Hear no evil, see no evil -VAK and primary education. A response to @tombennett71’s concern about learning styles

As with many colleagues, I ignored the promotion of learning styles when they started to emerge. This is more a historical accident than a sign of my good sense as I do not recall ever attending CPD on the subject. I remember being shown a questionnaire that a secondary child had brought home and being struck by the similarity to articles in the magazine Cosmopolitan (I haven’t time to explain why I used to read Cosmo but most editions had a survey you completed in order to immediately discover the type of person, relationship, career, sexual position suited you best) but otherwise was unaffected as a classteacher. 

When I began my role at Newman University, I was asked to show the video “Learning Styles Do Not Exist” to all the primary postgraduate students as part of a module called “Educational and Professional Studies”. I watched the video before the session and was content that it met the need of the students to know that there was no evidence behind the theory. Six years later because our students still encounter VAK in schools, the video is still shown alongside an example of a Cosmo style questionnaire. One of my colleagues still feels the need to include in a session early in each course,  “if you are a visual learner, you’ll need to leave because I’m going to talk.” The fact that students still laugh is a further indication that either they have come across the idea recently in a school or they were subjected to it in their own schooling.  There is evidence that once upon a time, it was part of ITT and recently a colleague found reference to VAK on an old document that had been uploaded to our website. The document was amended.

Having said all that, I am not as worried about the continued reference to VAK in schools as many who write and tweet on the issue. Over the last 48 hours, I’ve seen Tom Bennett’s obvious concern that VAK is evidence of a profession still prepared to take on ideas that have no basis and the response of the vast majority that this needs stamping out (my own choice of word but it seems accurate) .  I am not overly worried because I believe that we give our students the skills to manage situations where they disagree with practice or receive conflicting advice. In a profession which is both an art and a craft, dealing with contested ideas is important. It will take time for references to VAK to disappear but I am confident that they will. 

Although I continue to be disinterested in learning styles (and mind maps for that matter as my thoughts have never looked like the maps), I am interested in how the complex interaction of our senses and thought processes are reflected in different subjects. I would like students to reflect on the unchanged titles of curriculum subjects (English, Mathematics etc) since universal primary education began in the context of the contribution each discipline makes to the development of the child.  

For primary children, being with the same teacher all day means that individual subjects can merge into a blur of activities to get through before the next playtime. Primary teachers need to teach different subjects in distinctive ways that support the child’s intellectual, social, emotional and spiritual development. Unless a teacher appreciates the subject, the child will not be taught effectively. Appreciating a subject is not just about knowing facts to pass on but also understanding the unique relationship between knowledge, skills and understanding in each discipline so that, for example, history is not taught as English comprehension. This is a huge ask for a primary teacher. We all have strengths in one or two subjects but primary teachers need to continuously learn and develop in ten subjects. For this reason, the idea of primary school subject specialist teaching is revisited on a regular basis but the importance of education being underpinned by effective relationships prevents the introduction of a secondary style system. At the moment, I would argue that we have a very strong educational model built on the significant proportion of primary teachers who understand the distinctive nature of each subject,  are able to build strong relations with a class of thirty children including the most challenging and vulnerable, and use reflection on experience to develop a wide range of pedagogy. 

If we can build into the current system a stronger sense and understanding of the research base that interacts with professional wisdom, we will make it harder for companies (and egos) to sell ideas which do not support learning. However, I do not want student teachers to stop thinking about the senses. I would not want the word “visual” to be stamped out along with the VAK because the interaction between what we see, the other senses and the development of the mind is key to understanding the subjects. As an example,  when I look “scientifically” the interaction between senses and thought is different than when I look in a history lesson. In science,  I need to use my senses to accurately capture a natural phenomenon or a change etc in order to record and think about it.  In history, I interpret a range of evidence (including names and dates I need to remember) to learn about the past. Imagination plays a stronger role in history lessons than in science and that changes the interaction between the senses and the mind (it also does not mean that history is a lesser a subject). Children need to be told how to “look” explicitly by teachers who appreciate that the subjects enable us to develop different visual skills. Therefore the science lesson built around enquiry needs to involve explicit teaching of using our eyes, being still and recording precisely and requires a specific approach to classroom management that is different to the history lesson. In the stamping out of all traces of VAK, it would wrong to lose sight of this. 

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