Learning Styles: Are They for Real?

Without sounding too much like a grandad (even though I actually am), younger therapists amongst us will have been undertaking their years of compulsory schooling in the era of the learning styles explosion. The idea of us all having one main learning style was not restricted to schools and no doubt therapists of all ages will have encountered it.

Briefly, the learning styles theory is based on the idea that we tend to be either a V (visual), an A (auditory) or a K (kinaesthetic) type of learner. It does sound plausible, has great simplicity and is a perfect candidate for confirmation bias; once encountered, it’s easy to keep finding evidence that you are indeed a V, A or K.

Once it took off, the idea of ‘VAK’ as it became known, really flew. Schools paid money for various tests, often online, that identified what kind of learner individual students were. Some schools required teachers to indicate their provision for V, A and K learners in their planning documentation. Worst of all, some schools had children walking around with badges or labels that stated ‘I’m a (insert visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) learner”!

Learning Styles


So What’s the Problem, Jon, you party pooper?

Well, there’s several problems. The first one is an issue that therapists should recognise instantly. There was next to no research to support the VAK idea, no reliable evidence at all. Like some of those magical therapy techniques we come across, it was its own prophecy and became a bandwagon that many schools and even teacher training institutions felt they must be seen to be embracing. At one point in England I think Ofsted also expected to see VAK playing a role in teaching and learning.

Problem number two, except in the case of visual impairment, we all take in around 70% of the information we receive visually, as neurobiologist John Medina, amongst others, has shown. So it turns out that to some extend most of us could be called visual learners, but we also learn in other ways too (and not just the A and the K).

The Cracks Appear

To be fair to many teachers, schools and teacher trainers, they did start to ask questions (and some were sceptical from the outset). Schools started to notice, for example, that children who came out as, say an A on the test one year were quite likely to come up as a V or a K the next year. Then people started wanting to know just where this had come from in the first place and what, exactly, was the evidence?

Next up, questions about the efficacy of labelling someone as a certain type of learner. Surely, some queried, if a learner appears to be, for example, poor as an auditory learner, then their auditory learning skills should be improved, not glossed over in favour of V or K? Yer, listening is probably a good idea, might even save your life. And how often are you given visual and auditory information to help with a kinaesthetic skill? In fact, your visual and auditory skills will likely be active while undertaking the kinaesthetic task, because they’re a part of how you monitor what you are doing. Imagine a manual therapist with poor auditory skills – how badly might that go? Here we need a Therapistlearning.com cartoonist.

So Was This a Complete Waste of Time?

I suspect you’re expecting me to say yes to that. Actually, although it did indeed waste a lot of time, I do think some useful things came from it. It did get teachers thinking about different ways of presenting things and different types of learning activity. The smartest teachers and schools tried to make the most of all three forms of information reception (and others) for all their students, without the unreliable labelling. So I daresay that some enriched teaching and learning did come out of it.

A sad fact with all this is that the idea of learning styles or (better word) preferences had been and continues to be explored more thoroughly. Take Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory. Gardner proposes the categories of spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, inter-personal, intra-personal and naturalistic. Altogether much wider and nuanced, which shows how complex learning actually is. Gardner has stated that there are probably other categories. Some researchers (such as Shearer and Karanian) have suggested that there is some neuroscientific evidence for the existence of MI. Interestingly, Gardner has been keen to disassociate his work from the VAK approach to learning styles.

So What’s Your Point, Jon?

The crucial point here, in my view, is that if somewhere along the way you were led to believe that you learn in a certain way, climb out of that box, recognise it as something that perhaps seemed viable at the time but that it should not be allowed to restrict how you think about yourself as a learner.

Now go and compose a song about dermatomes, with an instructive dance that cleverly indicates the nerve pathways, then draw your house as if it was a person, showing which rooms would be which dermatomes. Then write a conversation between you and someone who claims dermatomes don’t exist.

Keep learning,