Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Learner styles revisited: VAK-uous teaching

If you had to teach a lesson in which you were required to discover students’ blood types or star signs in order to tailor lessons according to the results, you might feel that this was both inappropriate and a waste of time. You may even argue that knowing whether your student was a Pisces or O negative couldn’t possibly help her to learn English because star signs, like blood types have no evidence of validity. However, TEFL teachers all over the world routinely and enthusiastically engage in this kind of testing. What is more, this kind of ‘vacuous nonsense’ is promoted by leading TEFL authorities, is the subject of talks at IATEFL, is considered an essential part of CELTA training and is promoted in journals and on the websites of Universities.
Despite having as little credibility as astrology, various brain-based myths exist in education. Perhaps the mostly widely believed myth is the idea that students will learn better when information is presented to them in their preferred learning styles. This myth was believed by 93% of teachers surveyed in one study (Dekker et al 2012), which is a remarkable number when it's noted that the idea of learning styles has never been shown to be valid.
What happened to OG? 
A further problem with the popular VAK model is the choice of senses it opts for. VAK, sometimes known as VAKOG stands for visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory. These would seem to map onto the ‘traditional senses’ humans are supposed to have, but this is not as clear as it first seems. Firstly, there is the question of why the numerous other human senses, such as the sense of balance, pain, time and temperature, are missing. If we are happy to stick with the ‘traditional senses’ then it seems odd that ‘touch’ is substituted by the ‘kinaesthetic’, sense which is the sense of motion. Further, why, in discussions of learner styles are the final OG so often absent? It is perhaps unkind to suggest that the whole concept starts to unravel when we imagine catering for students whose ‘dominant modality’ is ‘smell’ or ‘taste’.  This idea has been lampooned by satirical newspaper ‘the onion’ with an article entitled ‘parents of nasal learners, demand odour-based curriculum’.  The ludicrousness of this should be enough to stop VAK on its own but no, it trundles on seemingly oblivious to its own internal contradictions.
One dominant style?
Just how a teacher can separate out a student who learns visually and one who learns kinaesthetically is very unclear to me. Websites suggest that kinaesthetic students like to move things around and touch them, but they are still going to have to use their eyes in order to do this.  Another classic is to advise them to take notes (note: that  is a University web site). The only problem is that anyone taking notes must also be listening and looking at what they're writing, so how is this kinaesthetic?

Why the VAK love  
Coffield et al identified 80 different paradigms, and only one of these was VAK(OG).   

· convergers versus divergers
· verbalisers versus imagers
· holists versus serialists
· deep versus surface learning
· activists versus reflectors
· pragmatists versus theorists
· adaptors versus innovators
· assimilators versus explorers
· field dependent versus field independent
· globalists versus analysts
· assimilators versus accommodators
· imaginative versus analytic learners  
Now are all these valid or only some? If they're all valid then don't we have an ethical duty to find out our students 'total' learning styles and test for all 80? If some are more valid, then which ones and who chose and how did they know? There is a clear problem here. Simply put, they can't all be correct. These criticisms beg the question why are learning styles, particularly the VAK model, so popular?

Personalisation: the Forer effect
Whenever I get taking to another teacher about learning styles, which happens probably a bit too often for their liking, I invariably have a conversation that goes something like this. 
Me: ...and that's why learning styles isn't a particularly useful concept
Teacher: hmmm yeah I see (pause)...I'm a really visual person, me.
This is all too reminiscent of commenting to a friend, with incredulity on the popularity of horoscopes only to have them nod and say 'well a Sagittarius would say that.' Horoscopes might actually give us some insight into the popularity of learning styles. How true would you say the following is about you?
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
Betram Forer's students were told that this was an evaluation of their personalities but actually they all got exactly the same results. Despite this his students on average rated the feedback as being very accurate (4.26 out of 5). In short, in the same way some people can see the face of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, (how does anyone know what she looked like anyway?) many people can see something relating to themselves in something which could be true of just about anyone. Compare this with a learning styles questionnaire:
1.    When I operate new equipment I generally:
a) read the instructions first
b) listen to an explanation from someone who has used it before
c) go ahead and have a go, I can figure it out as I use it
2. When I need directions for travelling I usually:
a) look at a map
b) ask for spoken directions
c) follow my nose and maybe use a compass
3. When I cook a new dish, I like to:
a) follow a written recipe
b) call a friend for an explanation
c) follow my instincts, testing as I cook
4. If I am teaching someone something new, I tend to:
a) write instructions down for them
b) give them a verbal explanation
c) demonstrate first and then let them have a go
5. I tend to say:
a) watch how I do it
b) listen to me explain
c) you have a go

