In education during the 1980s and 90s we saw the rise of learning theories that were weak on research but strong on marketing. Learning styles, literally dozens of different theories that categorise types of learners, began to be promoted but one, above all, won the viral battle in schools – VAK.
Fleming's VAK/VARK model
An unfortunate offspring of the pseudoscience that is NLP, Neil Fleming’s 1987 variation on VAK, was the VARK learning styles model. This took the unproven proposition in NLP that we approach learning with a dominant sensory mode, namely visual, auditory or kinaesthetic.
1. Visual learners
2. Auditory learners
3. Kinaesthetic learners
Fleming took the existing VAK model and added Read/write. As usual, it has its own learning styles questionnaire (16 questions).
Fleming claimed that learners have clear preferences for learning on one of these three styles. Visual learners prefer to learn from images such as photographs, graphs, diagrams and so on. Auditory learners prefer listening to teachers speak, lectures, tapes and so on. Kinaesthetic learners prefer doing things such as tactile exploration and physical experimentation.
Despite being a crude categorisation, unresearched and taken from a field of learning widely regarded in academic and professional psychology as bogus, even fraudulent, this classification has been widely adopted in schools. In some cases children have been given badges with their stated V, A or K learning style and taught in separate groups. Despite serious criticism from almost every angle, government research reports, neuroscientists, educational think-tanks and actual research, this pop-psychology has become deeply rooted in education. Even Government departments, quality organisations and educational authorities willingly support and publicise the theory and ‘personalised’ learning for many, means adopting ‘learning styles’.
Fleming’s (Dunn and Dunn in the US) claims seem to be based on supposition and not researched evidence. Learning styles in their many guises proved wrong on a number of fronts. First the research backing the VAK scheme did not exist. According to Coffield in a damning Government funded report on learning styles, “Despite a large and evolving research programme, forceful claims made for impact are questionable because of limitations in many of the supporting studies and the lack of independent research on the model.” Second, the scheme is far too simple and heavily criticised by neuroscientists and professional psychologists as being at best a gross simplification at worst, misleading and wrong. Many claim that learning a complex and integrated process that is put in jeopardy by the practice of learning styles. Some researchers accuse teachers of pigeon-holing students, leading to stereotyping. Even worse, it may lead to impoverished learning, as the student is not building the right range of learning skills. The weaknesses may be the very things that need attention. The great danger is that we label learners and limit progress, rather than enhance, their educational aspirations. Guy Claxton makes this very point, regretting the use of VAK in classroom practice on the basis that it restricts learning. Stahl claims there has been an "utter failure to find that assessing children's learning styles and matching to instructional methods has any effect on their learning." Roger Schank believes that teachers are confusing ‘learning styles’ with a much stronger phenomenon, ‘personality’. He quite simply thinks that learning styles do not exist.
Despite reports funded but Government, academic institutions and professional psychologists, decrying learning styles theory, and VAK in particular, it persists across the learning world, promulgated by poor teacher training and ‘train the trainer’ courses. It would not be far wrong to describe it as a theoretical virus that has infected education and training on a global scale, kept alive by companies peddling CPD to teachers. Its appeal is clearly in the intuitive appeal that learners are different, which is certainly true but there appears to be little evidence to support the idea that they can be put into these simple boxes. Learning professionals certainly need to understand the considerable differences between learners but the debate seems to have fossilised around this caricature of a theory.
Fleming ND (2001) Teaching and Learning Styles: VARK Strategies. Honolulu Community College
Dunn R, Dunn K. (1978) Teaching Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles: A Practical Approach. Virginia, Reston Publishing.
Dunn, R., Dunn, K., & Price, G. E. (1984). Learning style inventory. Lawrence, KS, USA: Price Systems
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Stahl, S. A. (2002). Different strokes for different folks? In L. Abbeduto (Ed.), Taking sides: Clashing on controversial issues in educational psychology (pp. 98-107). Guilford, CT, USA: McGraw-Hill.