Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Fleming VAKuous learning styles?


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, 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 organistations and educational authorities willingly support and publicise the theory and ‘personalised’ learning for many, means adopting ‘learning styles’.
Criticism
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.
Conclusion
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.
Bibliography
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.

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8 Comments:

Blogger thornypebble said...

Another theory I was taught heavily at Uni. And used my understanding proudly in many job interviews...
Always lingering was the question that; if you continually cater for a student’s preferred learning styles are you perpetuating the limited diversity of their skills.

1:29 AM  
Blogger Pinkie said...

I did feel that VAK is somewhat made up: if each sense has its own learning style, where's taste? Smell? And who doesn't learn by doing? I did some research for a paper on this 20 years ago, and found no evidence whatsoever for its efficacy. But of course that was before NLP got trendy ...

4:13 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Here Donald, unlike your post on Bandler, I agree with your conclusions on Flemings work.

In fact RB has often talked about this issue and says the same thing - teaching to someones preferred system (if there is such a thing) is the wrong thing to do. So I'm not sure where this Fleming got his 'NLP' from. Unfortunatelly this is a common problem with NLP - people take it and then go off in some odd direction and start making stuff up.

One thing I would say though, is that certain skills are better taught using certain senses. For instance complex chemistry is easier to learn if you visualize the elements. So a good teacher should suggest this as a helpful.

I remember several years ago helping a friends child prepare for a spelling test. One of the interesting thing was that I could tell (and your NLP testing scientists will not believe me) between giving her the word to spell and her responding with the spelling whether she would get the spelling correct or not. If she looked up (classic V accessing from NLP) she would spell the word correctly. If she didn't have a representation for the word she would try and sound it out in her head (Ad in NLP terms). Once I told her to remember the words she was struggling with by making a picture in her head, her results improved hugely.

Unfortunately children are still taught to sound out words. Not sure how many words this works for, but the number of exeptions is huge.

10:46 PM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

VAK and VARK are the result of a Bandler and Grinder 1979 paper that had the following schema (and diagram):
Vc = constructed visual image (ie. imagining something in pictures)
Vr = recalling visual image (ie. remembering something in pictures)
Ac = constructed auditory signal (ie. imagining something in sounds)
Ar = recalling auditory signal (ie. remembering something in sounds)
K = kinesthetic processing
Olifactory and gustatory were also included but even learning stylists won't go near those ones.
Bandler and Grinder stated that we have preferred "representational systems" that we use when communicating with others. They are responsible and tend to simply backtrack when put on the spot.

11:25 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Sorry Donald, but you're just plain wrong with your blame game.

Bandler and Grinder may have come up with the VAK model, but Bandler has said for years that training to someones preferred system is a good way to disable them mentally for life. Its on at least a couple of his tape products going back several years.

If I had the time to go through the recordings I could prove it too but that would be a waste of my time because you'd choose to be blind to it anyway.

When you state that bandler and Grinder simply backtrack when put on the spot would you like to give me a reference? Have you ever met either of them? Or was it just something you write because it backed up your somewhat partisan view?

Actually I don't know why I bother, so far you've cherry picked which elements in my posts to respond to ignored all the 'hard' questions. How very scientific of you.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Chris: First they didn't come up with the VAK model, they had the VAKOG model. Others simplified it to VAK and VARK in the learning sphere, as taste and smell seemed irrelevant. The backtracking is on two fronts. 1) their representational system, quietly dropped when it was completely debunked 2) the claims that NLP is scientific. As soon as the flood of evidence emerged (that the theories were wrong) the 'science' was dropped and phrases like 'only modeling' or 'bunch of techniques' was used. The fact is they DO use VAK techniques - that's what the £1500 for three day course is all about. What you say, where you look and what you do is the basis of the parlour games they play and peddle. I gave a reference (1979) - that's where the VAK theory, complete with diagram was presented. As for your point that I've never met them - get real. What sort of argument is that? You've never met me and I've never met you but it doesn't stop us from making our points. I don't see that as relevant. In any vcase why would I want to meet someone who has, in all likelihood, blown a young girl's brains out?

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

I wasn't disputing who created the VAK(OG) model - you need to actually READ my post. The point was about teaching using the preferred modality - my point being that Bandler agreed with the original point of your article that teaching people specifically in their preferred system is wrong. That was all.

My question about meeting them was not suggesting that you couldn't have a view without meeting them, just that I was trying to find out where the 'backtracking' had supposedly occurred.

I see you still feel that you couldn't learn anything from someone who has not found guilty of murder. Bizarre. You obviously have a good knowledge of the relevant scientific papers etc. but then you ruin it. Don't you see how this kind of crass statement dulls your credibility? It's as if you write an article for a scientific journal and then at the last minute ask someone from the News of the World to finish it.

To be honest I would probably not have responded to your original article on Bandler in the first place but for your Tabloid approach. The internet is full of such articles where someone has found out about the bandler/drugs/murder story and somehow decided that it completely discredits his work - it's an irrelevance. I think your writing would carry far more weight if you stuck to the science.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Wonderfulthang said...

I'm not convinced that a questionnaire of only 16 multiple-choice questions is adequate enough to determine how anybody learns. Compartmentalising individuals is almost like diagnosing them with a disability: You-only-have-one-learning-style-itis!

However, I feel that the idea of incorporating VARK activities/resources into lessons is not such as bad thing. If anything it: dispels the monotony of the same-old-same-old without spontaneity; varies the experience of lessons; and asks teachers to be critical and creative in their choices of activities/resources.

It should not be used as a means to differentiate the supposed learning styles of each student. It should be used to vary the teacher's teaching style if anything!

I don't think having a painting on a PowerPoint slide to glance at with a classical piece of music from its time period in the background whilst reading a text about its contextual footprint just before a practical painting activity would do anybody any harm.

Giving students an excuse to accept that they cannot build on their learning skills from three out of four experiential activities/resources is ludicrous and negligent. How we learn is more complex than that.

Therefore, VARK should not be thought of as a diagnostic assessment and more as an aspect that teacher should consider in lesson planning.

7:15 PM  

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