Regularly on Twitter, VAK is a topic for blog posts and some discussion. I know I am stepping into murky waters, but there might just be a VAKant space for one more.
Excuse me if anyone finds this post VAKuous, but it strikes me that certain pedagogical terms cause fear and anxiety among teachers. Maybe it’s a case of personal perception or predisposition. Colleagues somehow just don’t see things the same way. OK, life would be boring if we all thought the same, but why should there be such apparent hostility to certain approaches, especially when a key question teachers ask is how to get across a particular idea? Maybe we need to take a good VAKation just to have time to reflect? Sadly, there is no VAKcine for this kind of concern.
What’s VAK? Interpreted as standing for visual, aural and kinaesthetic approaches to learning, the terms derived from work on multiple intelligences by Howard Gardner in the 1980s and 90s. He added other predispositions, musical, logical-mathematical, intra- and interpersonal, spiritual, moral, naturalist, seeking to describe the varied ways in which learners interact with experiences.
An example might be a person entering a place of worship and sensing some kind of “specialness”, which might be Gardner’s spiritual definition, but the concrete experience (feeling) might lead to reflection and abstraction.
Other work on learning styles was undertaken by Kolb, which has been interpreted in the diagram below, where he seeks to articulate the mental processing of learning, whereas Gardner would appear to focus more on how learners take on information.
Embedding Learning Technologies discussion document.
Another view of learning styles is given by Grasha (1996), who describes six types of learning style that he and Sheryl Riechman used as the basis for their Student Learning Styles Scales and which may have more resonance and application for some. This table is extracted from the UMIST document above.
Competitive students learn material in order to perform better than others.
They like to receive recognition for their accomplishments and prefer both
teacher-centred instruction and also group tasks where they can lead or
demonstrate their pre-eminence.
Collaborative students feel that they can learn by sharing ideas and talents.
They like to co-operate with the teacher and to work with others. This leads
to a preference for group work, projects, seminars and lectures that feature
small group discussion
Avoidant students are uninterested in classroom learning and participate
reluctantly. They prefer large group situations where they can remain
anonymous and do not like enthusiastic teachers.
Participant students are good citizens and enjoy participating in as much as
they can. Typically, they are eager to take all the options that they can and to
fully meet all the requirements. They prefer participative exercises,
including lectures that allow student participation, informal discussions and
Dependent students show little intellectual curiosity and learn only what is
required. They look for structure and specifics and prefer teacher-centred
classroom situations, good handouts or notes to copy and clear deadlines and
instructions for assignments.
Independent students like to think for themselves and are confident in their
learning abilities. They often like to work alone and prefer student-centred
methods, self-paced instruction and assignments that give students a chance
to think independently.
So you have examples of three articulated views of learning styles and yet more exist. One of the three is seemingly based on the receiving of information, one on the mental processes and one on the personal disposition towards learning. They are helpful to have in mind when thinking about learning, but there is no way that a teacher could accommodate to the multiple permutations afforded.
However, there is room within the whole to consider the style of challenge in seeking to engage individuals who may be showing signs of discomfort if presented with an approach which provides challenge beyond their comfort zone.
There is a principle of experiential learning which I have sought to capture in another post, Making sense of experience, Experience, Explore and Explain, or something to handle, look at, talk about, find out about and share.
Go into any Early Years environment and you cannot fail to notice the physicality of the resources, providing visual and kinaesthetic experience, which could be interpreted as evidence of Gardner’s three main learning styles, as well as the others, being challenged. Children will be actively looking at, handling and exploring different artefacts or other visual stimuli, listening to the teacher, other adults or each other, working in different groupings or alone, speaking their thoughts aloud, as they refine their thinking based on responses. It is a significant part of the way that we learn, but it is not necessarily useful to describe a child as being a particular type of learner and adapt to that.
Information comes to us through a wide range of media. Everyone needs the skills to extract and use the information, however it comes.
In Key Stage one, children will still spend a proportion of their time working with concrete apparatus, such as counting supports, base ten materials, play farm or house, dressing up role-play, puppets, craft materials. Images will be evident, as prompts for talk. Practical, hands-on activity-based learning is still the norm.
Key stage two may see fewer examples as described above, but, if Piaget was correct, a relatively sizeable proportion of the learners still need to work problems out with concrete materials. In many cases the concrete materials are replaced with modelling of, or drawing ideas, manipulation of ideas on a page or screen. The outcome of all the approaches is the creation of mental imagery which can support more abstract thinking.
While the majority of Key Stage three learners, on the whole, are hopefully moving further away from the concrete phase of thinking, the novelty of many subject based learning contexts will require teachers to offer visual imagery, artefacts, museum and art gallery visits, trips to theatres, places of worship, local and distant places of interest.
And so on. The difficulty may be implicit in the age group being taught, but, as adults we find pleasure in our senses as learning tools, whether in formal or informal learning situations. We still look, listen, touch, smell and taste and can get very excited, agitated or reflective as a result. The smell of coal dust always takes me back to holidays with Welsh mining relations.
Student teachers engage with a wide range of presentational styles, which could be called VAK approaches. Students of architecture “play” with Lego or other structural materials. The new piece of technology creates an alternative play opportunity.
Where some of Gardner’s descriptors are more subject-based, there probably is less room for dispute among professionals about different learning preference if consideration is given to statements such as “He’s better at English than science”, “She’s better at design than French”, “That group tries hard in…” suggesting an implicit recognition that some learners find some subjects more to their liking than others. We’re quite good as a profession at making judgements about how good a learner is in any particular field and what they can recall, relative to others, but are we always as good at describing the specifics of what they are good at, which is at the heart of learning capabilities?
The dispute often seems to focus on Gardner’s more general, visual, aural and kinaesthetic statements, with the implication that some children prefer to see, hear or manipulate information in order to learn and that there is a prescription for teachers to offer experiences within learning to satisfy the individual learning style needs.
Perhaps some of the problem is a perceived challenge to the teacher’s preferred teaching style, which can be dictated by personality, the nature of the curriculum, the time available and pressures from “management” to achieve.
Grasha (1996) describes five teaching styles:
Expert Possesses knowledge and expertise in the subject; concerned with transmitting information; strives to demonstrate expertise to students and thus maintain own status.
Formal Authority Possesses status because of role as a teacher; concerned with the correct, acceptable and standard ways of doing things and with providing feedback, both negative and positive; likely to establish learning goals, expectations and rules of conduct.
Personal Model Believes in teaching by personal example; oversees, guides and directs by showing how to do things and encouraging students to observe and emulate.
Facilitator Guides, supports and encourages students to develop themselves; encourages asking questions and exploring options; develops initiative and responsibility; works with students on projects in a consultative fashion
Delegator Perceives role as a resource to be called upon by students; expects students to work autonomously and independently.
Teachers have always argued about the “best way” to teach, with the almost inevitable polarisation of views. Some of this will be down to their personality, some to their own learning experience and some to the context of their school, or just their subject. In many ways this becomes a superfluous argument, as, in my experience, the majority of teachers mix and match their approaches, from one end of the spectrum through to the other. It is a case of “horses for courses” and the mixed economy of approaches which is likely to enthuse learners, if for no other reason than children and many teachers like a little novelty, to make their lives interesting.
The best way to teach, in my opinion, is the best way that the children in the class learn. That needs to be known by the teacher, or the teaching can miss the mark.