Individual learning styles pooh-poohed

4th December 2009 at 00:00

The idea that individual pupils have different learning styles has been dismissed as "arrant nonsense" by the head of Scotland's education inspectorate.

Theories about learning styles had "no basis in neuro-science", HMIE senior chief inspector Graham Donaldson told the annual conference of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland last week.

Yet many teachers believed the trick was to gear their teaching to a pupil's particular style - visual, aural or kinaesthetic. It was a "denial" of education to say to a pupil: "You have got a specific learning style, therefore what we should do is teach towards it," he said.

The purpose of education was to teach children to learn in lots of different ways. It was valid to argue that certain things are best learnt in certain ways - that some subjects are best learnt through a visual stimulus and others using an aural or kinaesthetic method. He said: "We should be starting from what you have to learn, rather than saying, `I have a way of learning and everything has to be done through that.'"

This is not the first time Mr Donaldson has warned the education community against being taken in by what he once called "snake-oil salesmen". Learning-styles theories and "Brain Gym" fell into this category, he told The TESS.

In a panel debate, which ranged from the challenge of how to give young people a greater voice in their education to the implementation of A Curriculum for Excellence, Mr Donaldson warned that the curriculum reforms would test leadership in Scottish education to the full.

"I am confident that Curriculum for Excellence will lead to change, and much of that will be for the better," he said, "but whether or not we realise the full potential of CfE in terms of the impact it can have and needs to have on our young people for the future, I am less confident."

Leslie Manson, incoming president of ADES, said he felt the structures in the early years of secondary needed to undergo a revolutionary change. They reflected the structures of 50 years ago, he commented.

Teachers also needed to appreciate that youngsters now did a lot of their learning outwith school. His own 11-year-old son had taught himself card tricks, dog-training and how to play a tune on the guitar by watching YouTube on his computer.

Colin MacLean, director of schools in the Scottish Government, pointed out that the national performance framework meant schools had to go beyond teaching pupils certain facts, but had to work with young people so that they produced the framework's 50 national outcomes. "This changes the task, and it makes it a bigger job than before," he suggested. "It is now the teacher's job to make sure that youngsters can use YouTube effectively."

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