Do learning styles exist? Let me answer that by saying, most definitely ‘yes’. In saying that, though, I do realise that I appear to be swimming against the tide of opinion. Over the last few years, it seems, more academics have been coming out to try to dismiss the notion of ‘learning styles’. However, when I read or listen to their arguments, it more often appears that their arguments are not against ‘learning styles’ but against one particular theory of learning styles and how it can be used, or misused, in education.
In some way, I guess the study of learning styles is a bit like the study of the universe. It is clear that we do not yet understand the universe fully and we have many different theories to try to explain it. Just because we don’t like one theory, we cannot dismiss the universe. The same is true of learning styles; just because existing theories may be wrong does not mean that learning styles do not exist.
The problem seems to be that when people talk or think about ‘learning styles’, they are refering to one theory; the VAK theory which categorises learning styles according to a person’s dominant sensory mode (Visual, Auditory or Kinaesthetic). This, however, is not the only theory of learning styles nor the original. It is probably, the most well known, however, because it is simple and easy to apply. Being simple and easy, of course, does not mean it is correct.
Now let’s consider a question. As a teacher, do you believe that all and each of your pupils learn in the same way, at the same time, at the same speed and have the same ability to retain, recall and apply their learning? Okay, that’s a rhetorical question, only a few inexperienced teachers would answer ‘yes’ to that, yet, by rejecting ‘learning styles’, that is what teachers are being asked to believe.
So in some ways, rejecting the idea of ‘learning styles’ might be seen as a regressive step for it would mean that teachers need not be concerned about differentiation, about providing a range of resources or adopting a variety of teaching approaches. Teaching could be reduced to its lowest level, take no heed of differing learner needs and any learner who fails to learn or keep up could simply be considered ‘thick’, inattentive or both. I know that sounds a bit extreme but this actually reflects a viewpoint I have heard from some opponents of learning styles.
So I think we can accept that people do not all learn the same way and that rejecting ‘learning styles’ wholesale would lead to a regressive approach to education that few would desire. On the other hand, the VAK model of learning style categorizes learners into very broad categories and very easily leads to learners being ‘labelled’ according to their supposed ‘style’, V A or K. It is this ‘labelling’ of learners that I find objectionable, experience as a teacher has shown me that broad labelling of pupils is almost always wrong and often objectionable.
For me, learning styles is not about labelling, it is about understanding. It is about understanding how, maybe why, learners learn. As a teacher, by understanding how learners in my classes learn, I am better able to select or create learning resources and experiences for them. I am also able to avoid teaching approaches that are not likely to produce effective learning for the learners.
It is my belief that learning styles are far more complex than any simple model can explain and that each person has their own preferred styles. Moreover, it is likely that one’s learning style changes and develops with time and experience. As an educationalist, what I believe we need is not another theory of learning styles but a tool that records how each pupil learns best.