Style counsel

Sometimes I am a contrarian thinker.

Not because I enjoy antagonism – I don’t. I just don’t trust the echo chamber.

And the echo chamber has been giving learning styles a beating.

So I ask you: is that beating warranted?

The theory

VAK is perhaps the most popular model of learning styles used in the corporate sector today:

  • V stands for “Visual”. These people learn best by seeing.

  • Eye

  • A stands for “Auditory”. These people learn best by listening.
    I would suggest they also like talking.

  • Ear

  • K stands for “Kinaesthetic “. These people learn best by touching and feeling. They are doers.

  • Hand

Relatively recently, some theorists have added an “R” to the model (VARK) to represent people who learn best by reading and writing.

It is important to note that all learners exhibit a mixture of V, A, R & K learning styles. One, though, is usually dominant.

The challenge

Critics of the theory don’t seem to challenge the existence of learning styles, but rather what the instructor does about them.

Conventional wisdom dictates that if the learner is primarily visual, you should show them lots of pictures. If the learner is primarily auditory, you should talk to them and open up discussion. If the learner is primarily kinaesthetic, you should give them opportunities to practice and “have a go”.

But an increasing number of educationalists disagree. They maintain that the nature of the knowledge that is to be learned will not necessarily match the style of the learner. For example:

  1. Teaching someone the shape of a country – Obviously this must be done by showing the learner the shape, regardless of whether or not they are a visual learner.

  2. The shape of Australia drawn on a blackboard

  3. Teaching someone to ride a bike – Obviously this must be done by getting the learner onto the seat and pushing the peddles, regardless of whether or not they are a kinaesthetic learner.

  4. Father helps his daughter get onto a bike

In other words, your teaching style should be informed by the nature of the content, not the learning style of your audience.

I think this is short sighted.

The counter challenge

I agree that to teach someone the shape of a country, you should show them that shape. No argument there.

However, I’m prepared to go further for non-visual learners:

  • For auditory learners, I suggest talking about the shape. Suppose the country is Australia; describe the Gulf of Carpentaria at the top end, which sweeps up to the northern tip at Cape York; then invite the learner to describe similar observations.

  • For kinaesthetic learners, I suggest doing something with the shape. Give them a globe or an atlas and challenge them to find it. Give them some Lego and ask them to build it.

Australia on a globe of the world

Same goes for teaching non-kinaesthetic learners how to ride a bike:

  • For visual learners, I suggest demonstrating how to ride the bike. Let them see how it’s done before they give it a go.

  • For auditory learners, I suggest talking to them both before and as they ride. Give them plenty of hints and tips. Provide continual instructions.

Father teaching his daughter to ride a bike

My point is: while the nature of the content may dictate the dominant teaching style, that doesn’t mean you can’t accommodate apparently incompatible learning styles. It just takes a bit of imagination.

The evidence, or lack thereof

Of course I haven’t undertaken an exhaustive review of the literature. After all, I have a day job!

However, the research I have read about thus far has underwhelmed me, and the notion that a lack of evidence somehow invalidates the theory really grates me.

I would love to see a statistically rigorous experiment based on the country and bike scenarios – a study that investigates the learning of both knowledge and skills, cross randomised to cover the various combinations of teaching and learning styles.

Until a corpus of solid science convinces me otherwise, I shall remain open minded.

Are we missing the point?

If the matching of teaching styles to learning styles is shown categorically to have no significant effect on learning outcomes, that’s fine – but I would counsel against throwing VAK out the window.

At the very least, a learning style represents a personal preference.

If you can accommodate your learner’s preference, then you are going to boost their enjoyment of the learning experience. That’s called engagement, and it’s sorely missing from a lot of workplace training.

Think about it: if you marry your pedagogy to your content, who does that suit?

It sure ain’t learner centered.

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22 Comments on “Style counsel”

  1. Andy Janning Says:

    Very thought-provoking. I like the strategy you propose. What if, however, the learning style of the individual isn’t known and can’t be identified beforehand? What should the trainer do then?

  2. Andy raises a good point. Do we know our learning styles? Do our parents? Do our managers? I think the answer is mostly NO, and until we do it is rather the cart before the horse.

