Do “learning styles” or “learning types” exist?

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:

Honey and Mumford Learning Styles

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

12 Comments

  1. As a school teacher I was taught about these and how a third of the class would take one of the three main types. Therefore we aimed to teach a third of our time for each type. Rather difficult for kinesthetic I found (I was a science teacher then, not music)

    Personally I think I have a bit of all of them. Perhaps we all do. Or perhaps not. I’ve done no research!!

    The most important thing to take away from this is that there are many ways to learn one thing, and as a teacher (class or one to one) we should try and think of different ways to teach something. Especially if it’s not “sinking in”. Then the repetition of the content, in all the different styles, won’t be boring and will most likely be retained. And if there is something in the “learning styles” theory then we’ve covered that too!

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    1. Do you have any idea if this is still some sort of common approach in the classroom (or teacher training) today, Helen? There is so much research out there suggesting that VAK is not the way forward that I feel it would need to be updated. The brain simply doesn’t seem to work that way. Good that most people are open-minded enough to know that many roads lead to Rome. Of course you get the other ones, too 😉

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      1. Well when I trained in the 1990s it was never mentioned. But at the final school I taught (12 years ago now!) at my head of department was evangelical about it. All new starters had to go to extra professional development sessions every week to learn about it, among other new methods for active learning. It may not have ever made it out into other schools and it might have stopped even at that school.

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  2. I like what I’m reading Petra! I too had to learn about “learning styles”, but have always been suspicious. Sure, people may have a preference, but also people develop habits and avoid things which they find difficult or they’re not used to. Like learning by ear rather than using sheet music. I think that’s often more that people have honed one particular (visual) skill but then habitually stick to it as a security blanket. Once exposed to another (aural) method, they can become equally adept at that.

    I am a great believer in presenting material to be learnt in as many different ways as possible. The more senses we use, the more likely the stuff will become properly embedded.

    Chris
    From the Front of the Choir: http://blog.chrisrowbury.com

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    1. You’re describing exactly the reasons (especially comfort-zones and habits) why I find VAK very one-dimensional, Chris. We just have to use common sense and look at each person individually. It can be very limiting to go by any sort of fixed approach – people never cease to surprise me, and there are always new challenges ahead which make me feel that I need to come up with yet another new approach. You never stop learning – especially not as a teacher!

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      1. Also people hide behind their perceived learning style. I have loads of people who say “I can’t possibly learn by ear, I need to see the sheet music. I’m a visual learner.” whereas what they really need to do is practice listening more and develop a new skill!

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  3. I learned about this at some point and to this day I have no use for it. I never work with learning types, or even with voices. Just people. And they’re all different and underneath a layer or two (or three, or four, in some cases) we’re all the same. Realising that was incredibly liberating!

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    1. Ellen, you notice that this sounds very Honey and Mumford, don’t you? 😉 Just joking, I am the same. I think that we just need to tune into the personality that presents itself in front of us (which is why I find Honey and Mumford makes more sense than Fleming, but even so, I wouldn’t want to use it as a “fixed model”). If I e.g. don’t want to make someone who is a bit shy feel uncomfortable, I need to adjust my teaching and gently coax them into the right direction instead of using the sledgehammer. Simple.
      I guess people just like to put other people into boxes because it makes THEM feel safe, and using some sort of “model” always sounds so scientific as well, doesn’t it? 😉

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  4. Is much notice taken of TEACHING styles? We all know that good teachers use a variety and range of different approaches to teaching and learning. But some teachers stick to one particular approach: maybe visual, maybe aural, whatever.

    The downside is that some of their students might think they are not good at learning whereas it’s the TEACHING style that doesn’t resonate for them.

    The other option for a learner is: if your teacher’s style doesn’t work for you, find a different teacher!

    Chris

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  5. Hi Petra! Great article to make us think…!

    I like your question: “However, does it really mean that catering to this preference also makes them learn better?”

    And more simply, can we just learn without those different types of learning? Is someone had to be in one, two, three or four of those types?

    I must admit I have discovered VARK really, nearly 2 years ago.
    And find it helpful, but when you teach, sometimes I feel like this is a bit complicated to formulate an exercice for a visual learner, and so on.
    I feel this is something hard to ask to my brain sometimes.
    Surely, it’s because It’s still “new” to me, but I’m wondering also if it’s not just because it’s hard to think like that.?

    So even if I find it hard, I find it helpful, I find that it motivates the singer that you’re working with.
    It helps to stay awake, to have “movement” in a lesson.

    As we point it before, I agree with the fact that if a person is good at aural learning, why not trying to develop his visual learning style and others.
    I think also we can develop it.

    Then I don’t know “Honey and Mumford Learning Styles”, but it seems to be interesting too… I have to look at it!

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  6. Thanks for an interesting article Petra – and for linking to my post on learning styles. I would agree with Helen who has commented above – I think that teaching in a variety of ways is crucial and I think learning styles have performed a useful service in that they have encouraged teachers to develop this variety. However I object to them because research evidence shows us that they don’t hold water – including Honey and Mumford I’m afraid. I think we should keep the good conclusion – encouraging interesting, diverse and stimulating ways of teaching – without needing to really on ‘pseudoscience’ to justify it.
    http://kirstyevidence.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/learning-styles-and-other-made-up-stuff/

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Kirsty. And yes, I completely agree. I very strongly believe that the teaching approach has to be tailored to the individual, and that it also depends on WHAT we are teaching, as outlined above. Mankind is probably far more capable to adjust than every pigeonholing approach lets on 😉 Therefore, my Honey & Mumford example wasn’t meant as “that’s the better one” (which I don’t think it is, maybe just more intuitive). I’d rather wanted to illustrate the point that something which is tailored to both student- and teacher “personalities” (for lack of better word) at that moment in time is likely to be more successful than tensely watching the student’s eye-movement to conclude which part of their brain they are supposedly using in what way – to then falsely conclude that’s what they’ll always do (I might have outed myself as a non-believer in that part of NLP here). Personalities are more of a continuum than fixed though, and that’s where, imho, Honey & Mumford also falls apart. Like all the other approaches (including e.g. Myers-Briggs personality types), they can be useful to get new ideas for more variety in our teaching. I think however that all of them are rather a crutch for the teacher than a foolproof help for the student – it’s probably a human thing to try and categorise people to make life easier for ourselves (!). All of these are reasons why I am not a big fan of learning systems and affiliations in general (big subject in my main line of work, vocal coaching). I could ramble on, but I’ll leave it here…

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