'Nonsense' method sees the disaffected flourish

27th June 2008 at 01:00
Individual learning styles divide opinion, but pupils at a Kent primary are reaping the rewards
Individual learning styles divide opinion, but pupils at a Kent primary are reaping the rewards

A school that employs a teaching method dismissed by many scientists as phoney neuro-babble has been praised by inspectors.

Instead of teaching pupils in conventional classes, staff at Drapers Mills Primary in Margate, Kent, have grouped Years 5 and 6 pupils according to learning style.

The school divides pupils into classes depending on whether they are considered to be visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners.

The idea is based on Harvard professor Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, which argues that pupils process information in different ways.

So auditory learners are taught together in a traditional chalk- and-talk class. Kinaesthetic learners study using activity-based methods. And the remaining pupils are taught through a combination of visual and kinaesthetic methods.

Since the new groupings were introduced, staff have seen attendance and achievement increase significantly among the most disaffected pupils.

And an Ofsted report published this month says the Drapers Mills scheme has "resulted in the progress of the older pupils accelerating particularly well".

Government advice acknowledges that pupils may have inherent preferences for certain learning styles, but it recommends using a mix of all three in the classroom, warning that it is not in children's interest to be taught only one way.

Some academics, including neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, have been highly critical of schools using the approach at all, dismissing the notion of individual learning styles as scientifically unsound nonsense.

Drapers Mills is the sixth most deprived school in its local authority. Earlier efforts had resulted in a significant improvement in behaviour among pupils, many of whom have learning difficulties or behavioural problems. But there had been little change in academic achievement, according to John Viner, the school's headteacher.

"We thought, 'Oh, my goodness, how on Earth are these kids going to access the curriculum?'", he said. "But then we thought, 'Why not group the kids to teach different styles?'"

The pupils were given what Mr Viner describes as a "pukka" learning-style test and then grouped into classes accordingly.

Roughly, the highest-achieving pupils tend to be auditory learners, lowest-achievers are kinaesthetic learners, and middling pupils are visual or kinaesthetic.

But Mr Viner denies that these are just ability groupings in disguise: "You can loosely argue that what we've done is stream, but that isn't philosophically the case.

"It's made a dramatic difference with the disaffected children. Suddenly they're not disaffected. Their behaviour is immaculate. They want to come to school. It brings tears to your eyes."

And pupils learn to value each other's strengths. During a joint lesson on the Second World War, children were required to build an Anderson shelter. The kinaesthetic learners embraced the task enthusiastically. The visual-kinaesthetic learners were similarly keen.

But the academically brighter auditory learners just stared at the flat-pack materials in bemusement.

Anna Davies, who teaches the Year 5 kinaesthetic group, believes that boosting self-esteem is a vital part of the project. She rewrote all her existing lesson plans to cater to her pupils' strengths.

"I had to bump up their self- esteem before I could begin to teach anything," she said. "Because they feel a lot better about themselves, and because they're not failing daily, their writing and maths comes on in leaps and bounds, too."

In acknowledgement of the realities of the school system, no style of teaching is used in isolation at Drapers Mills. Kinaesthetic learners, for example, are still required to work out maths problems on paper.

But the difference for previously reluctant learners, such as Daniel Bent, 10, has been significant. "Everybody's not good at everything," he said. "But everybody's good at something.

"Last year, I didn't like school because of all the work. But this year I love school because we do lots of fun stuff."

Nonetheless, Guy Claxton, professor of education at Bristol University, is among the academics who remain unconvinced. "It's a good idea to encourage kids to think about their learning," he said.

"But when learning styles get treated as unquestionable truth, then it's dysfunctional. It stops them thinking about all the other ways in which they might be able to learn and get better at learning. That's both unscientific and unhelpful."

But these arguments are not new to Mr Viner. "We're prepared to admit that it's controversial," he said. "But if it works, it works. And it does work."

VAK: the controversy

The idea of individual learning styles was first mooted in 1982.

It is based on theories of neurolinguistic programming, which have determined that there are three dominant forms of mental processing: visual (sight, mental imagery), auditory (sound, speech) and kinaesthetic (touch, temperature, pressure and also emotion).

A 2004 report by a research team at Newcastle University revealed that only one of the 13 methods used by schools to assess children's learning styles was a proper psychological test.

The remainder were "unreliable, invalid and have a negligible effect on pedagogy."

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