Learning styles questionnaires are quite similar to horoscopes (and personality tests) because they seem to have been specifically designed for you. We are so fascinated with ourselves that things like this can bypass our critical facilities and head straight to our emotions. "I can't read maps! I always just follow my nose! OMG! this is totally me! I'm totally kinaesthetic!" the idea of finding out “what kind of person one is” has some eternal and deep appeal’ (Pashler et al 2008:117)
You may also have noticed something missing from this list? It is reminiscent of the famous loaded question "when was the last time you beat your wife?" The questions presuppose you actually have a learning style. There are stubborn folk who won't play along and chose (above) something like A, B, C, C, B which seems to render the whole thing redundant, but don't fear, they are labelled multimodal! I love the quote on that site "Multimodal learners can take in information by using more than one method", -ah! You mean, like all normal human beings! I see.
The problem is basically that if you believe in, and accept something, no stubborn facts are going to change your mind. If your back was cured after you went to a chiropractor or had acupuncture, then neither explanations of the placebo effect, or the mass of tests that have shown these two things to be ineffective is going to change your mind. Even something as ridiculous as horoscopes where it is clearly and demonstrably unfeasible still has millions of believers and may even affect people's lives in serious ways. Astrology is in most newspapers daily and it's 'experts' are rich and famous. Astronomers on the other hand have Brian Cox and Neil deGrasse Tyson. True-believers will just dismiss all of this with a wave of the hand, and the common refrain, 'Well I think it's useful.'
Back to Front 
Trying to publish an article on learning styles is easy, -trying to publish one saying they are not real is much harder. I dunno, call me old fashioned but when you're suggesting that something exists, isn't it up to you to provide the evidence? If tell you I saw ghosts or aliens, you're going to want to see some convincing evidence. In the world of publishing however, unlikely interesting sounding ideas (like precognition) will get you published ten times faster than something pointing out that that probably isn't true.
This is evidenced by the huge number of articles on learning styles out there. Here is a tiny sample of some of the articles I found relating to EFL and learning styles:

  • · The learning style preferences of ESL students
  • · Learning Styles in the ESL/EFL Classroom
  • · Match or mismatch? Learning styles and teaching styles in EFL
  • · The Relationship between Gender and Learning Styles in Internet-Based Teaching-A Study From Kuwait
  • · A crosscultural study of Taiwanese and Kuwaiti EFL students' learning styles and multiple intelligences
  • · The learning styles of Japanese students
  • · Learning styles of American Indian/Alaska Native students: A review of the literature and implications for practice
  • · Bridging the cultural gap: A study of Chinese students' learning style preferences
  • · Assessment of language learning strategies used by Palestinian EFL learners

Not only is it widely accepted, it also seems to be under some kind of magically protection. People write articles, like one recently in ELTJ, listing everything that is wrong with the idea, and then note "but we should continue to use them as they are a useful concept." (Hatami 2012) Harmer, among others say pretty much the same thing. Call me old fashioned but if we have no evidence something exist, despite decades of testing, we might want to think carefully about what that tells us. If we are to accept their conclusion then Horoscopes and blood types should surely also be part of our teaching arsenal as, ‘it is clear that they […] address self-evident truths’ (Harmer 2007:93) and ‘facilitate appreciation for the divergent approaches to thinking and learning’ (Hatami 2012:2) Whatever that means.


  1. I agree with you, and remember reading other similar discussions and relevant evidence.
    I reckon, the thing is, at first glance, the whole "Learning styles" theory would seem to be relevant. That's what gives it traction. When I first encountered it, I was a believer, until I started to look more closely, and use it in my professional life. I found that everyone is a bit of everything, more or less - including smelling and tasting.

    1. Hi Ricky,

      Thanks for commenting. You're right that learning styles is a very believable and attractive theory. It personalises learning (it's about me!) and it also allows you to avoid responsibility for learning at times, I've heard a lot of folks say "I thought I was a bad student but it turns out I'm a auditory learner and my teacher wasn't catering to my needs". You're right that everyone is a bit of everything. It doesn't make sense otherwise, if you think about it, evolution-wise. Why would one group of humans evolve to only be able to absord information/ to absorb information better, through one of the many sensory channels? What possible advantage could that provide?

  2. Great article! I think there is a second assumption believers make. Were such styles to exist, what evidence exists to show that catering to them will improve learning outcomes?
    ELT is riddled with non evidence based approaches though, both historically and currently. Drilling for pronunciation, gap fill tasks for grammar are two examples of taken-for-granted practice in most classrooms today. Anyone ever seen any evidence students learn better because of them?

    1. Hey Iron DoS, thanks for your comment.
      I think you're right and if you look at my first VAK article on this site I think I mention it. Pashler et al lists the research done to date on that very topic and I believe he notes that when students are taught in their 'preferred' style, there is no increase in learning.
      I agree that almost all practices lack an evidential base, -but what evidence is there for drilling? Good question. I'm going to be blogging on this topic soon.

    2. You should also consult Sharp (2008) who introduced the term VAK-uous in this context.

    3. Yes I discovered Sharp after I had written this. I'd like to say 'great minds...' but as he got there first...