    I am think it’s about the content and that learning to ride a bike or recognize Australia from NZ or New England relies on good strategies: worked examples, practice, feeddback, self assessment, opportunity to practice in various and authentic contexts, reminders about WHY we need to know this, and aids (job aids, performance support….) if that is appropriate. Might be for Australia, might. Would not be for the basic bike riding. More on that at:

  3. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Thanks Andy and Allison.

    Indeed, the identification of learning styles is a problem area. We all know how dodgy self assessments are. However, if the questions pertain to the learner’s preferences, we can at least have confidence in those answers.

    I realise that doesn’t quite respond your point. It’s clear we need more robust profiling tools, if we intend going down that road.

    OR… perhaps we don’t need to profile learning styles anyway. Picking up your point, Allison, about good learning strategies – thorough and authentic instruction will probably cover all learning styles by default.

    I was thinking again about the bike scenario and recognised that demonstrations, practice and on-the-go instructions are likely to help everyone. That exposes an insidious edge to the debate: some teachers are obviously (and understandably) seeking to reduce their workload – if learning styles don’t matter, I’ll teach it the way I want, which will be the easiest way for me. I would suggest, though, that all learners would benefit from deeper instruction.

  4. Andy Janning Says:

    “Thorough and authentic instruction will probably cover all learning styles by default.” Amen, and amen. Now all we need are t-shirts…!

  5. Jessica Says:

    Full disclosure, I work for American Public University, and online university. We are regionally and nationally accredited. That aside one of our professors/experts wrote a post on our blog about maximizing learning styles for learning in school and life. Even though it may seem antiquated, his approach to the VAT styles of learning can still apply in an educational setting. Check it out to see more,

  6. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Craig’s study tips look useful and practical to me, Jessica. Does APU have any evidence that they work?

  7. Craig Gilman Says:

    To shed some light regarding the discussion about learning styles it is important to have a general overview of a few more recent movements within the K-12 education community. Over the past decade, perhaps longer, K-12 educators have experienced a trend brought about by two powerful movements in their field; inclusion and differentiation. The idea of inclusion being that special needs students be put in the least restrictive classroom environment. This means that students who may have been put in classes composed entirely of special needs students being taught by an especially trained special education teacher are now being “mainstreamed” into general education classes. There are a lot of good reasons for this to happen, but ultimately it puts additional demands on the classroom teachers who have to expand their pedagogical skill to teach special needs students. Differentiation is a movement designed to encourage teachers to think outside of the box of traditional, lecture, read, drill, and test pedagogy. Differentiation calls for teachers to broaden the way they present materials to an ever increasingly diversified class of students, including special needs student in their general education classroom, but also the growing number of ESL and culturally diverse students we have in today’s schools. The trend is for teachers to expand their pedagogical took kit so that they present their lessons in a variety of ways in order to ensure that they address the wide variety of needs and learning styles in their respective classrooms.

    Those who understand this will realize that the VAK model, while perhaps not sufficiently supported by a large body of empirical data, is what has been presented to K-12 educators to provide them a general framework within which they can explore new and different approaches to presenting material to their students. In other words, the VAK model is a means for more traditional or new teachers to think outside the old box. As a secondary social studies teacher who was more often than not called on to teach inclusion (of special needs, ESL, etc.) students having a general understanding that by supplementing my somewhat traditional teaching methods with materials that addressed elements of the VAK model I might not have otherwise considered has really improved my effectiveness as a teacher of all students regardless of needs or abilities.

    Those who would like to add the “R” are more than likely well-intended; however, it is my belief that they share a bit of fear that today’s students are not getting enough exposure or instruction on reading and writing to and from paper. Personally, this does not concern me as I have found that today’s “digital native” students are resilient and can accomplish anything on a computer screen that they might have had to do with paper only a generation ago. The “R” is addressed in the original model.

    The original intent of posting an introductory post regarding the VAK model was to post on a simple introduction of the VAK concept so that those who were unfamiliar with it might be motivated to learn more about it on their own; the idea being that if knowledge of VAK benefits teachers in the way they prepare and present lessons, it might also benefit students to understand that they can be better prepared to interpret lessons by viewing them with a greater understanding of the ways in which they learn.

