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The concept of learning styles has become a cornerstone of good practice.
It's endorsed by the Government, reinforced by local authorities and taught at teacher training centres across the country. Every newly qualified teacher enters the classroom trained to tell a visual learner from an auditory one. But the backlash has started, with academics claiming that many of the resources on the market are unproven; at best a waste of time and money, at worst a potential stumbling block to children's progress. So how important is it to understand learning styles?
Keeping it simple
The basic theory of learning styles is straightforward. The central principle is that children learn in different ways. Enthusiasts of learning styles claim that everyone has a preferred style and it is possible to test children to determine their preferences. Having established those preferences, the teacher should take account of them and alter his or her approach accordingly.
Making it complicated
The learning styles movement can be traced back to 1982, and the launch in the UK of the Honey Mumford learning questionnaire, still one of the most popular learning styles resources. It identifies four categories of learner: activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists. Activists learn best when confronted with new ideas; reflectors prefer to observe others and listen to several viewpoints; theorists learn by drawing on their existing knowledge to analyse complex situations; while pragmatists progress by making clear links between work in the classroom and life outside it.
Since then the number of resources on the market has expanded. There are now more than 70 packages available to schools, each with its own terminology and its own way of grouping together types of learner. Children can be deemed, among other things, to be adaptors or innovators, verbalisers or imagers, deep or surface learners, globalists or analysts, assimilators or accommodators.
But the most commonly used system in schools, and the one which has been most widely promoted by the Department for Education and Skills, is the VAK model of classification, which divides children into visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners; those who like to look, those who like to listen and those who learn best through physical activity, (sometimes called "active learners").
The learning styles phenomenon can partly be explained by the fact that it has coincided with the Government's push for "personalised learning"; in many ways the two go hand in hand. Even so, many educationists are baffled as to why the concept has been embraced so enthusiastically.
"I've been amazed," says Peter Honey, one of the originators of the Honey Mumford questionnaire. "When we first launched our materials I expected a limited take-up from a niche market, but it sold very well right from the off, and the market has been buoyant ever since."
It's not just schools that have been buying into the learning styles revolution; big corporations have also been building up profiles of their employees using VAK-style assessments. Part of the appeal may be that it seems to offer a quick fix, with the promise that a simple questionnaire or two is all that's needed to give teachers an insight into how to reach a difficult or underachieving student.
What am I?
Most learning styles analyses rely on self-assessment questionnaires, with children ticking boxes to indicate the activities they like, and the type of work they find easy or difficult. Sceptics point out the obvious defects in this approach, questioning whether primary children, in particular, have the ability to analyse the way they work. Then there's the fact that many school activities are not purely visual, auditory or kinaesthetic, but a mixture of all three. A child may be looking at a book (visual) while listening to a teacher (auditory) and making notes (kinaesthetic). There are also question marks over the labels themselves. If a child likes drama, does that make them a kinaesthetic learner, or just a budding thespian?
Dr Pat Bricheno, a research associate in education at Cambridge University, is investigating the impact of a learning styles approach on classroom attitudes. Initially, her interviews seemed to suggest that all children, boys and girls, preferred kinaesthetic learning. "But it's not that straightforward," she says. "On closer questioning, it turned out that most of the kinaesthetic activities were done in groups, and what pupils actually enjoyed was working with other people, not the activity itself."
The difficulties involved in monitoring the learning process make it hard to assess the effectiveness of teaching to a VAK formula. But one thing seems certain: there are other things teachers can do, such as offering frequent feedback, which have more impact on the learning process.
Mix or match
Even if we accept that children learn in different ways, it's not clear how teachers should respond. Should you try to deliver lessons in a way that matches a child's preferred style? Or should you deliver them differently to stimulate the less developed ways of learning? In others words, is the aim to make short-term learning as easy as possible, or is it, over time, to develop complete learners with a range of skills that can be adapted to all situations?
Opinion is split. A minority of experts believes that preferred learning styles are genetically governed, and therefore hard to change. So the most important thing is to make life easy for children. Others argue that a preferred learning style is simply an acquired habit, and that children need shaking out of their comfort zone.
Most schools that embrace learning styles try to encourage teachers to make lessons accessible to all pupils by including visual, auditory and kinaesthetic elements. Andrew Bowman, an advanced skills teacher specialising in learning styles, says that he encourages his colleagues at Bailey's Court primary school in Bristol to ensure that they are appealing to different kinds of learner. "Generally, you want a mix of activities,"
he says. "But if a pupil has got stuck, that's the time when the teacher can fall back on that child's preferred style to try to make the breakthrough."
Enthusiasts believe it's equally important for teachers to analyse their own style of learning and teaching. Most, they argue, allow their own preferred style to become their habitual teaching style - to the detriment of those pupils who learn in different ways.
