I tried to do a PGCE back in 2004 (which didn’t entirely go to plan) and I have a really clear memory if a few specific things. One such thing was around the idea of preferred learning styles, as presented by Howard Gardner as “multiple intelligences”. This is the idea that everyone has a preferred way of learning things and that we should present information in those ways for those learners. 

I really clearly remember sitting and thinking that the idea of being either a visual learner or a kinaesthetic learner was nonsense; I learn with all my senses. We all played along though and added VAK to our lesson plans. Since then this idea has been thoroughly rebuked and debunked but it is sadly still very prevalent in teachers’ thinking. I have become a little sick of hearing about it hence my writing this post!

There is a certain amount of intuitiveness about the idea which I guess is part of why it has clung on in the education world. 

“Some people think in more spacial terms, don’t they?”

Well, actually we all do. Sportsmen and craftsmen, sure, they may have good spatial awareness but does that mean we should teach them everything kinaesthetically? Sort of. We’ll come back to this. 

Part of my problem with learning styles is that there is simply no evidence that the theory is valid. There is also a lot of evidence to show that it is in fact not valid, such as large control trials. On top of this there are plenty of highly respected neuroscientists and educationalists who decry learning styles as utter hogwash (or something similar). 

But why does it persist? I think part of the issue is that teaching with VAK in mind actually leads to a half decent lesson but that’s an accident; a false positive. We learn everything via our senses, tempered by emotion (as Plato said). To truly understand something rather than just know it (I guess I could talk about mastery here) knowledge must be integrated into existing schemas (c.f. Piaget). That means we have to understand things in different ways and connect these up. The power of a Concrete-Pictorial-Abstract approach to teaching maths is a good example of this in action. 

But, doing the right thing for the wrong reason is still doing it for the wrong reason. 

“So what”, you might say. “It’s still the right thing!”. But it does matter and I’ll tell you why. Let’s take that “Kinaesthetic learner”. Let’s try to teach them in purely physical terms. Do you suppose that they will learn more thoroughly than if they would if they were taught with imagery and discussion and art and logic and all the other ways in which things can be taught? Of course not. We understand the world with all our senses so depriving someone of one or more aspect of this is only ever going to limit them. So, yes, we should teach them in physical terms because we should teach everyone in physical terms, and visual terms and so on and on.

And actually, teachers know this. So it’s fine. Except that when we use phrases like “learning styles” and “kinaesthetic learners” we are advocating mono-sensory teaching (which is bad). So, let’s stop using this outdated pseudoscience and call a spade a spade. We have far more relevant language like “senses” and “locomotor” so let’s just use that instead. 

Or do I need to do this as interpretive dance for some people?