Learning styles has become a little bit of a discussion area as of late, including on twitter, with research showing that the assessment of students to identify their learning styles and then the use of this data to inform teaching has little or no value. Meanwhile a number of trainers and training organisations still seem to be providing training and professional development either on learning styles or at least including reference to it.
So here I am wading into the discussion.
Firstly let me be clear that I am not about to enter into the discussion in terms of which of the two viewpoints mentioned above is correct and which is incorrect as I believe another option is possible. I also see little value in an “I’m right, you’re wrong” discussion (This is the title of a De Bono book looking into the tendency for discussions to be grounded in black and white or right and wrong as opposed to considering alternative viewpoints and ideas, in case you haven’t read it. It is a personal favourite of mine). This is about my viewpoint, based on my experience and the context within which I work and have worked.
For me the key question is what is the purpose of learning styles as a concept? My answer to this is that the concept of learning styles is to highlight the fact that students learn in different ways such as through visual, auditory and kinaesthetic stimuli (I am using the VAK model of learning styles as this is the one which was originally introduced to me some many years ago as opposed to the later VARK model which I never really identified with). An aspect of this may be the use of a questionnaire which shows students that they have differing tendencies, as part of a programme of developing students understanding of how they learn. So for a teacher, and a student, it is about the fact we learn in different ways, and I would also add that these ways change depending on what we are learning and the context within which we are learning.
Just to be clear, I believe the use of a questionnaire to develop data on learning styles, which is then used to inform teaching is of little value as the learning style preferred by students will be affected by the intended learning, the activities designed to promote this learning and also other contextual variables. In addition to this the divisions of VAK are artificial and only put in place in order to help or ease our understanding of the concept. It amounts to classification of students into either 3, for VAK, or 4 if using VARK, arbitrary groups. The use of this kind of approach at a time when there is continual discussion about students’ individual needs is very poor in my opinion. It reminds me of a scene from a Monty Python movie where a man addresses a gathered crowd telling them that they should not follow him as they are all individuals to which the crowd chants back, “We are all individuals”.
That said learning Styles, as a concept, is useful in that it serves to identify that we all have styles of learning. As such a teacher that uses a single approach is unlikely to cater for the needs of all students within their class and as such they must look to a variety of approaches and, increasingly, to making learning student centred where the students decide their approach to the learning, such that it suits their style in the given learning situation. So learning styles is of value, as a concept, however learning styles, in terms of VAK and questionnaires to identify which students are visual learners, etc. is not. Not sure where that puts me in the discussion I mentioned at the start, however that’s for you to determine.