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Learning styles

When I was teaching at Ripon Grammar School I did some work on learning styles with a Y10 tutor group. This may have been around the year 2000.  I handed out a questionnaire to my class and the answers were used to help students work out if they were predominantly visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners. The "VAK" model was popular at the time (along with multiple intelligences). Some schools even went to the ridiculous lengths of labelling children as V, A or K to help teachers adjust their teaching to each child. VAK still persists in some quarters.

I did the questionnaire myself and, if I recall correctly, I was more of an auditory learner than anything else. This didn't surprise me at the time since, as a linguist, I had a feeling I liked to listen and had a keen ear. I even do that thing typical of "auditory learners" where you cock your head to one side when you listen.

In recent years "learning styles theory" has been debunked by psychology. There is no evidence to suggest that we learn (i.e. establish memory) in fundamentally different ways as humans or that you can match your teaching or lesson planning to specific learning styles. On the other hand, psychologists do not object to the notion that we may have different learning abilities or preferences. Daniel Willingham put it this way in a recent blog:

"... something quite close to the theory is not only right, it’s obvious. The style distinctions (visual vs. auditory; verbal vs. visual) often correspond to real differences in ability. Some people are better with words, some with space, and so on."

But he then adds:

"The (incorrect) twist that learning styles theories add is to suggest that everyone can reach the same cognitive goal via these different abilities; that if I’m good with space but bad with words (or better, if I prefer space to words), you can rearrange a verbal task so that it plays to my spatial strength."

My feeling when I read tweets about learning styles is that there is a genuine confusion here between learning styles theory (dodgy to say the least) and learning preferences (real). You don't need to have done psychological research to know whether you tend to prefer reading or listening to gain information, or if you are "good with your hands".

It should also be common sense to language teachers that there are very good reasons to vary the nature of the input and practice to provide variety, interest and yes, potentially, to appeal to learners with different preferences. The very fact that language skills include listening and reading make this a necessity in any case (a possible reason why learning styles might appeal to linguists??). But this is not the same as trying to defend a learning styles theory.

In short, we shouldn't be too snooty in dismissing "learning styles" if what we really mean is "learning preferences".

It may also be the case that psychology has not YET produced evidence for a learning style model, but I wouldn't dare take that argument further since it's well beyond my knowledge.


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