Learning Styles – a cautionary tale of sloth and complacency

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.

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17 thoughts on “Learning Styles – a cautionary tale of sloth and complacency

  1. ‘Constructivism’ gives a similar view of how we (& specifically children) learn. The best analogy I have come across is that teaching by wrote, or teaching methods, gives children a ‘sat nav’ way of getting to the end result. It is far better to show them the map of the area, so that they know what to do if the sat nav fails, or even better, they can work out their own route!

  2. Its far better for all? Or its far better for you. The danger is that we make assumptions based on our own preferences and apply them to all others. I’m not questioning the theory – just the application – we all need to be able to wrote learn – (remember a 5 item shopping list) its not a second class skill – just a skill with particular applications

  3. Isn’t it more about making sure we provide a balanced approach in our lessons so learners access ALL learning styles – it’s variety that makes learning effective for all……

    and I like thinking about sat nav learning too! We need to know the destination we are aiming to get to…. but if we take the shortest, fastest route from A to B, we do learners a disservice….. they need to take the scenic route, go off at tangents, double back on themselves, take a MESSY route and not a straight line – that, for me, is the big difference with a constructivist approach.

    • Hi – your opening paragraph is exactly wrong – it implies those processing modes are fixed in learners – you will not grow effective learners in that way.

      Meandering is ok – right time right place – direct is fine too – you articulate a rather romantic view 🙂

  4. Interesting post! To me the value in learning styles is not pigeonholing students by forcing them to learn by using one style – which is where many teachers have gone with learning styles, but it is in using a learning styles model (and there are many) when planning classroom activities so that ALL students are exposed to a range of different ways of learning. If we don’t use models like this, then classrooms continue to be reading/writing focused and only provide students with a narrow range of applicable and transferable skills.

    • If the goal is development of learners and exposure to the methods of processing information are explicitly taught and developed then I agree, if its done to placate, then I don’t.

      • if its done to placte the learners- who insist on having their information packaged accoring to their preferences by someone else – then it’s wrong the information belongs to the learner – its their problem to process it.

  5. As students gain metacognitive ability will they not simply make choices to use the skill they find their most adept at (Dalton’s Law of Fluid Flow: take the say route) and through that awareness they will then evaluate their choice when they’ve deemed their learning adventure to be unsuccessful? As you indicate should we (as teachers) not be so caught up in multi-modal lesson planning but planning for moments students can become responsible, and accountable to their learning choices? Should we be inviting students to take creative routes in problem solving in an environment that allows them to evaluate their failures rather than the shortest route to success (grades and reward points)… Actually I just really wanted to say thanks for getting me thinking about this, and Gardener again.

  6. Also their = they’re… Why am I correcting my own spelling? Because I can’t type on an iPad or edit my posted comment… Must be a visual learner. 😉

    • Not about visual learning – more that you are a pedant and take pride in your work – thanks for the feedback – less planning for multimodal lesson more planning for multimodal development

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