Every picture tells a different story

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Schools need to use a variety of teaching approaches and learning activities, says Ian Smith

he trainer projects a picture with a great deal of detail in it. The viewer looks out of a dilapidated barn at a young man who stands a short distance away, staring into the building. In the foreground is a mass of tangled rubbish and what may be some old plastic sheeting. In the background is a house with an overgrown garden. Behind there are outbuildings and in the distance some chimneys.

The audience is asked to write down a few words or phrases to describe what they see when they look at the picture. They are told to write down the first words that come into their head. It's stressed this is not a test and there are no right answers.

After 20 seconds or so, the trainer asks the audience to share a word or phrase they came up with. People shout out: "Boy, pattern on his T-shirt", "Farm", "Barn", "House", "Two windows", "Three chimneys in the background", "Wire hanging down".

Many haven't spoken and some look a bit uncomfortable. The trainer notices and asks: "Has anyone got any different kinds of words?" Someone says:

"It's Middle America, Bruce Springsteen country." Another responds: "I've written 'Sweden'." Others chip in words like "danger", "loneliness".

Finally, others venture "dolphins" and "Golden Wonder crisps".

The trainer calls a halt and asks wryly: "Does anybody see any differences in these responses?"

I have run this session many times and all these responses have been given.

I have never received such a rich variety. In most sessions, there are significant differences in the words that people come up with. Some start with the detail and describe what is literal and real. Others go for "big picture" first and try to read meanings into the picture and make sense of it in some way. (In case you were wondering, the person who said "dolphins" thought that the plastic sheeting in the foreground looked dolphin-shaped.

One participant said the picture reminded her of an advert for Golden Wonder crisps.) This activity is designed to point out the different ways in which we perceive the world. That's all. It's not a test for different styles, or to decide whether participants are "left" or "right"-brained. Nor is it an intelligence test.

Sometimes a participant suggests that those who come up with words such as "danger" are the clever ones. It depends. If you were looking at the picture for health and safety reasons, then you would want people to be good at noticing details. But if you were using it to stimulate imaginative writing, then those who see "danger" or "loneliness" first have a head start.

In my opinion, our school system forces teachers to play down the extent to which individuals come to life and to learning in different ways, especially in secondary schools. Let's face it: when you have 30 pupils in your class and you have so much to teach them in such a short time, it's more than just a little inconvenient that they all learn in such radically different ways.

The good news is that all of us are different in similar ways and we are coming to a growing understanding of what these similar differences are.

Indeed, the concept of learning style has become one of the pillars on which our understanding of how we learn has been built. I am glad that it has, but I have long been nervous about the credence teachers and schools are giving to the VAK (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic) model of learning styles.

I have always believed that the more stimuli to learn that people are exposed to, the more effectively we will take in, process and access information. What I have never been convinced of is that all of us consistently favour one of our main senses to do this. I have never thought this is true of myself, but more important I have never seen any robust evidence to back up the claim, despite searching for it on and off over a number of years.

My opinion was given weight by a recent report into learning styles undertaken by Newcastle University for the Learning Skills and Research Centre. I have drawn on this research in a recent publication from Learning Unlimited entitled Different in Similar Ways: making sense of learning styles.

In it, I point out that I don't believe we should junk the idea of learning styles generally, or visual, auditory and kinaesthetic in particular. But I do advise that VAK questionnaires should be binned as they are neither valid nor reliable. Also, we should stop trying to spot pupils' VAK styles, as we all use all our senses to learn.

Generally, we need to be aware of "difference" and ensure that a variety of teaching approaches and learning activities is used for the benefit of all learners.

It's time to see learning styles differently.

Ian Smith is founder of Learning Unlimited. This is the first in a series of monthly columns.

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