Working as a musician and vocal coach, I use my aural sense a lot. Before I trained professionally, I learned many songs by ear and wasn’t too keen on using sheet music – despite being able to read music from an early age. If I am totally honest, I still prefer to work this way today if I am given a choice. A classic case of being an “auditory learner”?
If I tell you now that I used to learn best at school by writing things down, even making my own little drawings to remember stuff – does that not make me a “visual learner” (some also call this “reading/writing” as a sub-preference)? What about my preference for auditory learning in music though?
I used to think that Fleming’s learning styles (VARK or VAK) exist, even incorporated them into my teaching (you can find a short summary here if you need a refresher). Meanwhile, after years of experience as a coach, I am not so sure anymore. Undoubtedly, some people prefer using their auditory sense, others their visual, the next their kinesthetic one. However, does it really mean that catering to this preference also makes them learn better?
There is a lot of discussion going on about “learning styles/types”, and how especially the ones mainly connected to one of our senses are nothing but a myth. I have to admit that the older I get, and the more I look into it, the less I actually believe them to hold much water when it really comes to learning success. The one thing I find paramount in considering what “preferred sense” we actually use when learning is:
WHAT are we trying to learn?
It might intuitively make sense for a few of us to e.g. act out the lyrics of a song to memorise them better – would we do the same with a maths equation though? Is using our senses not somewhat of a continuum, depending on context, instead of a set-in-stone preference?
For me, the subject resurfaced again because I currently do some course work about Honey and Mumford’s learning types. And whilst no theory is perfect and can, in the worst case, lead to pigeon-holing, this one resonates with me more deeply than VARK/VAK. Straightaway: I am not a great believer in “fixed personality traits” either, because most of us are certainly able to adapt to social situations (at least to a certain extent), or even change during their lifetime. I believe however that personality has more influence on the way we learn than a preference for one of our senses.
Honey and Mumford distinguish between 4 main learning types. I won’t explain them in great depth here, but you can find ample information on the net if you are interested. One very accessible, summary-type explanation can be found here:
The idea behind this model is to give the coach or teacher reasons why certain approaches might not work, and how we can make the learning experience better for the student (and to self-reflect of course). They are also supposed to encourage us to think about why people get bored, why they shut down, why they “don’t get the message”, why they might even get withdrawn or hostile.
This is by no means a scientific discussion of cognition and learning – it is just chewing over things that occupy my mind at the moment. Which might give you an idea which group I am closest to 😉
What do you think about the theory of learning styles? What is their purpose, if any? Please comment!
© Petra Raspel 2012