Way back in the early noughties, we had an Inset day on Assessment for Learning. Except, looking back on it, there was nothing really in there about assessment. Or really about learning. It was all about these new fangled learning styles – neatly compressed into VAK. We were given questionnaires – oooh, narcissistic tick boxes. Who doesn’t love a tick box all about themselves? And I found out that I was fairly equally split across all three. My friend, she was a VK. But that wasn’t allowed – we were supposed to just be one. We were asked to look again and identify our “dominant style”. It was like choosing a favourite colour – some have one, I have many depending on mood. It felt a bit confusing. And I felt suspicious. I didn’t really question the idea of learning styles at that stage – a senior leader had just said the words “the research shows” and so I assumed that the theory at least was sound. But the implementation seemed to me to be a little bit suspect.
As heads of department, we were asked to feed back how we were differentiating for the needs of the VAK variances in our groups. And as head of Drama, there was only really one answer. We move, we talk, we listen, we read, we write, we perform, we design, we watch, we evaluate. We all have to do all of them, or we won’t be covering the syllabus. Simples. But no, that wasn’t good enough. In the end we did what we usually did when faced with stupid requests. We ignored them. The head of Maths on the other hand, made all the KS3 students do VAK questionnaires and streamed them accordingly. She was quickly promoted to Assistant Head.
That year, I embarked on a Masters course and came across Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. Here, it seemed to me, was the VAK idea placed into a more rigorous theoretical framework. Gardner distinguishes MIT from learning styles, accusing the latter of lacking coherence, but it seemed that his theory expanded, in a useful way, the conversations to be had about intelligence. I didn’t really have concerns about the theory. It was an idea – an interesting one, but just an idea. But the way that the idea was leaped upon in education to create rigid practices was really worrying. There was an assumption that since (not an ‘if’ to be seen anywhere) we could now be one of 7 or 8 intelligences, we ought to teach to that intelligence. And that seemed illogical to me. It also seemed illogical to Howard Gardner who berated the ways in which his idea had been misconstrued – not that that small detail bothers the people who seem to enjoy ridiculing him at the moment. Anyway, back to the implementation point – I argued that we wouldn’t, for example, only teach a child a subject they liked and dump all the rest would we? So why on earth would we target a single intelligence or learning style? Or, as Willingham prefers to call them, learning ability? I mean, by all means, make the content of your lessons and assessments as varied as possible, but why narrow activities down to target single areas? This seemed like dumbing down to me. And a waste of time.
It didn’t take long for the school to dump VAK. Eternally resourceful kids, standing outside their classrooms in corridors, found it was useful to blame VAK for their misdemeanours.
“Not my fault, Miss, they’re writing in there and I’m a kinaesthetic learner!”
And by then, papers debunking VAK were starting to make their way into schools too. So I was a little horrified to start a new job in ITT and find that all the lesson plan pro-formas for our trainees had a box on them where they had to write how they were catering for VAK. I advised mine to use school and not university versions. But some of the school versions had it on too. So we invited Jonathan Sharples in to run a session with staff on debunking neuro-myths, which he duly did. But he did so with a caveat. He pointed out that there was no evidence to suggest that teaching to a specific learning style was beneficial to students or even that there was a meaningful way of categorising modes of learning, but he added that “even if learning styles do exist, it could equally be argued that we should strengthen the less developed areas rather than simply teach to the strongest.”It seemed clear that among the neuroscientist community, it was not so much the proposed existence of learning styles that was controversial, but the practices emerging from the idea of them.
No-one was happier than me when VAK practices started to be exposed and debunked on twitter, several years later. But then I started to get confused again. Because it seemed that along with VAK, other unconnected ideas were being lumped in and the trend for debunking seemed to be creating another, equally damaging Bandwagon. Anyone even mentioning the words Learning Styles on twitter now risks hounding and humiliation. And Group Work? Pupil Voice? My God. Yet what is the difference between a learning style and a learning ability? Because when Willingham writes that of course children have different learning “abilities” – for example spacial ability or musical ability, I struggle to see the difference between that statement and the idea that children might have musical intelligence or kinaesthetic intelligence. I keep asking and no-one seems to be able to tell me anything other than Gardner = Charlatan, Willingham = God.
If we do look at research (bearing in mind that it is all emergent and offers a still incomplete picture of the very complex matter of learning), we find that certain things seem to be important in terms of laying down memory. Emotion matters. Relationships matter. A variety of activities and ways of testing matter. Practice matters. A certain level of automaticity matters. Multi-sensory activities matter. Narrative and stories matter….In the midst of all this mattering, it seems sensible to say that we learn and remember in many different ways. Not that we all learn differently, but that we each need multiple ways of encountering knowledge in order to meaningfully learn and apply it.
It seems to me that we need to be as careful about shedding ideas as we are about embracing them. We need to ask ourselves “what is potentially useful here? How might we look at this differently? How might we connect to other things we know?” Instead of sneering and jeering, we should be peering, examining, questioning. We really should be refusing to lump and dump – taking one discredited idea, attaching it to others we don’t like and then dumping the lot without critiquing the individual elements. And maybe then, instead of running around in endless circles, we would set out on a journey in which we could map out constructive information and build a genuine overview of what (might) work.
Thank you to Logical Incrementalism for writing the blog post that made feel I wouldn’t be stoned to death for writing this one.