Learning Styles

The vast majority of learning styles used in English Language Teaching were originally developed in other areas, such as psychology. In fact, ELT has a history of adapting research from other fields of study: the audio-lingual method was developed out of the behaviourist school of thought. learning-styles-sm

Learning styles have been thoroughly investigated in so far as there have been multiple studies carried out by a range of specialists in the field. However, as there is no infallible evidence of their existence, some feel research into learning styles has not gone far enough.

Learning styles have been categorised according to a variety of systems. Below are some of these systems with links to more information about them:

Now and Then

The starting point for all of these systems of categorisation is the Experiential Learning Cycle. This was originally posited by Lewin many decades ago. However, since then it has been further developed and it was popularised in the 1980’s by David Kolb. Others have also worked on the model, out of which the other learning style systems were eventually developed. You can read more about this model here:

http://www.businessballs.com/kolblearningstyles.htm

There are arguments against the theory of Learning Styles, some of them can even be quite compelling. David Petrie discusses these in this article:

http://teflgeek.net/?s=learning+styles&submit=Search

However, it seems the most compelling argument for learning styles lies in their predictability. If you ask English Language Teachers from western countries to take a VAK Analysis test, it is inevitable that 99% of them will have Visual as their strongest learning style. However, if you do the same test with an English Language Teacher from a former Soviet country, such as Russia, their strongest learning style will undoubtedly be Auditory.

This would suggest that learning styles are socially conditioned; in others words, they are nurture and not nature. However, upon closer inspection, what we find is that a country’s education system operate as a filtering system. In the west, where education is traditionally based on teacher-led presentations using a whiteboard or a slide show with infographics and learners taking notes using different coloured pens and highlighters, it is visual learners who are in a position to be most successful. This is particularly well exemplified when examinations are taken into consideration: long laborious written papers sitting at a desk for hours upon end. However, in former Soviet countries, successful candidates are most likely to be auditory learners because teachers lecture with no slides shows, no presentations, no notes are taken and learners are examined orally in front of a panel of examiners.

If you have taken a VAK test and you turned out to be a visual learner and you are from a western country, what does that say about your educational success to date? Probably that you have been fortune enough to be in an education system which encourages your learning style and you have had it a little bit easier than, say, kinaesthetic learners.

Learning Styles and ELT

What have learning styles got to do with the ELT classroom? Mainstream schools are biased towards a particular style, surely this should continue in ELT classrooms, right? The answer is simple: no!

People pay good money to be educated by ELT professionals. At state school they have no choice as to who their teacher is and possibly even which school they go to. In our schools they do have a choice: as quickly as they join the school, they can just as quickly leave if they feel they aren’t learning anything or if they aren’t comfortable with the lessons.

Our job is to educate everyone, no matter what background they come from. If you work in a school where parents send their successful children for ‘more English with a native speaker’, chances are you also work in a school where parents send their kids for ‘more English lesson because they’re struggling at school.’ In other words, in a single class you might have a mix of learners who have the learning style encouraged by the state and learners who do not.

This means you need to do three things:

    1. Determine which learning style each of your learners has
      This is always worth doing because it could turn out that they all have the same learning style which will make point 2 very easy

    2. Design a variety of classroom activities to suit those learning styles
      If you are working in Poland and you have a mixture of auditory and kinaesthetic learners, then have some traditional dictation activities as well as running dictations

    3. Develop the learners’ understanding of learning styles
      This could take the form of helping them to understand how they learn. It could also be you encouraging them to experiment with activities which are not typical of their learning style

To Sum Up

How people learn best is a fascinating topic and one which is still very much being researched and experimented with. If you are lost for classroom ideas which cater to the learners’ learning styles, you could refer to Spotlight on Learning Styles by Marjorie Rosenberg:

http://www.deltapublishing.co.uk/titles/methodology/spotlight-on-learning-styles

*Image courtesy of Online Learning Tips: http://onlinelearningtips.com/2010/05/05/maximizing-your-learning-style-in-school-and-in-life/

20 thoughts on “Learning Styles

  1. Have you read this? http://sxills.nl/lerenlerennu/bronnen/Learning%20styles%20by%20Coffield%20e.a..pdf
    I think it’s fair to say we all have different learning preferences but can we really say we fall into one particular category? For example, I tend to remember people’s names after I’ve seen them (am I, therefore, a visual learner?) but I think I’m a pretty good mimic (so do I fall into the auditory category?). When I first worked in further education, we had to give our ESOL learners VAK questionnaires. We then had to collate their responses and then….? Conclusion: do a variety of activities as we all learn in different ways. I started making up the results because the exercise felt like such a waste of time.

