Learning Styles Lecture

Introduction

There is a range of approaches to the subject of learning styles. As the name suggests, each of these approaches is interested in the ways that people learn, and each of them acknowledges that different people may learn better in specific ways which are different to the preferences of others. One learner might prefer to read in detail about a topic and then make their own notes on it, while another may prefer practical activities, or a problem-solving approach may work best for them.

The point may be obvious; that people are different. Nevertheless, the idea that there are different styles of learning is a comparatively recent one in pedagogic circles, and one which has gained much importance and relevance. Crucially for us, as teachers, the acknowledgement of learning styles is a reminder that it is often less what we do as teachers and more how and what we encourage our learners to do that has a positive and meaningful impact on learning.

This chapter, then, will introduce the core concepts related to learning styles. The subject area is large, and touches on many disciplines, notably educational and developmental psychology. What is offered here is only a beginning; though there is sufficient information here for a teacher to make consideration of the relevance of incorporating learning styles-informed approaches to their classes, the chapter is intended to act also as a prompt for further investigation. The resources itemised in the reference list at the end of the chapter may be a good place to begin.

The first section introduces several prominent approaches to understanding what learning styles actually are, and the theorists associated with those approaches. The second section applies learning styles to the classroom, and indicates their practical usefulness. The third and final main section considers the act of catering to learning styles in more detail; that is, the matching of different kinds of activities which are allied to particular learning styles to learners who are more likely to respond positively, as their personal style of learning has been invoked by the activity. A practical example of this is given in the scenario that follows, which explores a classroom situation where learning styles have been used to provide a differentiated learning experience for those attending the class.      

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To understand the basics of a selection of theories connected to learning styles
  • To understand how learning styles might impact positively upon teaching practice
  • To identify that learning styles are contentious, and remain a contested academic area
  • To evaluate the relative merits of differing learning styles theories
  • To be able to discuss with others the value of learning styles as applied to the classroom

1. What are learning styles? Who are the central theorists around this?

At its simplest, a learning style refers to a way of learning which is preferred, or found to be most effective, in a given learner. It perhaps makes sense that if you, as a learner, are aware of how you learn best, then by using techniques, specific kinds of activities and related approaches that favour those learning preferences, you will learn better, be more effective as a student, and have a more positive educational experience. From a teaching perspective, learners who are having more fun, who are engaged, and who can see for themselves the positive ways in which they are engaging with their subject, will be likely to do better, behave better, and achieve more readily to the best of their capabilities. This can only have a positive effect on day-to-day classroom interactions and in the longer term, on learner achievement. Multiple sets of theorists have approached the question of how to define, diagnose, and stimulate learning styles. Their conclusions and recommendations may be different, but all are attempting to understand the same question: in what ways do people learn best, and how might that knowledge serve the learner and the educator? Such research has come from the fields of child psychology, from development psychology, from business studies academics, from educationalists focused at all levels of learning from the pre-school to the postgraduate, and from writers taking an interdisciplinary approach. 

For Kwok and Jones, learning styles refer to "the unique and preferred way in which an individual processes, stores, and retrieves information. Study strategies are simply cognitive styles applied when individuals go about learning" (1995, p. 6). Pritchard offers a selection of definitions including "a particular way in which an individual learns", "a mode of learning", and the "habits, strategies, or regular mental behaviours concerning learning, including deliberate educational learning, that an individual displays" (2009, p. 41). However one may define learning styles, it seems, the focus is very much on the individual learner; this is important for the teacher to appreciate. Some explorations of learning styles suggest that, rather than having a single, fixed learning style, learners have a small number of dominant traits which they tend to display in their learning. It is therefore useful for people to be aware of their own learning preferences, and for teachers to be aware of those preferences in their learners.

This section will now outline the central aspects of six well-known approaches related to the definition and study of learning styles. Though the chapter goes onto to focus on one of the simpler versions on offer, this is done for the sake of clarity and ease of use: there is no attempt here to claim that one of these versions is more useful or relevant to education than another. As this chapter will also go on to indicate, there is also much debate, some of it very critical, about the educational worth of learning styles as a teaching-related concept: it is important to consider this when deciding how you can utilise learning styles within your practice.  

