Learning styles: have we moved on? And if not, should we?


VAK: No, not a domestic appliance but the acronym for the main “learning styles” with which most teachers will be familiar. Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners are those who apparently learn best through images (diagrams, charts and photographs), the spoken word (anecdotes, stories and lectures) and movement (physical actions) respectively. These different “modalities” were recognised by Neil Fleming some years ago (in fact, he developed VARK – with the “R” standing for reading/writing) working at Lincoln University in New Zealand; the thinking was enthusiastically adopted in the UK and found its way into teacher training institutions and schools. Here are a series of interviews with Fleming where he seeks to explain the origins and virtues of VARK.

The principle is simple: answers to a questionnaire allow the respondent to identify their own learning style. That information, in teaching, can then be used to inform lesson planning and class activities, enhancing learning for all. Neil Fleming says in one interview that not recognising a student’s learning style has been recognised as a contributing factor in that student dropping out of education all together. If that anecdote was at all representative and learning styles are so critical to progress, then surely teachers are beholden to ensure lessons are planned with VAK in mind?

Below are some examples to put the main learning styles into a geographical context.

Visual: this could be learning a process such as formation of fossil fuels or the development of bays and headlands through comic strips or by creating a script for a video clip. Highlighting text using colour coding would be effective for visual learners – for example, categorising effects of global warming as social, economic or environmental.

Auditory: this might be learning through taking notes from a documentary or giving presentations; speaking or singing aloud (try the Water Cycle Song!) would be effective for this type of learner.

Kinaesthetic: I know of some teachers who ask their students to “act out” tectonic plate boundaries and others who provide play dough so pupils can create landforms such as corries. Getting students to line up on a value line might also effectively encourage some students to reflect on the strength of their opinion, and why they might feel that way.

In recent years there has been a backlash from vociferous critics who question (and more forcefully debunk) the approach. They suggest that the eager adoption of VAK in the UK had a whiff of the Emperor’s new clothes about it. Perhaps it could also be seen as a cynical attempt to make money from a sector that is constantly seeking to improve standards. Furthermore, there is this fundamental question: Is there any robust evidence that catering for these various learning styles actually improves progress and attainment? This TES article by Steven Hastings (written ten years ago now) explores a number of issues which are well worth considering. Another outspoken critic is the teacher, writer and academic researcher Tom Bennett, who has blogged about learning styles on a number of occasions.

As a result of the adoption of VAK, have some teachers been encouraged to shoehorn such activities into their lessons in order to meet standards set by inspectors and/or senior management? Do some lessons end up reflecting style over substance? Is retaining such enthusiasm for VAK putting pupil progress at risk?

Most students will surely find lessons most stimulating when subjects are taught by passionate and knowledgeable teachers who elicit curiosity and enthusiasm. A variety of teaching methods and lesson activities should, in theory at least, ensure students remain interested and engaged. Feedback, both written and verbal, is crucial to facilitating pupil progress. At times it can seem that with new pedagogical developments these fundamental aspects of teaching become lost (or at least take a back seat).

You will have your own opinion, but it is important to question received wisdom when it comes to “best practice” and hopefully this piece and the links above will enable you to do this.

Image: OUP

Rebecca VealsRebecca Veals undertook her PGCE at the Institute of Education, and went on to her first job at Eltham College in London, where she spent four years. She is now Head of Geography at The King’s School, in Gloucester, a position which she has held since 2010.