they're in a better position to select learning experiences that suit them. Few people fall neatly into one category, but have a leaning towards one or two of the categories.

Claire Driver, induction tutor at Sacred Heart primary in Battersea, south-west London, is unusual in having fairly equal aspects of all four learning styles. She laughed when she heard her questionnaire result, but was also a bit upset. "I thought I came out as nothing - wishy-washy," says Claire who has been teaching for six years. "I thought a lot about it afterwards and talked to lots of people. It really made me think about my NQTs as individuals."

In the same group there was another induction tutor who was identified through the questionnaire as an activist through and through, with no characteristics of the reflector, pragmatist and theorist. This was a Damascus learning moment for her because she realised that the advice she'd been giving to her NQT hadn't been working because he was so different to her - a strong reflector and theorist with low scores as an activist.

Mind you, Frank Coffield, a professor at London University's Institute of Education, who has reviewed 71 different learning style theories, is sceptical about the whole business.

"Some of the learning styles instruments - many of them well-known commercial products - make extravagant claims of success which are not upheld when subjected to scrutiny," he says. "People may take the results too seriously and come to think in stereotypes and live up to their label."

He believes that different approaches are needed for different things: it depends what you need to learn.

"Someone who is aware of their learning style preferences is better equipped to choose learning opportunities that fit their style and invest effort in becoming an all-round learner by consciously developing under-utilised styles," says Peter Honey. "People often have 'Aha!'

insights as things suddenly fall into place. It helps them to understand why they are finding 'incompatible' learning more troublesome. It may mean they give up less easily."

So, the next time you see teachers being stroppy, self-centred and argumentative during a training day, ask them whether their learning style is incompatible with the training!

Both Dr Honey and Professor Coffield agree on the three crucial questions: how well do people know themselves, what do they need to develop, and how is it best to do so?

Lisa Thomas, head of English at Loxford school in Redbridge, north-east London, thinks that adult learning styles are important because "teachers think too much about teaching so anything that gets them thinking about learning is great".

They need to become expert at teaching and learning, Professor Coffield believes. "We need to think more about learning - get into the complexity of it. We need to consider how efficient we can be in our professional learning. How much do we know or even think about how other people that we work with might learn?"

This is vital. Discussing the learning of school staff is significant because it relates so closely to the core activity - helping others to learn. If teachers understand how they learn and appreciate that others have different learning styles, they'll be more able to support the learning of both pupils and colleagues. As Brian Lynch, an English teacher in his second year at Stockwell high school, south London, says "Knowing about learning styles has benefited my personal development - I have a better sense of myself as a learner and the conditions that'll allow me to improve more readily."

Sara Bubb is author of 'Helping Teachers Develop' published by SagePaul Chapman and 'The TES', price pound;17.99. Peter Honey Publications

Which one are you?

Theorists are those people who respond to structured situations full of interesting ideas and concepts, such as lectures, deep discussions, reading and thinking alone. They learn less when they have to participate in situations that emphasise emotions.

Pragmatists learn best when the topic is of obvious relevance and when shown something they can put into practice. They learn less well when there's no practice or guidelines.

Activists come to life when involved in new experiences, problem-solving, team tasks and role-play. They find it harder when listening to lectures, reading, writing, or thinking on their own, or following instructions to the letter.

Reflectors are people who like time to think about the subject. They prefer lectures with plenty of reflection time, observation, and keeping a learning log to review what has happened. They don't like role-play, being thrown in at the deep end or deadlines.

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