Kolb's Learning Style Model

Kolb's model seeks to assess the extent to which a learner has aptitudes along two paired axes (Kolb, 2014). The first axis is that of abstract conceptualisation against concrete experience, which refers to the preferred mode of absorbing new learning. The second axis is that of reflective observation against active experimentation, which refers to the ways in which that learner might then make sense of that new learning. From the way an individual might be measured against these axes, Kolb suggests that four learning styles may be detected:

  • Type 1: Diverger (concrete + reflective). Uses questions to gain understanding. Looks for reasons "why". Is imaginative and creative. Responds well to contextualisation to self of problems and new learning situations.
  • Type 2: Assimilator (abstract + reflective). Is fact-oriented. Likes logic and order. A focus on procedure prompts "how" questions. Good at reflection, and on using reflective practice to inform learning.
  • Type 3: Converger (abstract + active). Fond of experimentation and asking "how" questions. Adept in practical situations and in problem-solving through technical tasks.
  • Type 4: Accommodator (concrete + abstract). Accommodators are better at imaginative scenarios, and at trying out alternatives. People-centred and intuitive in their learning.

Testing along Kolb's lines produces a graph-like spider diagram which charts the tendency towards a dominant learning style.         

Honey and Mumford: learning styles inventory

For Honey and Mumford (1968) who were writing originally in a business studies context (and were influenced by Kolb), there are four main learning styles, which may be diagnosed through a questionnaire process. Honey and Mumford's four styles are: activist; reflector; theorist; pragmatist.

In this schema, an activist prefers active experimentation, a hands-on approach, group work, and learning by doing. A reflector tends to think before acting, focus on research and preparation, and can be deliberate but definite in their working. A pragmatist works best when they can see the practical end use of new knowledge, and work well in problem-solving contexts. A theorist likes detail and alternative solutions to problems, and prefers reasoned objectivity to opinion or ambiguity.

Such traits, and the extent to which an individual might have tendencies towards multiple traits, are assessed through a lengthy learning styles inventory, consisting of yes/no questions which build up into a profile of the learner. Such tests may be widely found online. The test produces a graphical reflection of the relative tendency a learner might have towards the four different learning styles within Honey and Mumford's schema.

Bloom's taxonomy

US educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives has been very influential since its first incarnation in the 1950s. Though Bloom's (and his successors') work is not limited to learning styles, one aspect is often referred to when learning styles are being discussed.

Bloom sees that learning is associated with three domains; three separate spheres of learning. Each domain is explored in Bloom's full work in respect of a hierarchy of applying new learning in ever more sophisticated ways. For the purpose of discussing Bloom in relation to learning styles, it is enough to summarise that Bloom defines three domains:

  1. Affective: linked to emotions, empathy, attitudes, opinions, interpersonal skills, and value systems.
  2. Psychomotor: linked to physical skills and activities, manual dexterity, co-ordination, technical prowess.
  3. Cognitive: linked to knowledge, memory, recall, analysis, synthesis, evaluation skills.

To summarise, Bloom points to three aspects of learning which are akin to learning styles as they are widely understood. Learners may be described as "affective", "cognitive", or "psychomotor" in these terms (Airasian, 2001).

VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic)

Pritchard (2009) notes that neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) researchers have, over time, observed that several different sensory-related learning styles are discernible. This section first describes the main elements of the VAK sensory approach, before summarising expansions to the original conceptualisation of this set of definitions.

Visual learners are those who respond well to visual stimuli, as the name suggests. Video, charts, maps, posters and image-based information sources all appeal. Visual learners may, for Pritchard "often use hand movements when describing or recalling events or objects and have a tendency to look upwards when thinking or recalling information" (2009, p. 44).

Auditory learners favour learning through sound. They are good at listening, have keen memory for songs, stories, and other sound-based media. Auditory learners learn best through listening to lectures and through contributing in discussions. For Pritchard, such learners "like sequence, repetition, and summary, and when recalling memories tend to tilt their head and use level eye movements" (2009, p. 44).

