Month: October 2013

Reopening the case for learning styles


Recently I gave a workshop at the ESP Conference in Ulm on a topic which I regretted having put forward from the moment I clicked ‘send’ … Learning styles in ESP and technical English.  So why did I do it?  Well, I’ve read the bumph which sings the praises of learning styles, and I’ve read the scathing research which says they don’t exist – but my own personal jury is out.

We’ve all had good and bad learning experiences, haven’t we?  And what contributed to them?  If you ask yourself this question, probably what springs to mind is the kind of activities you received, the way the teacher spoke to you, the environment in which you learned and how motivating the class was.  So seemingly we have preferences which we feel dictate how we learn.  There are tonnes of models on learning styles – the University of Newcastle alone researched 71 different models!  The most famous ones though are those of David Kolb, the Felder Silverman model and Neil Fleming’s VARK model.  Felder Silverman created their model based on engineering education, and were able to demonstrate that learners had very individual leaning preferences, which teachers of engineering sciences should accommodate in order to maximize learning.  However all the models boil down to one thing – we think in different ways, we work in different ways, and we’re all very different to each other.

The question is, can we prove if we really do learn better if our teacher focusses on our preferred learning style?  Apparently not!  According to research, learning styles simply don’t exist.  There’s absolutely no categorical evidence which proves that, if a teacher adapts his or her learning style to that of the class member, that they’ll get any better results.   In fact, as a teaching tool, don’t learning styles actually encourage us to pigeon-hole our learners?  We categorize them to belonging to a specific, inflexible group and then we target the class’s strengths and ignore their weaknesses.  Learning styles therefore encourage exclusion rather than being a useful tool to get the best out of our students.

So, why on earth did I submit that proposal?  Well, because I think this whole learning styles debate gives us food for thought.  What about if we give our learners tasks in class which specifically do not target their preferences, or perceived preferences?  I see that as a pretty useful tool for encouraging out-of-the-box thinking.  My technical learners are usually fairly confident of their skills, and are therefore often more goal focused than relationship focused.  I believe that if we target a broad spectrum of learning styles, and use techniques and exercises aimed at a wide variety of preferences, we’ll be challenging our participants more and they’ll leave the classroom better equipped to take on tasks which they have to do in the real world.


Furthermore, let’s consider course evaluation.  How can it be that when we teach certain groups there’s such a variety of grades given when we hand out the feedback forms?  In my opinion satisfaction is extrinsically linked to motivation and if someone feels they were neglected, no tasks really engaged them, and they just didn’t get it, could that be because we didn’t consider teaching them in a style they felt more at ease with?

And finally, as teachers I believe strongly that we should be engaging in experimental practice.  We love teaching, and many of us are in it for the long haul, so surely pushing our own limits and giving ourselves challenges is par for the course – it’s just sound pedagogy!

So I’m embracing all learning styles and trying to create activities which I think my business, technical and ESP learners will all find interesting.  I’ve uploaded a lesson plan here based on the Dragons’ Den show.  It’ll appeal to visual learners who like to see diagrams and pictures, auditory learners who’ll listen to their colleagues describing products, readers and writers who can create a formal proposal for investors and the kinaesthetic people will have the chance to stand up and demonstrate how their product works.  I hope that by pushing my own boundaries in the classroom and trying to develop exercises that target all kinds of learners I’ll provide more motivating lessons and improve my teaching techniques.