Learner styles revisited: VAK-uous teaching

If you had to teach a lesson in which you were required to discover students’ blood types or star signs in order to tailor lessons according to the results, you might feel that this was both inappropriate and a waste of time. You may even argue that knowing whether your student was a Pisces or O negative couldn’t possibly help her to learn English because star signs, like blood types have no evidence of validity. However, TEFL teachers all over the world routinely and enthusiastically engage in this kind of testing. What is more, this kind of ‘vacuous nonsense’ is promoted by leading TEFL authorities, is the subject of talks at IATEFL, is considered an essential part of CELTA training and is promoted in journals and on the websites of Universities.

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 ‘traditional senses’ humans are supposed to have, but this is not as clear as it first seems. Firstly, there is the question of why the numerous other human senses, such as the sense of balance, pain, time and temperature, are missing. If we are happy to stick with the ‘traditional senses’ then it seems odd that ‘touch’ is substituted by the ‘kinaesthetic’, sense which is the sense of motion. Further, why, in discussions of learner styles are the final OG so often absent? It is perhaps unkind to suggest that the whole concept starts to unravel when we imagine catering for students whose ‘dominant modality’ is ‘smell’ or ‘taste’. This idea has been lampooned by satirical newspaper ‘the onion’ with an article entitled ‘parents of nasal learners, demand odour-based curriculum’. The ludicrousness of this should be enough to stop VAK on its own but no, it trundles on seemingly oblivious to its own internal contradictions.

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 like to move things around and touch them, but they are still going to have to use their eyes in order to do this. Another classic is to advise them to take notes (note: that is a University web site). The only problem is that anyone taking notes must also be listening and looking at what they’re writing, so how is this kinaesthetic?

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 beg the question why are learning styles, particularly the VAK model, so popular?

Personalisation: the Forer effect
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)

You may also have noticed something missing from this list? It is reminiscent of the famous loaded question “when was the last time you beat your wife?” The questions presuppose you actually have a learning style. There are stubborn folk who won’t play along and chose (above) something like A, B, C, C, B which seems to render the whole thing redundant, but don’t fear, they are labelled multimodal! I love the quote on that site “Multimodal learners can take in information by using more than one method”, -ah! You mean, like all normal human beings! I see.


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, unlikely interesting sounding ideas (like precognition) will get you published ten times faster than something pointing out that that probably isn’t true.

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

Not only is it widely accepted, it also seems to be under some kind of magically protection. People write articles, like one recently in ELTJ, listing everything that is wrong with the idea, and then note “but we should continue to use them as they are a useful concept.” (Hatami 2012) Harmer, among others say pretty much the same thing. Call me old fashioned but if we have no evidence something exist, despite decades of testing, we might want to think carefully about what that tells us. If we are to accept their conclusion then Horoscopes and blood types should surely also be part of our teaching arsenal as, ‘it is clear that they […] address self-evident truths’ (Harmer 2007:93) and ‘facilitate appreciation for the divergent approaches to thinking and learning’ (Hatami 2012:2) Whatever that means.

Why we need Evidence: part.1 ‘it works!’


Teaching isn’t the most rigorous of professions.  It’s not glamorous and usually not very well paid. Most of the teachers I meet do it because they love the job, and they love the students.  It’s often said that teaching is “an art not a science”.  There might be some truth in this. But is evidence unimportant?  I’m going to try to argue ‘no’ in a series of posts. 
 
It’s difficult to prove much of anything in TEFL and there is very little for which  there is solid evidence. However, new techniques and approaches appear all the time and are taken up with vigour by teachers who become convinced that this time they have hit upon the holy grail of teaching -the method to rule them all!  They are sure that this time….this time…they have discovered the method that will turn their barely communicative disinterested students into fluent autonomous learners. Said teacher is convinced of the efficacy of the approach due to the stunning results it produces and the expressions of sheer joy on student faces. This position could be called the “It works- just look at their faces!” position. A few examples are the following:

“Of course we all know Genki English works great because we see it every time on the kids’ faces” (2009 online) Richard Graham, founder of GenkiEnglish, presenting the ‘evidence’ that his method “really, really works”

“both kids and teachers told us it really works” Video extolling the virtues of Mindfulness training in classrooms.

Teachers using BrainGym continue to this day, despite all the evidence against it, continue to insist that it works.

