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?
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.
A stands for “Auditory”. These people learn best by listening.
I would suggest they also like talking.
K stands for “Kinaesthetic “. These people learn best by touching and feeling. They are doers.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.