    With a general understanding of VAK, I would recommend as a next step, exploring the work of Harvard’s Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences. For those of you in the corporate training world it would provide you an additional framework, one that can be coordinated with VAK, that would enhance your ability to provide differentiated instruction to a wide variety of employees. For you teachers out there, it has helped me understand students I might not have understood prior to my learning of Multiple Intelligences Theory. Good luck! Teach your students well! And ignore the critics.

  8. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Cheers Craig. The vast majority of observation and experience is not reported in the literature, so I always appreciate feedback from fellow practitioners.

    The experiences you have had in the K-12 sector, particularly in relation to special needs, shows how circumstantial these concepts really are. Have you seen the British TV series called The Unteachables? I highly recommend it. It shows a real world example of adding more K into the mix and achieving impressive results.

    You say that R is addressed in the original model. I assume you mean it’s covered by V, but I like to make a distinction between visual imagery and verbal information. Perhaps I’m prejudiced by dual code theory, and perhaps it’s more applicable to adult learning. I for one am a detail person, so while I love infographics and peer discussion, I also crave the full text.

    Your view that “the VAK model is a means for more traditional or new teachers to think outside the old box” is a wonderful way of looking at it. If we can use VAK and other frameworks like multiple intelligences to challenge our habits and assumptions and lead to new ideas and discoveries, then that’s a good thing in my book!

  9. Craig Gilman Says:

    In response to one of your reader’s queries, how would one determine one’s learning style, the Web is loaded with sites. Use as search terms “learning” and “styles or preferences or modes.” If you want to find sites that offer surveys, simply add the word “survey.” The challenge won’t be finding sites, it will be choosing one.

    I teach American Public University’s introduction to online learning course and it uses as its text Maria Conner’s Learn More Now. It includes surveys and many more learning tips. It is available as an online text and if you Google her name and book title you will find a website that also offers the text in an online version. It is a rather simple text that we use for our 100 level orientation course, but it covers a variety of other topics related to learning and communicating and while students often enter the class complaining that they don’t need it they inevitably leave telling me that they learned a lot.

    Also, one of your respondents mentioned management, so I wanted to add that many of my students, being working professional adults, comment that they not only have a new way at looking at how they learn and consequently how they prepare to learn, but also that they have a new way of considering the perspectives of the co-workers, spouses, children, etc.

    And, if this is the land down under, feel free to let me know of any highly paying teaching positions! I was fortunate to get to the east coast for some diving and a drive through the outback and really loved the experience!

  10. Okay, a few points (some possibly a little nitpicky but some substantial):

    Firstly, the ‘echo chamber’ is sometimes a fair description of Twitter/blogs/social media. However, in this case, you’re talking about some fairly heavyweight meta-analysis (eg The UK Coffield report – see link below with a summary, so no danger of it getting in the way of your day job :) )

    And, in fact, if we had a choice of applying the ‘echo chamber’ tag to the naysayers or the followers, then, in this case, it would surely be more logical to apply it to the people who believe in it without having read the research?

    Secondly, most of the beating up on Learning Styles that I’ve read focuses on a far wider selection than VAK (or VARK or, even worse, VAK(T)). There are some 80-odd Learning Styles inventories. And most of them are proprietary models – this, in and of itself, should be cause for a degree of skepticism.

    Thirdly, many unfortunate trainee teachers and trainers are observed and assessed based on their ability to implement ‘Learning Styles’. There’s little possibility of these people remaining ‘open minded’. When people (like me, in the past – I admit it) use Learning Styles in their personal practice it’s harmless, surely. But when it’s institutionalised it’s the opposite.

    Fourthly, Learning Styles seems to work better when we think of them as learning preferences. And not all of the research is totally negative. But some of the positive research seems to suggest that learning is more effective if we mismatch learning preference with presentation method – because working harder makes people learn more? Who knows, but it’s not anywhere near as clear as for vs against. And it’s definitely not something we can intuit – like pretty much anything to do with the brain/learning.

    Fifthly, and most importantly, the meta-analysis does say there is a lack of evidence rather than directly refute their existence. But it also says that there are other factors contributing to learning which so far outweigh learning styles that the whole debate is moot.