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    1. I’m no expert to answer I’m afraid. From the input session I had on my course, which was the basis of this post, apparently we’re all a mix of learning styles but one should come out a bit stronger than the others. I did a little test and I was visual. It made sense to me because all the questions it asked were about using colours and the like for learning 🙂

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      1. What I learned early on in my work on learning styles is that we, of course, have strengths in all the styles. However, stress situations can cause us to ‘shut down’ access to other styles and we then rely on our strongest ones. As someone who has visual preferences, for example, I can listen to the radio in the car except when I have to parallel park or find an address. My partner, who is much more auditory, listens to the radio all the time, even when doing complicated engineering tasks. I also needed my reading glasses to listen to the messages on our answering machine which my partner never understood. In the 25 years or so I have been working in this field, the observations have led me to believe that these differences are there and it is up to us how we deal with them in the classroom. Learners I have given individual tips to over the years are grateful and find that these tips have helped them to progress and eased some of the frustration they were feeling. For me personally, this is all the evidence I need – if something helps learners then why not do it?

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  2. Hi Anthony, you might be interested in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIv9rz2NTUk

    After Russ Mayne’s (EBEFL) talk at IATEFL earlier this year, I really reconsidered my stance on learning styles. To be honest, I don’t know/haven’t bothered to read that much about them to have an authoritative say. But with that being said, when it comes to Delta, it appears that Cambridge does see them as valid, especially in the module 1 exam. I didn’t like it, but I did use ‘learning styles’ in some of my exam answers, just because I knew that is what the examiners would be looking for.

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  3. Your blog starts seemingly from the assumption that learning styles are a real thing. Have you seen any evidence to back this up?

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    1. Hello! Thank you for this comment.

      I’m afraid I’m very much at the start of my learning about learning styles. I’m currently doing a DELTA course and this post is basically a collection of thoughts and notes from the input session.

      I have read a couple of posts which argue against learning styles – they all either seem to say “well there isn’t any infallible evidence that they exist, therefore they don’t” or “I don’t see any evidence of them in class, so they mustn’t exist.”

      Maybe you could point me in the direction of something more concrete? For the DELTA exam I know what I have write about LS, for myself I can develop my own opinion – possibly even against. 🙂

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      1. Having worked with learning styles for years, I am very accustomed to hearing from that ‘there is no evidence to show that they exist’. I personally believe that each of us can decide or not if people learn in different ways. I know that I had enormous problems with the audio-lingual method of language learning as we were not allowed to see the words for the first six weeks and other classmates did fine. In observation of both classroom learning and teacher training sessions for the last 25 years or so, I have often noticed differences in the way people approach tasks when they can decide for themselves how they would like to do something. In the research project I am carrying out, students were asked which activities helped them learn and several chose the same activity but gave completely different reasons why they felt it was helpful (eg. we looked at pictures, it got me talking, it was cooperative and I like to work with others). As I find knowing that learners have different needs and learning strategies is helpful for me, I will continue in this way to provide a mix of methods and look for specific activities to help my learners when possible, however, I think everyone should do what they feel most helps their learners.

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    2. So, since reading your comment I’ve been doing some reading and watching some videos and I must say all of the counter arguments are very convincing and above they seem very logical and reasonable. I think it’s very sound when I heard/read that even though the evidence against learning styles is overwhelming we still use them because they are popularly accepted. Maybe one day learning styles will go out of fashion 🙂

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  4. Hi Anthony! I hope the course is going well so far. I know Cambridge like them, but I’ve got to admit I don’t buy into learning styles, multiple intelligences, etc. I had a look at the quick VAK test and it seems bizarre to me. I couldn’t even complete it (it had low face validity! ). Surely there’s a time when saying “I know how you feel” is more appropriate than “I see what you mean” (which means basically the same as “I hear what you’re saying” but could have a slightly different register – it sounds a bit more informal) and vice versa. We know how to use these phrases based on our social awareness and we aren’t limited to using any one. Does anyone buy clothes based on what the shop assistant says rather than what we can see with our eyes? We all know that it’s best to try it on before we buy it. Or if we don’t we soon learn! Is it all just down to what were used to doing in certain situations? I’m not saying we’re all the same, but these theories don’t seem to explain why (to this DELTA student, anyway).

    So although I know we have to analyse and comment on our students’ learning styles for the DELTA, I shall be doing it through gritted teeth. I’m Thinking about it, I guess the outcomes might be the same anyway, as it’s always good to have a variety of types of activities in the class just to keep students focused.

    Anyway, you didn’t ask for it, but there’s my tuppence-worth! Thanks for the thought provoking post!

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    1. Thank you for this wonderful comment!

      The post was very much written as a set of notes after an input session on my delta course.

      I didn’t quite get the connection between the social situations you highlight and learning styles but after a bit of thinking I think what you’re saying is how we behave isn’t determined by some pre-set parameters but rather by our knowledge and experience of the world. Is that right?

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  5. Anthony, I am in the midst of a research project on learning styles with university students here in Austria. Although 75% of my students are Austrian, the other 25% represent countries around the world. At first glance we did not find that styles were culturally influenced. However, the project is still going on and this is something I plan to take more into account in the next two years. We also hope to involved the lecturers who also come from a wide range of countries. I plan to keep everyone informed on this.

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