Are you a visual learner? An auditory one? A kinaesthetic one? What about your strongest intelligence? Are you visual-spatial? Perhaps you are musical?
I imagine there are some teachers who already know their learning style or in which of Gardner’s multiple intelligences they are strongest, but I’ve asked the questions above because I think they are prime examples of the way teachers often uncritically adopt ‘flavour of the month’ approaches to learning.
I’m conscious that this is a somewhat controversial topic, but I feel that it’s an important one to have, and I think the best way to start it off is by asking this question: do we fail to use those critical thinking skills that we work so hard to encourage amongst our students when we adopt educational ideas and pedagogies?
These ideas come thick and fast if you’re a practicing teacher. When I taught in England, we used to call it ‘initiative overload’ – the idea that before you’d even got used to one change, there’d be another one overtaking it. First it was integrated curricula, then it was multi-sensory learning, then it was learning in a 1:1 environment, then it was project-based learning and so on.
I’m not saying that these are bad ideas. Far from it: some of these have a rigorous basis in educational theory and practice. But not all of them have that evidential background and often, it seems, we as teachers, pick and choose amongst what we feel comfortable with, or what seems popular, rather than what is evidence based. Let’s take the Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic debate as an example: this is one that has been remarkably popular for a considerable period of time – yet there is little evidence from an educational psychological point of view that learning in your preferred learning style – whatever that means – is any better than learning in any other style.
In fact, what evidence we do have about it suggests that the best learning style is determined by what you have to learn – and not your preference. So, if you are learning about something, auditory might be best. But if you are learning to do something, then kinaesthetic is the way to go. Overall, as John Hattie suggests (and Hattie is nothing if not based in evidence), we should present content to students in a range of different ways and forms.
So why do teachers constantly embrace different learning styles? I think that it has more to do with how popular and intuitive something is than how effective it is educationally speaking. Everybody likes the idea of everyone being able to be ‘smart’, and so Gardner’s multiple intelligences has remained very much in demand. And because teachers continue to do this, we often find students doing the same. I’ve heard students explain away a poor grade because they only learnt the content visually, and they are much more of a kinaesthetic learner.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try new things in our classroom; instead, what I am arguing for is a level of critical thought that seems to be absent. When some educational snake-oil seller (also known as a consultant) wants to convince us that his or her theory is the next big thing and is going to revolutionise education, I call on educators to stop and say: ‘Wait a minute. What evidence is there that this actually works? And not just works, but works better than what I am currently doing?’