Research on learning styles can be traced back over a hundred years and generally it set outs to explore how individuals approach and deal with learning situations. Many learning style models have been developed over this time and some are sufficiently well documented, tested and influential to be taken seriously, for example Kolb’s ‘Learning Style Inventory’ (Kolb, 1999). However, as you delve in to the research of each learning style model that has been proposed, reliability and validity can be questioned and findings are frequently contradictory and inconclusive.
The most simple of these learning style models, and therefore possibly the most widely used (and subsequently misused) is that of VAK (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic). It has been strongly argued that VAK lacks both reliability and validity and does not have a solid basis in research (Sharpe et al., 2008). VAK learning style questionnaires offer no sound diagnostic or predictive pedagogical power and can be completely misleading.
“It is sometimes claimed that learning styles are largely fixed and innate. This belief can lead teachers to label students as having a particular learning style and so provide materials and sources that are appropriate to that style. Students may then come to internalise this label and think of themselves as a certain learner who should concentrate on this diagnosed style.” (Demos, 2004). Indeed, I have met many learners who label themselves as ‘kinaesthetic’ and believe that they will only be able to learn if the teaching is ‘hands-on’. The Demos ‘About Learning’ report goes on to say “Whilst it may be true that some learners have a dominant learning style, a good education does not limit them to that style or type, but ensures that students have opportunities to strengthen the other learning styles. In misguided hands, learning styles could become not a means of personalising learning, but a new version of general intelligence that slots learners into preconceived categories and puts unwarranted ceilings on their intellectual development and achievement.”
What can be concluded from the array of learning style models is that learning is complicated and multi-dimensional. Research in to this area must continue but as teachers we have to concede to the fact that teaching is complex and requires effort. We should never be content with simple, ‘quick-fix’ models.
What does all this mean for a ringing teacher? Good teachers know that student’s learn through all of their senses and that the brain processes information from all that it sees, hears and does. As Pip Penney states in her book, ‘Teacher’s Guide to Learning the Ropes’; “It is important to use demonstration, explanation and exercises which allow the ringer to learn by experience.” Acknowledging some of the complexities that the research shows, the book rightly goes on to state that students learn using a mixture of ‘learning styles’ and preferences may change as learning progresses. Consider using a range of models, diagrams, pictures, demonstrations, verbal explanations, analogies, reviewing video footage, as well as exploring the senses, for example, focussing on what is heard and felt. But most importantly, consult with your students and ask them to reflect on their own progress. How do they feel they have learnt that particular skill best? You may well find it is different for every skill and every learner!
To summarise, a teacher needs to provide a range of approaches for their learners and adapt to their needs, being willing to try several different approaches until the learner makes the desired progress. This will also have the side-effect of making the learning more enjoyable to all.
Demos (2004). About Learning: Report of the Learning Working Group. London: Demos.
Kolb, D. (1999). The Kolb Learning Style Inventory. Boston: Hay Group.
Penney, P. (Ed. Belcher, L.) (2017). Teacher’s Guide to Learning the Ropes. Association of Ringing Teachers.
Sharp, J., Bowker, R. & Byrne, J. (2008). VAK or VAK-uous? Towards the trivialisation of learning and the death of scholarship. Research Papers in Education 23:3 293-314.
Dr Jenny A Wynn
Senior Lecturer in Teacher Development
Programme Leader for PGCE Secondary
Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy
Bishop Grosseteste University