    Sixthly, most of the research (both for and against) seems to refer to ‘education’ and the purer forms of learning. Most of us in the corporate sector have ‘learning’ as a secondary aim after ‘behaviour change’ and ‘performance improvement’, no?

    Finally, I’ve been doing this for years and years. And I am an ex-Learning Styler – I’ve taught it to loads of people. But, looking back, I can’t think of single occasion when I actually ‘used’ learning styles, when I had a chance to assess learners’ learning style and then tailor learning to suit that preference. I can think of ways to attempt knowledge transfer using all the VAK channels (and, actually, this seems to me to be a very effective thing to do) but I can’t see a way I could actually ‘use’ Learning Styles (other than as an aid to self-assessment for learners).

    I don’t think rejecting Learning Styles is the same thing as rejecting the notion that learners have different preferences or, even, styles. In fact, anybody who called themselves ‘learner-centred’ would work on this assumption. But VAK (or any of the productised Learning Styles inventories) seems more likely to limit choices and creativity rather than open them up.

    Here’s my contribution to the Echo Chamber:

    It’s mostly quotes and easy-to-read stuff, honest.

  11. George Says:

    I’m glad it’s easy-to-read Simon, coz we Aussies arnt good wif words n stuff.

  12. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Craig – I just got back from Darwin. What a great place! I can’t wait to get back there. Unfortunately, though, “highly paying teaching positions” is not a common phrase is this corner of the globe.

    Simon – No, I didn’t read Coffield et al (2004), but I did read Pashler et al (2008) which is a broader study that refers to Coffield. Pashler & co are critical of the statistical validity of many of the studies of learning styles that have taken place thus far, and conclude that strong evidence is lacking. They did note “several studies that used appropriate research designs found evidence that contradicted the learning-styles hypothesis [that instruction should be provided in the mode that matches the learner’s style]” but several studies does not a corpus make. You argue a range of aspects and sometimes appear to put words in my mouth, but I’ll let that be. In any case, thank you for contributing another practitioner’s view.

    George – I think it was a personal gibe rather than impugning a continent, but I appreciate the humour.

  13. George, I think you’re putting words in my mouth there by implying some kind of look-down-on-the-Aussie chauvinism.

    But, apparently, it’s something I’m guilty of too, so I guess I’d better take it with as good humour as Ryan :)

    Re-reading that part, I have to say I do sound like a total arse. I was going to add a :) emoticon to that bit because it was supposed to be a jokey reference to ‘Of course I haven’t undertaken an exhaustive review of the literature. After all, I have a day job!’

    Of course, the very next bit talks about the bits Ryan has read. Lesson for me here: if you’re criticising somebody, it’s idiotic to try and soften what you’re saying by adding lame jokes.

  14. Caitlyn S Says:

    Yes Ryan, we ARE missing the point with respect to learning styles. We should be helping our learners love learning. Less stick, more carrot.

  15. Ryan Tracey Says:

    I agree, Caitlyn.

    Regardless of whether learning styles are right are wrong, true or false, I say we should at least try to accommodate our learners’ preferences.

    If we can make the learning process more enjoyable for them, not only might they learn more effectively, but hopefully they will come back for more!

  16. Charles Says:

    “If you can accommodate your learner’s preference, then you are going to boost their enjoyment of the learning experience. ”

    How do we know this?

    Most studies on motivation, which I connect with “enjoyment,” refer to concepts of self-determination (autonomy, competence, social relatedness), self-regulation, performance vs mastery orientations, or, in the case of flow, a balance between a task that is too easy (i.e., boring) vs. too difficult (i.e., frustrating). The case of flow might suggest either matching or not matching someone’s learning style, depending on the difficulty level of the task.

    Actually, I would venture that most learning involves a combination of auditory, visual, and kinaesthetic senses. When I read a text, I not only see the words, I hear them in my mind. When I talk with people, I hear their words and see their body and facial gestures. Sometimes we tap one another on the arm or should to add meaning or emphasis. When I play basketball, I also see the opponents’ moves and hear teammates’ and coach’s calls to put into action certain plays. It’s hard to imagine doing or learning anything via only one sense.