Kinaesthetic learners are more physical in their learning, responding well to hands-on activities and first-hand experiences. Learning activities which might be appropriate to kinaesthetic learners include sports and games, practical making and designing activities, visits and trips. Kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn in short, controlled bursts, and benefit from breaks to assimilate information. 

An extension to the VAK schema which has been widely adopted stems from Fleming (2001), who suggests that an R for "reading" is included, to amend the schema acronym to VARK. Readers, as the name may infer, learn best at their own pace and from the written word, and may be best suited to essays, examinations, and other text-dependant methods of research and assessment.

Another widely-used variant is VAKT, where the T stands for "tactile". Tactile learners benefit from real-world physical examples, and may be suited towards the kinds of experiential learning associated with vocational courses (BBC, 2016).

Those with strengths across multiple learning styles, or "modalities", as the styles are known within the VAK and allied systems, may be termed multimodal - or MM - learners. Multimodal learners may be Type 1 MM learners, with approximately equal affinities with each of the VARK modalities, or Type 2 MM learners. A Type 2 learner may be more deliberate or slower in their learning, as they tend not to respond positively to be instruction until their threshold level of the learning modality being used at that time has been satisfied (VARK Learn, 2016).  

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Model

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Model, again derived from business rather than from education, is another influential and widely-used approach to learning styles. With a debt to Jungian psychology, this model seeks to diagnose a range of sixteen learning style preferences weighted to the individual across a spectrum of positions. Within the Myers-Briggs system, the following descriptors and definitions may be found:

  • Extrovert: people-focused and open to experimentation and group working. Work well with others, and in seeking colleagues for collaboration. 
  • Introvert: concept-focused and preferring deliberation. Happy to work in private, and work methodically and alone.
  • Sensor: practically-minded, procedural, detailed in their working. Prefers clarity and stage-by-stage instructions.
  • Intuitor: meaning-focused, often imaginative and creative conceptual thinkers. Better with the large scale than the detail.
  • Thinker: logical and ordered, making evidence-based assessments. Responds well to preparedness, clarity, and clear guidelines.
  • Feeler: tend towards subjective assessments, are people-focused and empathetic. Work well with others, particularly friends.
  • Judger: is often logical and procedurally-minded; good at following rules, though may seek order over full understanding. Good at completing projects and meeting outcomes.
  • Perceiver: often seeks a fuller picture, and will juggle deadlines in response to shifting priorities. Prefer flexibility over constraints, and new challenges and learning methods.   

The definitions work in opposed pairs: judger/perceiver, feeler/thinker, intuitor/sensor, introvert/extrovert. A full diagnosis assesses the individual across these four spectrums. 

Gardner's Multiple Intelligences

Though not strictly a learning styles diagnostic, psychologist Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences has nevertheless been influential within education in its conceptualisation of how individuals might have different cognitive strands which, in turn, informs their learning style. This section identifies and describes the eight intelligences found in most versions of Gardner's still-evolving work, along with implications for learning styles.

  1. Linguistic/verbal: prefers language-oriented work. Discussions, reading, language games, linguistics.
  2. Logical/mathematical: prefers numbers and logical patterns. Good at problem-solving, sequencing, discerning relationships and patterns. Good at mathematical work.
  3. Spatial/visual: prefers image-based learning. Creative and visually-stimulated, and in allying mental imagery and the imagined to real-world situations.
  4. Bodily/kinaesthetic: prefers being able to explore the physical environment. Is tactile, inquisitive, exploratory, and good at interrogating the physical world through interacting with artefacts and environments.
  5. Musical: prefers both listening to and creating music, sound, rhythm, and tempo. May be musically creative, with both instrumentation and voice.  
  6. Interpersonal: prefers learning which is social and which involves empathy. Good with group situations, teamwork, communicating and sharing experiences.     
  7. Intrapersonal: prefers to reflect, to work alone, and to consider one's own interests. Can be instinctive, self-motivating, will work at one's own pace, and with a firm awareness of self.
  8. Naturalistic: prefers learning which is associated with the natural world. Can work well outdoors, or where there are associations to flora, fauna, and environmental concerns.

There are overlaps and commonalities between at least some of the different approaches to learning styles summarised above. This is only to be expected, as each model is attempting to analyse the same process; that of learning.

