As well as Malay, I’ve taken up rock climbing since arriving in Malaysia, and if language schools taught climbing, I’d be in the beginner class for that too. Since no one has yet founded a school that teaches Malay and climbing, I’m left to teach myself how to get from A to B in vertical fashion, but I’m not doing too badly. My preferred method of learning how to not plummet to my death is a novel one: I like to get on the climbing wall, let my body do its best to haul me up, and then flail like an upturned beetle when I inevitably call upon the rope to save my life as I fall. The one redeeming aspect of this charade is that I generally get slightly higher up the wall each time, which is why I keep trying.
Not the most dignified approach, but what are my alternatives? Well, if TEFL wisdom is to be believed I’ve got two. I could sit and watch people climbing and learn that way (visually), or someone could just tell me how to climb the wall (so I’d learn aurally). But I choose to do it my way because I must be a kinaesthetic learner. I like to learn by moving around, so that’s why I choose to learn to climb by climbing.
Complete balls. The world of ELT abounds with half-truths, pseudoscience and often just pure nonsense, and one of the most pernicious ideas from this mire of misinformation must be that of learning styles. How many hours do teachers spend cutting up paper, or shepherding students around the room to admire the treasures they’ve blu-tacked to the wall, all the while labouring under the misapprehension that they are diligently catering to their kinaesthetic learners?
The idea that learners can be grouped according to how they learn best is most familiar to teachers in terms of the VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) paradigm (Dörnyei, 2005), but there are umpteen other variations, often binary and always reductive. Most people can indeed express certain valid preferences as to how they best absorb information. But there is no evidence that teaching in response to so-called learning styles has any beneficial effect on learning. In a paper outlining that fact, the authors noted that “the contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing” (Pashler et al., 2009, p. 117).
There are valid pedagogical reasons for getting students out of their chairs or working with cards and strips of paper, but kinaesthetic learning, or any other ‘learning style’, is not one of them. Learning styles theory is a problem because it seeks to pigeonhole students in ridiculously simplistic ways, and then direct teaching decisions based on the results. Variables that actually do make a difference are then overshadowed by meaningless ephemera like whether you bought your underpants based on the snazzy pink stripes, the easy-iron cotton or the supportive crotch.
Those difference-making variables include things like educational background, level of L2 proficiency, and the nature of whatever is being learnt, but teachers already know that those things are important; they don’t need the flimsy notion of learning styles in order to deal with them. What is dressed up as a difference in learning style between students is far more likely to be a (transient) difference in ability, and that needs very different treatment from teachers, largely in terms of time management:
In teaching contexts, time is the one effective vehicle we have in striving to accommodate for the individual response. … we can vary presentation times, speed of presentation, time devoted to direct modeling, thinking time, wait-time in questioning, time spent in revision and remediation, and time allocated for extended practice (i.e., independent enrichment and elaboration work). (Yates, 2000, quoted in Dörnyei, p. 158)
So the energy spent fretting over learning styles would be better channelled into dismissing another TEFL fallacy: the idea that teachers should plan how long everything will take and stick to their timings religiously. Where students are having trouble you can choose between blaming a mismatched learning style and whip out some cut-ups, or support them by allowing them the time they need to process what they’re learning. It should be pacing that teachers are judged on, not timing.
As I get to grips with Malay, I obviously have my preferred ways of doing things, but they’re not the same all the time, and they can’t be simplified into neat categories. Learning Behaviour better describes the temporary nature of these preferences, unlike the learning styles approach, which permanently labels students. Learning words involves visual memory, auditory memory and semantic memory, the latter being arguably the most important. Learning to climb a rock face involves kinaesthetic memory because it can’t be done without movement, so evidently learning behaviour varies in accordance with the task at hand.
Zoltan Dörnyei frames the problem with charming diplomacy when he writes that “an average classroom practitioner may currently be ill-prepared to meaningfully deal with the style issue” (2005, p. 157). But common sense should be the guiding principle:
- Variation in the presentation of information has benefits beyond catering to learning preferences, so is to be encouraged, but a specific learning style should never be the sole justification for any classroom activity.
- Sensitivity to timing is crucial; understand that some students will take longer with some tasks than others will, and give them time to learn at their own pace.
- Realise that although students do have preferred learning behaviours, these are rarely fixed and can’t be used as labels.
Perhaps the best way to demonstrate the speciousness of the learning styles concept is to ask how you learnt, and are learning, to teach. Auditorily? Kinaesthetically? Visually? Or rather: holistically, reflectively, instinctively, experientially, organically, experimentally, etc.? When someone comes up with a way of conceptualising something as complex as (language) learning with more than a handful of airy-fairy tick-boxes I might take the whole thing seriously. Until then, it can VAK off.
Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The psychology of the language learner: individual differences in second language acquisition. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9(3), pp. 105-119.
Yates, G. C. R. (2000). Applying learning style research in the classroom: Some cautions and the way ahead. In R. J. Riding & S. G. Rayner (Eds.), Interpersonal perspectives on individual differences (Vol. 1: Cognitive styles, pp. 347–364). Stamford, CI: Ablex.