  17. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Fair question, Charles.

    There is some empirical evidence regarding the effect of learning style on enjoyment level (eg Du & Simpson 2002), however I admit that my statement is quite presumptuous. The way I see it, if I prefer beer over soda, then I will enjoy the drinking experience more if my cup contains beer rather than soda.

    Of course, terms such as “style”, “preference”, “enjoyment”, “motivation” and “satisfaction” are not synonymous. I find this complicates matters and constrains what we can conclude from the literature. Motivation is a complex beast – certainly it is something that I intend to ponder more deeply.

    I totally agree with the notion that most learning involves a combination of auditory, visual and kinaesthetic senses. It would be poor form for a riding teacher to say “There’s the bike, get on it” and leave it at that! In this case, the showing and the talking support the doing.

  18. teachingbattleground Says:

    I thought “the echo chamber” was a phrase used to describe media that concentrates on press releases and re-reporting what other parts of the media have said.

    VAK is not getting a kicking from the media, it is getting a kicking from academics. But then I think you know that.

    I’m also surprised that you make the claim “Critics of the theory don’t seem to challenge the existence of learning styles”. The biggest single complaint about learning styles is that they simply don’t fit what psychologists know about learning: that we learn the same way and we learn meaning, not the sight or sound of the learning experience.

    That said, the biggest problem here is that you are ignoring the evidence there is, and then claiming that as you haven’t found evidence to convince you learning styles are false you should keep using them. Surely, the burden of proof is the other way round? If you are going to use a method, you should have good reason to think it does work.

  19. Ryan Tracey Says:

    Hi teachingbattleground.

    Yes, the term “echo chamber” does have its genesis in the traditional media. In the age of Web 2.0 though, I was referring to the broader media of blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc via which everyone can share and promote their own views. So yes, VAK is certainly getting a kicking from academics, and that kicking is being repeated and reinforced by plenty of others in the online community.

    Fair point about “Critics of the theory don’t seem to challenge the existence of learning styles” – I acknowledge since that many do. I also agree that we learn *meaning*, not the sight or sound of the learning experience. However that’s not really my point. I instead refer to the *processing* of that meaning, or more accurately how to assist the learner to do so, rather than posit how that knowledge is stored and recalled.

    Having said that, I don’t want to get bogged down in epistemology! The thrust of my article is that regardless of whether learning styles are right are wrong, true or false, we should endeavour to make the learning experience more engaging for the learner. Dare I suggest that models like VAK can help us do that?

    The burden of proof argument is one used by climate change sceptics. As they haven’t found evidence to convince them that recycling and installing solar panels negates global warming (if indeed it exists), why should they bother doing it? Personally, I prefer the precautionary principle.

    Besides, I do have good reason that it works: observation and experience. I commented earlier that the vast majority of observation and experience is not reported in the literature. That doesn’t mean much to the practitioner who has been doing his or her job successfully for many years. Sure, they may not have the requisite number of letters after their name, but they know what works in their world.

  20. teachingbattleground Says:

    Given that people don’t have learning styles, then we can safely say that use of learning styles don’t make anything more engaging. If all you are saying is that information should be presented in more than one way where practical then nobody is likely to dispute it.

    With regard to “burden of proof” I think it is fairly obvious that we should use the methods that have been shown to be effective rather than the ones that have no evidence to back them up. There is no “precautionary principle” that says “use methods which apparently don’t work, just in case it turns out they do”.

    As for justification from personal experience, it is always worth reviewing that experience in light of the evidence. It is also worth recalling that we are not dealing here only with some method that people have anecdotally claimed to find useful. We are dealing with a theoretical model of learning that is often presented as scientific fact. It is important that people do know that it is pseudo-science. Yes, people should evaluate their teaching in light of their experience, but the promotion of bad theory benefits nobody. It stands in the way of learning from experience.

  21. Cynthia Argyle Says:

    “Given that people don’t have learning styles” sounds like the echo chamber to me.

  22. teachingbattleground Says:

    Well feel free to dismiss inconvenient facts as “echos”, but be aware that ignoring reality tends to have consequences. It is not a harmless choice, and should be unusual in an educator.

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