Despite having as little credibility as astrology, various brain-based myths exist in education. Perhaps the mostly widely believed myth is the idea that students will learn better when information is presented to them in their preferred learning styles. This myth was believed by 93% of teachers surveyed in one study (Dekker et al 2012), which is a remarkable number when it’s noted that the idea of learning styles has never been shown to be valid.
What happened to OG?
A further problem with the popular VAK model is the choice of senses it opts for. VAK, sometimes known as VAKOG stands for visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory. These would seem to map onto the ‘
One dominant style?
Just how a teacher can separate out a student who learns visually and one who learns kinaesthetically is very unclear to me. Websites suggest that kinaesthetic students
Why the VAK love
Coffield et al identified 80 different paradigms, and only one of these was VAK(OG).
· convergers versus divergers
· verbalisers versus imagers
· holists versus serialists
· deep versus surface learning
· activists versus reflectors
· pragmatists versus theorists
· adaptors versus innovators
· assimilators versus explorers
· field dependent versus field independent
· globalists versus analysts
· assimilators versus accommodators
· imaginative versus analytic learners
Now are all these valid or only some? If they’re all valid then don’t we have an ethical duty to find out our students ‘total’ learning styles and test for all 80? If some are more valid, then which ones and who chose and how did they know? There is a clear problem here. Simply put, they can’t all be correct. These criticisms
Whenever I get taking to another teacher about learning styles, which happens probably a bit too often for their liking, I invariably have a conversation that goes something like this.
Me: …and that’s why learning styles isn’t a particularly useful concept.
Teacher: hmmm yeah I see (pause)…I’m a really visual person, me.
This is all too reminiscent of commenting to a friend, with incredulity on the popularity of horoscopes only to have them nod and say ‘well a Sagittarius would say that.’ Horoscopes might actually give us some insight into the popularity of learning styles. How true would you say the following is about you?
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
Betram Forer’s students were told that this was an evaluation of their personalities but actually they all got exactly the same results. Despite this his students on average rated the feedback as being very accurate (4.26 out of 5). In short, in the same way some people can see the face of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, (how does anyone know what she looked like anyway?) many people can see something relating to themselves in something which could be true of just about anyone. Compare this with a learning styles questionnaire:
1. When I operate new equipment I generally:
a) read the instructions first
b) listen to an explanation from someone who has used it before
c) go ahead and have a go, I can figure it out as I use it
2. When I need directions for travelling I usually:
a) look at a map
b) ask for spoken directions
c) follow my nose and maybe use a compass
3. When I cook a new dish, I like to:
a) follow a written recipe
b) call a friend for an explanation
c) follow my instincts, testing as I cook
4. If I am teaching someone something new, I tend to:
a) write instructions down for them
b) give them a verbal explanation
c) demonstrate first and then let them have a go
5. I tend to say:
a) watch how I do it
b) listen to me explain
c) you have a go
Learning styles questionnaires are similar to horoscopes (and personality tests) because they seem to have been specifically designed for you. We are so fascinated with ourselves that things like this can bypass our critical facilities and head straight to our emotions. “I can’t read maps! I always just follow my nose! OMG! this is totally me! I’m totally kinaesthetic!” the idea of finding out “what kind of person one is” has some eternal and deep appeal’ (Pashler et al 2008:117)
The problem is basically that if you believe in, and accept something, no stubborn facts are going to change your mind. If your back was cured after you went to a chiropractor or had acupuncture, then neither explanations of the placebo effect, or the mass of tests that have shown these two things to be ineffective is going to change your mind. Even something as ridiculous as horoscopes where it is clearly and demonstrably unfeasible still has millions of believers and may even affect people’s lives in serious ways. Astrology is in most newspapers daily and it’s ‘experts’ are rich and famous. Astronomers on the other hand have Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. True-believers will just dismiss all of this with a wave of the hand, and the common refrain, ‘Well I think it’s useful.‘
Back to Front
Trying to publish an article on learning styles is easy, -trying to publish one saying they are not real is much harder. I dunno, call me old fashioned but when you’re suggesting that something exists, isn’t it up to you to provide the evidence? If tell you I saw ghosts or aliens, you’re going to want to see some convincing evidence. In the world of publishing however,
This is evidenced by the huge number of articles on learning styles out there. Here is a tiny sample of some of the articles I found relating to EFL and learning styles:
· The learning style preferences of ESL students
· Learning Styles in the ESL/EFL Classroom
· Match or mismatch? Learning styles and teaching styles in EFL
· The Relationship between Gender and Learning Styles in Internet-Based Teaching-A Study From Kuwait
· A cross‐cultural study of Taiwanese and Kuwaiti EFL students’ learning styles and multiple intelligences
· The learning styles of Japanese students
· Learning styles of American Indian/Alaska Native students: A review of the literature and implications for practice
· Bridging the cultural gap: A study of Chinese students’ learning style preferences
· Assessment of language learning strategies used by Palestinian EFL learners