“In the final analysis, like any other methodology, [neuro-linguistic programming]NLP will work or not for an individual teacher because it is right for them and not because it is scientifically proven or not.” (Harris 2002:37)
 
I cannot really say that these doubts have completely disappeared but I can say that ,little by little, I BELIEVE that the magic of NLP can actually come true. I am really conscious that the changes I am experiencing with myself and with my students in class…How do I know is it working? Because I can see it in my students´faces, gestures and attitudes (Esteve online)
 

 

Now some teacher might take me to task here saying “well how can we prove whether a method works or not in any scientific sense?”  This is a fair point and I agree but I have two caveats to add to it.  Firstly, if a method can’t be proved to work, then we should resist saying that “it works”.  Certainly we should not suggest that students’ reactions or the way we feel about it constitute any kind of reliable evidence.  Secondly, though it may be difficult to prove that something works, it’s relatively easy to prove that something doesn’t work, -or can’t work.  for example, NLP claims that you can tell a persons “learner style” by watching their eyes move and listening to the pitch of their voice.  BrainGym claims that children can children can massage their bodies to increase the oxygen supply to their brains.  Both of these claims are demonstrably false

  
Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit, is a good place for teachers to start.  In this case, the following principle might be useful:

wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts

This is because people believe what they want to believe.  A teacher who likes a a particular activity/method/approach will find it easy to convince themselves that their students like it, or benefit from it.  Confirmation bias (i.e. recording the hits and forgetting the misses) will do the rest to convince a teacher that their method “really works”.

But what does “work” mean here anyway?  If you want to test something then it’s a good idea to have a clear idea of what it is you want to test.  Does “work” mean “make the students happy” or “allow me to skive off the lesson” or “make me, the teacher, feel good about myself” or “increases the chances the group of students will become more proficient”?  If you don’t know what “works” means then it’s meaningless to say that something works. 

no one is impervious to this kind of thinking, which is why we do need evidence that our practices work, or at least, the ability to weed-out those which really do not.  Fifty years ago teachers were making their students listen and repeat and declaring that “it really works!” and 20 years ago communicative language teaching came and that “really worked” too and now Dogme “really works!”  If all these methods work, why do we keep changing them?

 

part 2 is here
for more about GenkiEnglish read this.

NB:  If you want to read a blog which basically says everything I do, except funnier and before me, then check out this one.

references 


Harris, T. 2002. ‘NLP: If it Works, use it … or is there Censorship Around?’ in HLT magazine retrieved September 23 2012 www.hltmag.co.uk/sep02/martsep023.rtf


Graham. R, (2009) Academic Research: Genki English really, really works. In Genki English. Retrieved May 7 2012, from http://genkienglish.net/teaching/academic-research-genki-english-really-really-works

Learning styles: facts and fictions

This article originally appeared in Modern English Teacher, volume 21 No.4.  Thanks to Dave Francis for allowing me to reproduce it here.  
 
 Learning styles (sometimes ‘learner styles’ hereafter LS) are pervasive in education and there are far too many articles examining the learning styles of various groups of students to reproduce here. However a quick search of Google scholar will bring up numerous articles examining the various LS of various groups, from Iranian freshmen to Taiwanese and Kuwaiti students. However, for the amount of attention they receive there is very little evidence of their efficacy:
The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated (Pasler et al 2008:117).
 This essay will examine LS in the EFL literature and question whether they actually provide a useful tool for aiding students language learning or whether they are merely a pseudo-scientific distraction. Firstly, This essay will examine the theory of learning styles, focusing on the VAK model in particular. It will then examine references to LS in a small sample of EFL literature. Finally some of the problems with the theories of LS will be outlined.
 
What are learning styles?
The basic premise of LS is that ‘individuals learn in different ways'(Nel 2008:51).  There is a large body of literature related to the various types, whether they be visual, audio or, kinesthetic, (VAK) left brained or right brained, concrete or communicative, levelers or sharpners, plungers or non-committers, convergers or divergers, the list, while not endless is certainly long!  The thrust of the various theories is that if a teacher caters to a student’s particular LS then said student’s learning will be enhanced. (Thornbury 2006)  Therefore a teacher should prepare a variety of approaches when introducing material in order to cater for these disparate needs.  
There does appear to be some conceptual confusion (Nel 2008) with regard to this term. Whereas for some, LS simply indicates the things different students prefer to do in order to learn,  For example, student A may use flash cards and student B may like writing lots of notes. For others LS indicates a scientific theory relating to ‘the biologically and developmentally imposed set of characteristics that make the same teaching method wonderful for some and terrible for others’ (Dunn & Griggs, 1988:3). There is quite a difference here between that which is preferential and that which is biologically constrained. This paper will specifically deal with latter of these two notions, though it is possible that the vagueness of the concept has actually aided its popularity, as a wide range of activities can be grouped under one catch-all term.   