If the chapter has a single useful function, it may be to reinforce the perhaps obvious idea that education is learner-centred, and that learners may differ from each other in their needs, their drives, their preferred ways of making sense of new information and then appropriating that learning into fresh contexts. As teachers it is sometimes easy to misconceive what it is that we do; subject knowledge takes precedence over communication and support. A fuller appreciation of the diversity of learner needs and stimuli can only be of benefit to educators. 

Reflection

Have you ever had your own learning style assessed? If so, how did that assessment compare with your own understanding of your preferences as a learner?

Which of these approaches to learning styles makes the most sense to you as an educator? Why is that?

Which of these approaches to learning styles makes the least sense to you as an educator? Why is that?

Try to summarise your own learning style in a single word. What does that word capture about you as a learner, and what does it miss?


2. How can learning styles be considered in the classroom?

The previous section has outlined some major approaches to learning style. That there is such a diversity of types of possible learning style might be concerning, as might be the range of alternative sets of technical language from the different theorists. It should be remembered, though, that these theoretical variants have developed over decades, and sometimes have been originally devised for very particular situations before becoming more widely known. In short, try not to worry. This section introduces a number of ways which a learning styles-informed approach might be straightforwardly applied in the classroom.

Learning styles appear to require some form of diagnosis. Indeed, as the earlier section of this chapter showed, several types of learning styles schemas may involve questionnaires and the like to arrive at a complete assessment. Some institutions will assess incoming learners for an idea of their preferred learning styles as part of induction procedures; if that is done, and the information is available, then this can be a useful resource for the teacher.

As has been already mentioned, diagnostic tools are freely available online for many learning styles inventories; it may be useful to search and find ones which make the most sense to you, and which are appropriate to use with your learners. A learning styles inventory can make a useful tutorial activity in the early weeks of a new course.

Learning styles appreciation can also involve teacher observation and questioning of learners. Why not ask them, collectively and individually, about which kinds of learning make the most sense to them? Do your learners' responses correlate with your observations of the products of their learning, and with their previous achievements in assessed work? Learning styles appreciation can be a powerful stimulus for reflection.

In this vein, learning styles come into their own when the teacher is planning. At both the scheme of work and the lesson plan stage of planning and preparation for teaching, and the associated work which is done when creating activities, learning resources, and assessments, there is a place for the consideration of learning styles. Think in terms of variety: as a shorthand way of thinking about learning styles from a practical teaching and learning point of view, the VARK system can be of use.

With VARK in mind, look at a lesson's worth of material: do the delivery, the activities, the modes of assessment, and the resources being used in that session address a spectrum of learning styles in this schema? The chances are that they do. The new learning for the session may be displayed in a PowerPoint or similar display which is visually stimulating, and may also appeal to those who favour reading. A single activity might involve all four modalities, with aspects of kinaesthetic hands-on working, reading, visual and aural stimuli each being involved. So, think constructively about resources, and give credit where there is a discernible focus on one or more learning styles. Now consider the lesson as a whole; are all styles being catered to? If not, then think about addressing the imbalance where that disparity is significant, or if it does not accord with your understanding of the class's needs in terms of their learning styles. There may be a case for careful consideration of learning styles, to the extent of catering activities towards the preferred learning styles of learners in a given group.           

Many lesson plan templates have sections in the session sequencing for a note to be made of the learning styles associated with tasks and activities. Noting this on the lesson plan can be useful to oneself, as well as to others, in that it evidences a commitment to not only the consideration of such styles, but to a varied diet of classroom engagement. Variety in and of itself is a boon to learners. That variety can extend to developing alternatives for activities and for assessments. Give your learners a choice: worksheet A or task B, for example, each privileging a different kind of learning style. This is perhaps not for all activities in all sessions, but differentiated options might be a worthwhile consideration as long as both meet the same learning objectives.    

Learning styles can also be considered with respect to the ways in which the teacher talks to class members. A visual learner might be questioned with words relating to that privileged visual sense: seeing, observing, recognising, and the like. An auditory learner might be provoked with questioning methods related to speaking and listening: saying, hearing, sound. A kinaesthetic learner might be approached with active verbs related to movement and being tactile: feeling, strength, drive, and so on. A teacher might find that learners privilege types of expressions which have relationships to their dominant style of learning. Though one should take care not to over-work such techniques, or read too much into related observations, there may be some value in exploring the potential of this kind of differentiated questioning tactic, and the use of a varied vocabulary that recognises the power of appropriate language to communicate effectively.

