Dogma that damages teaching

16th July 2004 at 01:00
I must be careful not to set myself up as a target for learning styles extremists but I really wish that some educationists would be just a little more circumspect before succumbing to the dogma invading our schools and universities, especially when it is peddled by those who are in a position of considerable influence.

The Department for Education and Skills booklet Learning Styles gives "particular attention ... to the theory of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles" known as VAK. It recommends questionnaires, observations and conversations as "reliable" methods for categorising children.

Having made the assumption that there are indeed visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners, teachers can identify them, apparently, by the comments pupils make when they begin to understand something: "that looks right"; "that sounds right"; "that feels right".

To many this assertion fits so nicely with the model that there is no need to inquire whether there is any truth in it. Perhaps the most bizarre claim made in the booklet is that the kinaesthetic learner "when inactive, fidgets, walks around" - VAK-uous by any standards.

Is it because of the deliberately provocative style of the founders of neurolinguistic programming (upon which the VAK movement is based) that the need for any validation of these ideas through research has been deemed unnecessary? "We have no idea about the 'real' nature of things, and are not particularly interested in what's 'true'... if we happen to mention something that you know from a scientific study, or from statistics, is inaccurate, realise that a different level of experience is being offered you here" (Bandler and Grinder, 1979).

The DfES "research summary" in the booklet merely restates the various categories of learner and gives references to books of the tips-for-teachers variety.

There is a fascinating relationship between our experiences and the way we use sensory-based internal representations and systems of metaphor to make sense of them. The effectiveness of encouraging children to pay attention to their own learning has also been well-documented and may well account for the success of a number of learning styles interventions.

What disappoints me, though, is that consideration of these promising areas is being distorted and distilled into a set of practices that are resulting in teachers making ill-conceived judgements about children which are used to limit the kinds of experiences they are then offered.

Steve Green University of Brighton School of education Falmer campus Brighton

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