The learning styles debate crossed my radar on Twitter this week. It is time to make a ‘State of the Union Address‘ on this matter to spare millions of children from the disempowerment that arises through being allowed to remain in their comfort zone. As a profession we demonstrate a sloth like desire to interrogate these theories and settle for a quick misapplication of vocabulary we already possess:
Visual – pictures
Auditory – Listening
Read Write – Text
Kinaesthetic – Movement
Simples ;-)……………………………………………..NO NO NO NO NO!!
Lets begin with a summary of Flemming’s Theory.
- Visual Learning is receiving information presented in ways which enable one to create pictures. Not portraits. Pictures of information. So the work of David Mcandless is really helpful. In short Visual Learning is converting data into images that can be retained. A viable and important tool for EVERYONE.
- Auditory Learning is about receiving information in conversation. Not Podcasts or didactic teaching. Discussion of ideas is at the heart of this important processing tool for EVERYONE.
- Read/Write Learning is a fudge – its actually processing information through rote learning. This is an important tool in many professions, I have distant memories of medical students learning lists of muscles in order, when studying anatomy. This is a tool with a narrow application for EVERYONE.
- Kinaesthetic Learning is about processing information by situating it in a context. There is a laughable tool on the website which encourages one to move a blob to access each section. NEWSFLASH moving a blob on a screen never helped anyone learn anything. ( Take note interactive whiteboard users) So in short if information is presented in a context, then one is likely to process it in a Kinaesthetic manner. This is a widely employed strategy by most people. It is a tool for EVERYONE. it does not involve running around, it does not placate the fidgets in your class.
To summarize, Flemming is defining ways people process information, not mutually exclusive permanent ways of thinking. He is defining the 4 colours of the effective learning chameleon.
If you pidgeon hole learners as requiring a particular style, you are condemning them to becoming ineffective learners. The role of the teacher is not to pander to existing learning styles, but to develop children’s ability to process information in ways that they find challenging, in exactly the same way that they develop the social abilities of those same children. To fail to do so is negligent.
Learners who complain that information is presented in a way that they cannot access are not actually exposing the inadequacy of their ‘teachers’ but rather their own inadequacies as learners. Their desire to blame someone else for those inadequacies is evidence of their own inadequacy as people.
I have endured years of working with teachers who dismiss online learning as ‘not my preferred learning style’, particularly in the days of the National College of School Leadership “Strategic Leadership in ICT” course. Online learning is NOT a learning style. An effective online discussion or blog can provide the conversation to stimulate auditory processing, the context for kinaesthetic processing, the text for wrote processing and with the employment of tools like wordle, the data for visual processing. The dismissal of online learning as ‘not my style’ speaks more of the sloth of the learner and their inability to step over the threshold of their comfort zone, than it does the effective nature of the tool.
My colleague Professor Steve Wheeler wrote a blog entitled a ‘convenient untruth’ in November of 2011, where he discusses the voracity of learning styles and questions their existence. I am not questioning their existence, rather the quality of their application. VARK is one way of representing the skills required to be a learning chameleon. In fact if one bothers to read beyond the dictionary assumptions, they make an amount of sense as information processing modes. The debate about existence runs the risk of taking our eye off the real ball: Our responsibility as professionals to ensure learners can process information quickly and effectively.
Why are they so unquestioningly misapplied? As a profession, too many of us view the world through fluffy spectacles, everyone is different and differences should be celebrated.
I offer the counter view: When it comes to processing information, everyone should be the same: A ‘learning chameleon’, able to adapt and use whatever skills are required to optimise the information to be processed. We should not be celebrating and promoting difference in learning styles, we should be challenging children to step beyond their comfort zone and confront their weaknesses. To do that we need to challenge ourselves and do some decent reading and thinking ourselves.