There are opportunities, then, to reinforce effective and productive engagement in lessons through a curated experience which acknowledges different learning styles. Pritchard (2009) also reminds us that learning styles are to be seen as tendencies only, not absolute facts. On average, it has been asserted that 70% of learners in a given class will respond well to any mode of classroom activity, with 20% engaging only when their dominant learning style is stimulated, and with 10% not being engaged at any particular moment (for reasons not related to learning style).  As Pritchard puts it, "[i]t should perhaps be the view of teachers that 70 per cent is not enough and that some action needs to be taken in order to increase this figure" (2009, p. 53). A learning styles-informed stance is of way of addressing such a number.  

Reflection

If you are currently in a full-time placement, or are working in education, does your institution have a standard lesson plan template, and if so, does that template ask for learning styles information? What about other planning documentation, such as any scheme of work template which might be in common use?

To what extent have the lessons you have taught in the past been informed by learning styles considerations? Will that change in the future?

Does your institution assess learning styles in its students? If so, how? If not, why might that be?

Do you teach to learners, for learners, or at learners? How might a learning styles-informed approach to session planning and delivery modify you as a teacher?

3. What evidence is there to suggest that catering learning styles is effective?

The idea of learning styles feels right to many, not least those in education. There is a common sense in the notion that different people might learn in different ways, and that focusing instruction and learning to privileging those styles can only be of benefit to all. This chapter has explored that same argument. This section, though, explores the counter-argument: that learning styles - and the value of teaching to them in particular - either do not exist, or offer no advantages when compared to other modes of educational delivery which do not privilege learning styles.   

It is only fair to acknowledge, no matter how attractive the ideas contained in the first sections of this chapter may be, that the notion of learning styles is contentious, with some researchers believing that there is no such thing as a learning style in and of itself, and that what is being detected is to do with ability rather than a style, as such. Critics claim that the evidence for learning styles is only partial; that claims made by proponents of such theories often do not stand up to independent scientific scrutiny; and that they are based on inadequate research (Guterl, 2013).

A developing consensus is that, rather than a learning styles focus being beneficial, the opposite may be true. The reasoning here is that if a learner is matched well to a kind of activity which allies with their learning preferences, then that learner engages less well with the material being taught because they do not have to work as hard to understand it. This means that learners who have been catered to in learning styles terms may perform less well under test conditions when that safety net of the catering has been removed. In addition, it may be the case that a learner attributes their success or failure - or their engagement (or otherwise) with a topic or a particular activity - to whether there is a match or a mismatch with their learning styles identification. The inference from this is that it may be used as an excuse not to engage with materials which the learner does not feel predisposed to. For Kruse (2009), this is less to do with there being a meaningful correlation between learning and particular styles of engagement than with a misunderstanding of the ways in which they are learning.   

Kruse (2009) suggests instead that learners, however they might think of their learning, all learn in similar, two-fold ways. Kruse's assertions are that, first, all learners work best when new information and skills build on previously-understood concepts and abilities; and second, that all learners achieve best when learning focuses first on concrete experience, and then moves later towards abstract conceptualisation of the ideas and competencies being taught. It is this pairing - the development of previous learning, and the first experiencing the new ideas in a real-world way before moving on to more abstract uses of that new instruction - which together make fresh sense. Anything else on top of this is deemed personal preference rather than a pseudo-scientific "style".  

For Cassidy (2004), however, the lack of firm agreement about the definition and diagnosis of learning styles, and the associated issues with putting into practice a learning styles-informed pedagogy, is exciting and challenging rather than necessarily a negative. Cassidy calls for further research and theorising to continue, as well as consensuses to be worked towards in academia, so that practical application of the agreed-upon most useful aspects of learning styles work can be readily available to classroom practitioners.   