The danger with differentiating pupils according to their learning preferences is that children will be labelled. (Possibly quite literally; there are reports of some schools making pupils wear badges proclaiming "I'm a kinaesthetic learner".) When this happens, children can easily be forced into a narrow view of their own abilities, and may be discouraged from trying activities that don't fit their own preference.
Peter Honey insists that his questionnaire was intended as a tool to help build a wide repertoire of learning skills, but admits that many schools see an analysis of styles as an end in itself, rather than a starting point. "There are a lot of people out there who are misusing and abusing the material," he says. "There are teachers who think a child's preferred style is as unchangeable as their blood group. But learning styles are just acquired habits. It was never our intention that our questionnaire would be used to typecast or pigeon-hole children."
Researchers also report that, in some schools, materials are used briefly and then cast aside. Ofsted inspectors frequently look for evidence of a learning styles approach and many schools, it seems, do just enough to "tick the box", without fully explaining to pupils what is happening.
A pedagogical con-job?
The question of occasional bad practice pales into insignificance alongside the more serious issue of whether the whole learning styles revolution has been built on a myth.
A 2004 report by a research team at the University of Newcastle, headed by Professor Frank Coffield, was damning in its assessment of the materials being used in schools. Of the 13 methods of assessing children that the researchers examined, only one was deemed to be a "proper psychological test". Professor Coffield, now at the Institute of Education in London, concluded that most of the methods being used in schools are "unreliable, invalid, and have a negligible impact on pedagogy".
Meanwhile, a review of research into learning styles by the Government's ICT-in-education agency Becta offers a similar warning, claiming that "there is no secure evidential base to support any one theory". Or, as Professor Guy Claxton of the University of Bristol puts it, the idea of children having different learning styles is based on "neuro-babble and phoney science".
At best, it seems, learning styles models are a huge simplification of the complex way in which children process information. "The reality," says Professor Coffield, "is that most people learn in most ways. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support a 'one child, one label'
The University of Newcastle report highlights the need for an outside body to impose order on the proliferation of resources being marketed to schools, and there have been calls for materials to be "kite-marked" to provide guidance. So far, however, the DfES has done little to draw attention to the Newcastle research. Perhaps this isn't too surprising, given that resources it has recommended through its website and leaflets are among the most heavily criticised in the report. And, despite the lack of scientific validation, many providers of initial teacher training continue to advocate a learning styles approach; Ofsted inspectors are also still quizzing senior managers about their provision for differentiating between styles. "We're supposed to be moving more towards evidence-based practice," says Professor Coffield. "So why isn't our approach to learning styles being reassessed in view of the latest research?"
Well it works for me...
Whatever doubts the academics may have, plenty of teachers are convinced that learning styles have changed their classrooms for the better. And even the sceptics admit that, despite the lack of scientific evidence, there may be benefits. "The fact that teachers are starting to think about things from the learner's end has to be a good thing," says Professor Claxton.
"And if you're also getting students to think about how they learn, then that's another big step forward."
Indeed, it may be that the benefits of a learning styles approach are simply the result of useful side-effects. After all, most teachers know that watching a video clip, then moving into discussion, then following that with a practical activity, all makes for a more interesting lesson than if they just stand at the front and talk. The reason that VAK works well may have less to do with new-fangled theories and more to do with the proverb about variety being the spice of life. "It has at least made teachers look at themselves and say 'perhaps I sometimes do too much talking'," says Dr Bricheno. "There may be no such thing as different learning styles, but different teaching strategies certainly do exist, and teachers who have a wide range of strategies can increase the levels of engagement among their pupils."
Not so VAK-uous?
Some schools that pioneered a learning styles approach have since revised their practice. Many are now going beyond a simple assessment of children as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners, and are looking instead at the wider conditions which enable children to succeed. As Andrew Bowman explains, the emphasis is no longer on different kinds of learner, but on different kinds of learning. "Learning styles is about how children like to receive information, but now we are looking at every aspect; at how children like to work, and how they can get the best out of themselves."
In his role as an AST, Mr Bowman encourages schools to consider whether children like to work in groups or on their own, in a dark or light room, in silence or while listening to music. And instead of talking about "learning styles", he prefers to talk about developing a range of "learning skills". "It's no longer about sticking labels on children," he says.
"There are as many different learning styles as there are children in your class. Each learner is unique."
* The Newcastle University paper "Should We Be Using Learning Styles" by Frank Coffield, David Moseley, Elaine Hall and Kathryn Ecclestone can be downloaded at http:www.lsda.org.ukfilesPDF1540.pdf.
* The DfES guidance, "Unit 19: Learning Styles Aimed at Key Stage 3 Teachers", can be found at http:www.standards.dfes.gov.ukkeystage3downloadssec_pptl044204u19learns tyle.pdf.
* An interim report on Pat Bricheno's research at the University of Cambridge is available at http:www-rba.educ.cam.ac.ukPaper%20PB.pdf.
Main text: Steven Hastings. Photographs: Alamy; Dorling Kindersley. Additional research: Sarah Jenkins
Next week: Moonlighting