Learning styles – the greatest trick the devil ever trained

It wasn’t so long ago that training teachers in the UK were taught almost entirely uncritically to use learning modalities (learning styles) like VAK as an allegedly ‘evidence-informed’ way to help students learn. How wrong they were. Jennifer Beattie, a teacher from East London, takes a trip down memory lane and recalls how common it was even in her career – and still could be if we’re not careful.

Recently, I was involved in a discussion on edu-Twitter with teachers who were reflecting on their training. A significant number of them were critical of the fact that certain aspects of pedagogy that they’d been trained in had not stood the test of time. Being professionals, we recognise how training evolves and practices change. What trainees are being told to do today could well not exist in a few years’ time. The concept of VAK learning styles (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic), however, somehow stills continues to spark debate, despite us all knowing that making your teaching resources visual, auditory and kinaesthetic would be as helpful to pupil progress as it would be to make your resources about Love Island or Fortnite. I understand why the idea still exists. It’s a comfortable way of attempting to deal with an uncomfortable truth: not all pupils learn and make progress at the same rate.

Making your teaching resources visual, auditory and kinaesthetic would be as helpful as making them about Love Island or Fortnite

Yet, I have to admit that I believed in learning styles whilst training – and still for a large part of my early teaching career. I recognise that my ITT experience is simply reflective of what Ofsted (the UK school inspectorate) and the DFES (the then Department for Education and Skills) wanted at the time and my course tutors were simply channelling that into us. That time was 2007; that progressive era of, notably, ‘The One-off Outstanding Lesson’, mini plenaries, student-led ‘discovery learning’, Brain Gym and P4C (Philosophy for Children).

With the aim of reminding myself why I was such a devout believer of VAK back then, I dusted off my QTS Standards folders and books. I found one, entitled Learning and Teaching in Secondary Schools. In it, there were six pages devoted to learning styles and ‘multiple intelligences’. Of these six pages, nine lines were given over to ‘Learning Styles; a critique’, where the writer admits that it is, actually, very difficult to define learning in such different ways. This isn’t developed further in the book.

What I find most incredible in these pages is that they mention a possible ‘mismatch’ between a student’s ‘preferred learning style’ and the tasks they face from the teacher. It’s outrageous to tell new entrants to the profession that a possible reason why a pupil isn’t learning is because the teacher hasn’t engaged with the student’s preferred learning style. I can only imagine the sheer number of PGCE student hours wasted, trying to make that elusive, ‘engaging’ resource which will appeal to all sorts of learners. I know this because I did it.

When I think back to the time taken up with trying to make things like the ‘passé composé’ kinaesthetic (‘Right, let’s MOVE the pronouns and auxiliary verbs that I’ve spent hours laminating for you all, shall we, class?’), I reflect that I could have actually been learning ways to explain it better and give pupils adequate, robust practice. No wonder I am exasperated with having been caught in the nonsense of it all.

Furthermore, in my professional standards portfolio, much of the evidence I gathered to prove I’d met a particular standard comprised of lesson plans with VAK ideas and resources. As a trainee, the lesson plan pro forma had a box specifically for planning and detailing your VAK resources to be used. But, were trainees explicitly told to include VAK learning styles in order to gain Qualified Teacher Status? In the 2007–08 Standards, there was a real emphasis on ‘personalising learning’. Trainees were told that you should plan your lessons to engage with all pupils’ individual learning styles and preferences. This turned into tutors expecting to see VAK on every trainee lesson plan. Even the training book mentioned earlier issued a stark ‘warning’ about it:

‘In order to progress towards meeting the Standards for the Award of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) it is important that beginning teachers are aware of the different learning styles that might exist in their classes and what might be some characteristics of individual learning preferences.’

I have been asked why I am now so critical of VAK, when I wasn’t ten years ago. Well, for one thing, experience. Experience as a teacher has shown me that telling pupils the rule about the past tense in French gets you better results than making a game of it. Experience has shown me that telling the pupils what a word means gets you a quicker result than making a ‘card sort’ game. I didn’t have this experience ten years ago: there wasn’t much research debunking it; and when someone tells you that you have to include it in your lesson plans and observed lessons to meet the standards, in all likelihood you’re going to do it!

So, while this was a brief, nostalgic look back at what it was like to be fully submerged in the VAK pseudoscience of 2007, it is important that, as teachers, we don’t allow it back in. I still see a lot of new entrants to the profession worry about why some pupils aren’t ‘getting it’ and some of the advice dispensed encourages them to try matching their teaching and learning activities to their students’ different styles of learning. We cannot allow more trainee and NQT hours to be spent trying to create ‘perfect’ lesson resources. The best resource, for any lesson, is the teacher.