As this chapter has shown, though, the idea of learning styles is already both well-established and widely used across education, and for many teachers it represents a positive aspect to their teaching. It may be worth considering the ways in which such differentiated and catered learning might in fact work; not at the level of "style", but in the move from old to new learning, and from real-world to abstracted examples. One way forwards for teachers, then, is to combine the two. The hands-on scenario which ends this chapter exemplifies this approach, in combining aspects of learning styles theory with a more cognitive psychology-based approach which derives some of its ideas from canonical theorists such as Jean Piaget (whose ideas we learned about in Module 1).

Reflection

To what extent are you convinced by the general notion that there is such a thing as different learning styles? How can you support your opinion?

Think of ways in which you have used a learning styles approach to benefit learning. This can be your own learning, or that of those you may have taught.

What negatives can you think of in considering learning styles? Does the idea of producing differentiated materials to cater to learners' preferences have any problems associated with it? If so, do the benefits outweigh the issues?   

Conclusion

This chapter has introduced and summarised a selection of major theoretical approaches related to defining learning styles. Though many of these varied theoretical positions have their distinctive qualities and strengths, they also have similarities both at the level of detail, and in their broad attempts to better appreciate the diversity of preferences which learners may have, so that their learning might be enhanced.

The chapter has also highlighted academic criticisms of learning styles-informed thinking, but has worked to indicate that there is a place for learning styles in everyday classroom interactions, and in the planning of teaching. That one's lessons should be varied, challenge a spectrum of cognitive processes, and offer alternatives to learners is a sensible approach, and one which is widely established in teacher training and in everyday educational practice. 

Reflection

Now we have reached the end of the chapter, you should:

  • understand the basics of a selection of theories connected to learning styles
  • understand how learning styles might impact positively upon teaching practice
  • have identified that learning styles are contentious, and remain a contested academic area
  • evaluated the relative merits of differing learning styles theories
  • be able to discuss with others the value of learning styles as applied to the classroom

Reference List

Airasian, P.W. (2001) A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom's taxonomy of educational objectives. Edited by Lorin W. Anderson and David R. Krathwohl. New York: Addison-Wesley.

BBC (2016) Learning styles. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/skillswise/tutors/inclusive-learning (Accessed: 19 October 2016).

Cassidy, S. (2004) 'Learning styles: an overview of theories, models, and measures', Educational Psychology, 24(4), pp. 419-444. doi: 10.1080/0144341042000228834.

Fleming, N. (2001) Teaching and learning styles: VARK strategies. Christchurch, N.Z.: Neil D. Fleming.

Guterl, S. (2013) Is teaching to a student's 'Learning Style' a bogus idea? Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-teaching-to-a-students-learning-style-a-bogus-idea/ (Accessed: 18 October 2016).

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (1986) Manual of learning styles. Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.

Kolb, D.A. (2014) Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. 2nd edn. London: Pearson.

Kruse, J. (2009) 'That's not my style: myths about learning and teaching', Iowa State Teachers' Journal, 36(1), pp. 2-3.

Kwok, M. and Jones, C. (1995) 'Catering for different learning styles', Research in Learning Technology, 3(1), pp. 5-11. doi: 10.3402/rlt.v3i1.9586.

Olsen, J. (2006) The myth of catering to learning styles. Available at: http://www.nsta.org/publications/news/story.aspx?id=52624 (Accessed: 18 October 2016).

Pritchard, A. (2009) Ways of learning: learning theories and learning styles in the classroom. 2nd edn. London: David Fulton Publishers.

VARK Learn (2016) The VARK Modalities. Available at: http://vark-learn.com/introduction-to-vark/the-vark-modalities/ (Accessed: 19 October 2016).

Hands-on scenario: learning styles

Scenario:

You are teaching a class of Year 10 learners about Shakespeare's play Richard III. Today's activity is part of a project spanning multiple sessions which relates to learners demonstrating their understanding of Act I scene I of the play, in which the title character delivers an opening speech to the audience - a soliloquy - where he confides in his plans to take the throne. It is the learners' task to imagine that they are making a new version of the play, and to show their understanding of the text and of Richard's motivation and planning by working out how to perform and stage their version.

Three learners are having difficulty engaging with the task.