weak and strong forms

It is useful to divide LS into two versions, for the sake of criticism. The first can be termed the ‘weak’ version in which it is posited that all students learn in different ways and while one student can find a activity enjoyable or an explanation clear, another student can find the same activity dull and the same explanation confusing (Pashler et al 2008:116). Also, as noted earlier, students have their own favourite ways of learning. All of this is relatively uncontroversial and probably quite familiar to most teachers. The ‘strong’ version however moves from this position to suggesting that not only do students learn differently, but that that difference is attributable to a certain biological difference within each student. Furthermore this difference can be reliably discovered through testing (often in the form of self-report questionnaires)  and that a teacher can then target lessons to suit the students particular LS which will in turn accelerate a student’s ability to learn. In this version, LS is presented as a complete and well defined theory. This view of learning is as problematic as it is popular.  
 

References to LS

The weak form can sometimes be used as a wedge to introduce the strong form. Alternatively, criticism can be deflected by appealing to the more general and ‘common sense’ ideas of the weak form while the strong form is pushed as being a legitimate technique. An example of this can be seen in ‘the practice of English language teaching’ in which Harmer, despite noting that the claims of this theory have not ‘been subjected to any kind of rigorous scientific evaluation'(2007:93)  suggests carrying out computer based tests of students’ multiple intelligences. Harmer notes that the Coffield study has severely criticised learning styles including the following quote ‘[we] advise against pedagogical intervention based solely on any of the learning style instruments’ (Coffield et al 2004:140) Yet continues to promote learning styles claiming that they are useful for making teachers aware  of  ‘self-evident truths, – namely that different students react differently to different stimulus’ (2007:93). While it may be the case that learners learn differently, it does not follow that therefore LS are the answer to this. nor is it at all clear why teachers need to be made aware of things which are ‘self evident’. The same tact is employed elsewhere in the section:
         It may sound as if, therefore, there is no point in reading about different learner styles at all – or trying to incorporate them into our teaching. But that is not the case. We should do as much as we can to understand the individual differences within a group (2007:89)
 Understanding that students are individuals is quite a different thing from employing specific LS tests and classroom practices. In the above quote Harmer refers to evidence based criticisms of LS and yet dismisses these criticism, without evidence, merely by asserting that ‘this is not the case’.  
 
Thornbury is more damning of LS noting that there is little evidence ‘that any of these dispositions correlates with specific learning behaviours. Nor has it been shown that preference in one area predicts success in language learning.’ (2006:116-7) Yet despite Thornbury’s  caution LS are presented uncritically in a large amount of EFL literature, or criticisms are brushed away, as with  Nel (2008) who after acknowledging the conceptual confusion in LS and listing criticism of LS, then goes on to suggest, similarly to Harmer, that teachers should still test their students to find out their LS in order to ‘maximise the learning opportunities of their students'(2008:57). However, as the next section will show, even if we accept LS as a legitimate theory, it is hard to see how it’s implementation would actually aid students learning in any way. Ellis is equally critical of the research noting that his original conclusion of their limited worth did not require updating for the second edition, published 14 years later. He also apologies for the lengthy treatment of LS noting that this merely reflected the huge amount of “attention it has received from researchers”(2008:671-2).
 The evidence problem
There is very little credible research to support LS (Coffield et al 2004:140). Specifically in the field of L2 acquisition Ellis notes that there is uncertainty over whether “any useful generalisations can be based on the research undertaken to date”(2008:669 ) Pashler et al. (2008:116)  in relation to research on the subject which reaches an acceptable level of credibility note that :
 
only a few fragmentary and unconvincing pieces of evidence that meet this standard, and we therefore conclude that the literature fails to provide adequate support for applying learning-style assessments in school settings… several studies that used appropriate research designs found evidence that contradicted the learning-styles hypothesis
 
Despite this there is a very lucrative industry built around testing and providing materials for different learner types. Another unfortunate trend as noted is, when faced with disappointing results, or criticism of LS,  some in the EFL world seem reluctant to accept them, possibly noting that there is not enough research yet or that the ideas are still, on some level, useful.
 
