Pick and mix your teaching styles
Wherever Barbara Prashnig goes, in her ever-so-slightly accented English, she performs a kind of dance-cum-chant routine and then insists that everyone joins in.
"Eyes, ears, body, hands," they intone, pointing to each body part as they go. It symbolises the basis of her educational philosophy, that people are predominantly one of four types of learners: visual, auditory, kinaesthetic or tactile.
The first three are familiar to anyone who has been exposed to learning styles theories. The fourth is a more recent development.
Professor Prashnig, an Austrian by birth and now director of the Creative Learning Centre which she founded in New Zealand in 1992, is fast becoming one of the most influential education gurus around. She was one of the main speakers at the SETT show in Glasgow last month and also delivered a two-day in-service course for headteachers across primary and secondary schools in Dumfries and Galloway.
She argues that teachers, by adapting their teaching style to pupils'
learning styles, can motivate low-performers and students at risk of failure. Failing schools in Australia have been turned around by putting her theories into practice, she claims.
When allowed to learn in their personal style, problem learners can be transformed into active, positive learners within six to eight weeks, she says.
Perhaps most seductively for parents and teachers, she claims that 80 per cent of children labelled as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are simply pupils with a mismatched learning style or "a difficult combination of learning style needs".
"These children need a lot of mobility; they can't sit still. They need sound; they can't perform well in a quiet classroom. They have problems under fluorescent light. They need to use their hands a lot; they are highly tactile. And they need to use their bodies in learning, full body involvement, which they have not been getting in academic subjects.
"They are impulsive in their thinking, which means they have a short attention span. They are the simultaneous learners; they want to be involved in many things at a time and can't do step by step logical approaches. They don't like routine.
"Their learning motivation is often low because they have experienced that learning is difficult when made to learn in traditional ways. And their high need for mobility is worst when they have got frustrated. Their need for mobility will get out of control: by trying to calm them down, it gets worse. Then you have the problem of medication: too many children take medication like Ritalin."
She continues: "I have worked with schools in New Zealand where so many children have been diagnosed with ADHD but only two or three really had it.
The others can be helped by allowing them to learn in their ways and acknowledging their needs.
"In learning style there is an interesting paradox: once someone's style needs are acknowledged, the need goes down."
The foundation of her philosophy is that: "Most parts of a person's learning style are biologically based, whether you like it or not."
In the current climate of rising indiscipline, the traditional teaching method of chalk and talk is no longer effective, she argues. It is time to change teachers' approach, acknowledge that many students must learn in a way that suits their individual style and being forced to follow an unnatural style causes frustration and failure.
"What I am seeing in a lot of high schools across the world is that despite more assessment and testing and information technology, grades are not improving and discipline is not getting better," she says. "Drop-outism is a huge problem in America and here you have truancy.
"As discipline problems are increasing in high schools, more high schools are using learning style assessment to understand their students better, particularly non-performing, non-academic learners. Teachers have realised that the traditional chalk and talk methods do not work and computers are also not the answer."
The learning style assessment to which she refers is based on the model devised by the American academics Rita and Kenneth Dunn, founders of the learning style network at St John's University in New York, where Professor Prashnig trained for five years. Their model works with five groups of stimuli (environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological and psychological). Across those groups are 21 elements, ranging from light and temperature (environmental) to time and mobility (physiological).
Professor Prashnig also uses a similar model for teachers to analyse their teaching styles.
It is in this area, in particular, that sceptics have voiced criticism. Ian Smith, of the Scottish education consultancy Learning Unlimited, ackowledges the good sense of much of what Professor Prashnig teaches. But he has recently produced a paper, under the umbrella series The Learning Teacher, which draws heavily on research carried out by Newcastle University into various theories on learning styles.
Although Professor Prashnig's work was not examined specifically by the Newcastle team, Mr Smith warns that concerns about the Dunn and Dunn methodology must apply to her work too, because it is based so heavily on the Dunn analysis model. Dunn and Dunn were criticised for making claims that "their research is based on scientific evidence but refuse to produce it and will not accept any research carried out by third parties".
Mr Smith says: "It has also been pointed out that no empirical evidence has been published to back up the VAK - visual, auditory, kinaesthetic - theory, despite its huge popularity.
"The Newcastle researchers conclude, quite rightly in my view, that VAK is not only invalid and unreliable as a theory but that labelling pupils as visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners may do them more harm than good.
It may lead to them having a limited view of themselves and claiming that they can't listen because they are kinaesthetic learners or can't read because they are auditory learners."
He advises teachers to ignore the questionnaires used by exponents of the learning styles approach to establish their student profiles, dismissing them as having "no more credibility than fun magazine surveys", but to teach in a multi-sensory way.
"Every lesson should have elements of all three (VAK) components in it, or at the very least two, when children are being expected to take in information, to process information and express what they have learned," he says.
That in itself is not so very different from what Professor Prashnig advises secondary teachers to do. "For high schools it is more important to adopt a multi-sensory approach," she says. "Students don't need to do this (use their own learning style) all the time but they have to have a comfortable area when learning something new and difficult."
Graham Herbert, headteacher of Lockerbie Academy, was one of the headteachers taking part in Professor Prashnig's in-service training, which was part of a wider drive by Dumfries and Galloway to raise attainment and meet the national education priorities. With his background in biology, he finds that much of what Professor Prashnig says makes sense. For example, in terms of lighting, she recommends fluorescent lights should be banned from classrooms as the constant flickering can impair concentration.
"None of this is rocket science, but if it makes practitioners reflect on their styles of teaching and environments, that's good," he says.
"We're in the midst of a PPP school buildings project. I hope the personnel are listening to some of the messages as regards design."
Dumfries and Galloway Council has embraced Professor Prashnig's philosophy more fully than any other Scottish education authority to date. Keith Best, the operations manager for quality improvement, says that every primary teacher, classroom assistant and nursery nurse has had the chance to listen to her. Now, secondary headteachers and senior secondary staff have also been given in-service training by her in a bid to spread understanding of her learning styles approach.
"We are making a big push to make our pupils successful learners. Following our education authority inspection, HM Inpectorate of Education wanted us to take forward our learning and teaching policy for 3-12 into 3-18. This is a major plank of our attempts to do that."
Professor Prashnig believes the interest in learning styles in Scotland is just beginning. "I think Scotland now feels the time is right for learning styles. Or maybe it's desperation. Like other countries, they are looking for anything that will help."