Is teaching by learning style as effective as its supporters claim? A letter to The Guardian this morning casts doubt on one of the most popular educational movements of the past forty years.
Leading academics, psychologists and educators have claimed that teaching according to learning style produces no tangible benefits, and may even be detrimental to pupils’ education.
In a letter written to The Guardian this morning, the thirty experts argued that there are ‘a number of problems with the learning styles approach’ and that systematic studies have found ‘no evidence’ that such approaches benefit children.
Learning styles came into vogue in the 1970s and have since become a staple part of many school programs. The most popular model, known as ‘VAK’, propounds the belief that children learn visually, auditorily or kinaesthetically, and that by adapting teaching to learning style educators can help pupils make faster progress. Visual learners allegedly learn best when presented with images, such as diagrams or charts; auditory learners benefit from discussions and any situation that involves verbal communication; and kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn physically with the use of objects and props. VAK was originally devised by Neil Fleming, a teacher and school inspector from New Zealand who based his system on observations in New Zealand classrooms.
However, Fleming’s system is one of many suggested by educators over the years, and in their letter this morning writers decry the absence of a clear consensus on learning styles, describing how ‘one study has found that there are more than 70 different models’. They go on to encourage ‘practices that are evidence-based’ and encourage ‘critical thinking when evaluating the claims for educational benefits supposedly based on neuroscience.’
As well as questioning the benefits of teaching by learning style, the academics also suggested that there might be significant drawbacks to such an approach, creating 'expectations and excuses that are detrimental to learning in general, which is a cost in the long term.'
From an educator’s point of view, what can be made of this intervention? Undoubtedly some educators will be vociferous in their defence of learning styles and will speak enthusiastically about the benefits of following them; others will argue that they are merely a distraction and that school budgets should be directed elsewhere.
Most will likely find agreement though in the importance of focussing on the needs of individuals – something that is sadly very difficult to do in a packed classroom. The merits of the learning style approach lie in its consideration of each child as an individual and avoiding a ‘one size fits all’ approach. While teaching by learning style might not be the answer, the attitudes implicit in Fleming’s system surely have a fundamental place in British schools and classrooms.