It is also worth noting that what I have mainly described (VAK) is just one version of the LS theory. Coffield et al note that ‘learning style researchers do not speak with one voice’ (2004:140) For example is a pragmatist the opposite of a theorist or a reflector?  It depends on which theory you choose. The proliferation of theories, all lacking direct comparability and each with their own technical terms, ‘is both bewildering and off-putting to practitioners and to other academics who do not specialise in this field.’ (Coffield 2004:136)
 Another issue is, as Pashler et al (2008) point out, the subject being taught may well define which approach to the content is best. Whereas they give geometry as an example, for EFL perhaps the idea of a listening lesson for non-audio learners would be sufficient to highlight the absurdness of LS. Or perhaps trying to think of ways to teach reading to non-visual learners.  But if moving around the classroom with bits of text or reading out loud comes to mind, I have to admit I despair for our profession.
 
The feasibility problem
Another problem with LS is that even if it were a viable theory, it is doubtful that it would be of any use to use in the EFL field. As Harmer notes (2001:90) different intelligences mean some learning tasks might ‘not be appropriate for all of our students.’  He then suggests activities which might appeal to different types. There is something of a catch 22 here though which seems to remove all the supposed benefits of the approach. If we imagine a class with three learners, with LS X,Y and Z doing an activity targeted at style X will perhaps be less than optimal for Y and Z. so any benefit of supposed accelerated learning is instantly lost when we are inclusive. Any benefit gleaned from knowing the student’s LS would be lost. We could divide the students up by their individual LS as we divide students up by ability now but the cost of ‘interventions built around learning styles’ would be huge as students would need to be tested, customized materials made and teacher’s retrained. (Pashler et.al 2008 116) And how would we know which version of LS to use in the first place?   Can we ethical test students for their optimum VAK LS while ignoring their right-brain/left brain potential?  But that’s not all, some students may, according to the theory, have two LS or a mix of all 3 (in the VAK model). You maybe for example be 30% visual and 70% kinaesthetic.  If the purpose of this knowledge is to inform a teachers about the method of delivery it is hard to see how it is anything but general to the point of useless. Even if LS could be proved to be effective, the benefits would have considerable to make up for these costs. Is it not infinitely more sensible to spend this time teaching all these students language in as engaging a way as is possible? 

Conclusion

Students have a limited amount of time in the classroom. We um and ah over whether to schedule practice tests in class time, whether to use a whole hour for review and whether the students are getting enough practice time. Despite this we seem perfectly happy to throw away lesson time on something which is untested and probably completely useless. Pashler et al (2000:117) recommend (as Coffield et al cited earlier) due to the problems citing in this essay, use of LS at present is an ‘unwise and a wasteful use of limited resources.’
 There is also the question of the massive amounts of research time that is wasted on this kind of thing. Not only the researchers’ and their subjects time, but the time of the trainee teacher, keenly devouring article after article on ‘getting the best out of kinaesthetic learners.’ Then there are the hours wasted by the likes of Coffield et al and Pashler et al debunking these ideas only to leave us back where we started knowing no more about teaching than we did before.  This time could have been spent teaching students more language, researching better ways for students to retain language or reading articles which actually tell us something of use. Not only are we wasting our student’s time but we’re also making ourselves look foolish. Worse, we risk the students, who may well also be teachers, uncritically adopting these ideas and spreading them in their home nations.

References

Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall, E., and Ecclestone, K., (2004) ‘Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : a systematic and critical review’ London; Learning and Skills Network.

 Dunn, R. and Griggs, S. 1988. Learning Styles: Quiet Revolution in American Schools. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals


Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd ed.). Oxford:Oxford University Press.

 Harmer J.2007 The Practice of English language Teaching Essex: Pearson Education Limited

 Nel, C. 2008. ‘Learning styles’. In Griffiths, C. 2008 (Ed.). The good language learner: A tribute to Joan Rubin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

 Pashler, H.,  McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. 2008 ‘Learning Styles: Concepts and evidence’ Psychological Science in the Public Interest9/3, 105-119

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A to Z of ELT Oxford: Macmillan