A Question of Style

I was teaching overseas when the idea of ‘learning styles’ landed in the UK. On my return to England, I was surprised to see posters in schools announcing the importance of ‘VAK’. What was this ‘VAK’ thing everyone was talking about? (I soon found out, although I never gave my children a ‘learning styles questionnaire’.) These days, mentioning the idea of learning styles on Twitter will elicit an incredulous flurry of responses: ‘Didn’t you know that idea has been discredited?’ and ‘Haven’t you seen Dan Willingham’s ‘Learning Styles don’t Exist’ video?’ But still the idea persists, as David Didau points out here. In which case, it is probably sensible for us to ask the question: “Why?”

It may be heresy to say this, but I suspect the reason the concept persists is because “the best way to learn the shape of a map of Australia” is still different for different children. Yes, a map of a country is visual, but if we change the word ‘learn’ to the word ‘remember’, then the notion starts to make sense. For some children, the best way to retain the shape of a country might be to visualise it, for instance as an animal shape, that they ‘see’ when they recall it. For other children, perhaps the best way to remember the shape is to draw it several times over. And for some children, maybe the best way to store the shape in their memories is to walk around a drawing on the floor, locating the landscape features.

While the children are all still retaining a visual shape, the way that they embed that shape into their memories may be different. Yes, the concept they are learning is still visual, but the way they retain and retrieve it may be different. I found this effect particularly striking when I asked a question on Twitter about how people recall their times tables. I was taken aback at the diversity of the responses. Some people saw a number line, others recalled the image of a number, others heard music or rhythms. I wonder if some of the ‘learning styles don’t exist’ discussion comes down to convenience, and the nature of how schools work. With high numbers of students (especially at secondary) it is hard to individualise our methods of instruction. In an early years setting, with higher adult to child ratios, we have space and time to personalise our approaches. We can explore the schemas our children use to make sense of their world, and adapt our methods to encompass them.

Perhaps the answer (or the problem, depending on how you look at it) is not that ‘learning styles don’t exist’, but rather that we are calling them the wrong thing? Maybe, rather than talking about learning styles, we should just start calling them memory styles instead?

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4 Responses to A Question of Style

  1. clydesider says:

    I tend to agree that we have different ways of remembering or learning. I work in Early Years, where schemas are more readily recognised and acknowledged as an important part of the learning process. I think you actually hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the inconvenience of personalised learning within larger ratios.
    On a personal note, I get frustrated for my intelligent grandson, whose learning style is very individual to him, therefore his current teacher just doesn’t get it!

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  2. heatherfblog says:

    Interesting idea. Willingham’s well known video explanation says that the test was of memory.
    I’m not sure you can change the word ‘learn’ for the word ‘remember’ though. “If nothing has been retained in long term memory nothing has been learnt.”

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    • suecowley says:

      Thank you. I didn’t mean learn, really, I meant the memory bit of learning if that makes sense? The patterning we do inside our heads to helps us embed things. (Like with the times tables.)

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  3. bt0558 says:

    Spot on for me.

    I also find it a little annoying that often when the issue is raised those who are sure that “learning styles don’t exist” will quote research which quickly narrows the issue to whether teaching to a supposed learning style brings improvements in learning. DW does this in the video I find.
    I find the idea of “preferred learning style” very useful. I have personal preferences which can impact my motivation and consequently my learning. Why should my students be any different?

    I consider myself to be an autodidact and I would try to encourage the same in my students. I prefer particular styles in particular contexts. For me learning styles are just that. They are about learning not just teaching.

    As you suggest the idea would probably benefit from a makeover however VAK does have the advantage that it keeps some of the more opinionated and closed minded bloggers busy, leaving the rest of us to focus upon other matters.

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