Aisha is a quiet learner who prefers working on her own in private, and who does not readily engage in group work. She is bookish and reserved, and has refused in the past to read to the whole class, or to act in front of others. She is apparently concerned that she will be made to publicly perform again, and is avoiding getting involved in the activity for this reason.

Tom is a boisterous and sporty youth who exudes confidence and charisma when playing for attention and making jokes, or when using his physical size and games ability to dominate. However, he is not always academically-focused, being abler in physical and dextrous tasks than in close textual work, and he struggles with concentrating for long periods of time. He has trouble focusing on sustained tasks. He feels that Shakespeare is boring, and that the plays have no meaning for him, therefore does not want to engage with this activity.

Mel is a very pleasant, sociable and friendly learner who is at her best in a crowd; she is an organiser, forever sorting out friends' private lives, putting together social occasions, and trying to match-make in class. Her focus on the social aspect of school is her prime concern, and classes are sometimes a 'necessary evil' to be endured. Her work is competent but she could do better if only she were more committed to the education portion of school life. Mel is easily distracted and not settling on the task. 

What aspects could we take from learning styles-influenced thought to better engage these learners in the task?

Answer:

As you might have appreciated from the learner descriptions, these three students have overt characteristics which might indicate that they are predisposed towards certain kinds of learning over others. If you are not sure, then go back and re-read the sections on VAK learning styles and on Bloom's taxonomy for some pointers.

One approach to take here is to make reference back to your understanding as an educator of what learning styles theories in general have to say about different individuals' preferences. Make a quick assessment of each of the learners in turn, and then think about how a strategy which draws insight from learning styles thought might help in engaging these three young people. This is not a diagnostic process; more a quick way of harnessing the tendencies which have already been observed in each of the three students outlined above. 

The task which they have been set allows for considerable latitude in the ways in which it can be tackled. This is useful for you as an educator, as it permits a diversity of responses which can be equally valid; try not to be too proscriptive in the setting of activity tasks in order to take advantage of learner creativity, and the potential to work to the different strengths and tendencies suggested by specific learning styles modalities.

Aisha, for example, comes across as a cognitive learner in Bloom's terms, or else an 'R' on the VARK scale for preferring reading. Based on this, Aisha may benefit from suggestions that focus on scripting a response to the task, rather than performing in the first instance. Aisha could work on emphasising how the response is to be performed and the language to be used, rather than on the physical or practical aspects of performance. 

Tom comes across as a kinaesthetic learner in VARK terms: enthused when moving, and when using his hands. Bloom might refer to him as one for whom psychomotor skills are dominant. For Gardner, the kind of intelligence on show might be bodily/kinaesthetic. One way to engage Tom is to get him to consider the physicality of Richard III; the character discusses his deformities in the opening speech. How might Tom use that to convey certain aspects of Richard's personality - his cunning, his ruthlessness, his perception of himself? And how might Tom be able to contrast his own sportiness with playing someone who is usually portrayed (and is written) as being disabled? Perhaps he could subvert this, by making his Richard a physically strong man - if he takes the latter course, how does it affect the play, and the meaning of the words Richard speaks?   

Mel may conform to certain attributes of the interpersonal intelligence, according to Gardner; she may be an auditory learner on the VARK scale, or even affectively-attuned, according to Bloom. One approach might be to ask Mel to consider Richard's place in his family and in the play - an outcast, a spurned brother, someone who is mocked behind his back for his appearance. How might that twist Richard's personality, and how might that be shown on stage? Mel's organisational and group-working capabilities might also be harnessed in getting these three learners to work together, with Mel as director, Aisha rewriting the original Shakespeare, and Tom as actor.

However, if assigned as a group task, these three must actually work together rather than working separately in their endeavours. Once their attention is engaged, this can be played with - what if Mel were to play Richard, with Aisha directing, and Tom rewriting Aisha's script? And how might each of them be encouraged to relate their engagement with the text after the performance?  

Part of the skillset of being a teacher is using learners' existing skills and competencies for their own benefit. In this scenario, Aisha, Tom, and Mel have been approached in ways which reflect their existing personalities, supported by a teacher's observations. There is not necessarily a need here for a diagnosis as such; just a sense of what is appropriate for the context and the learner. It is useful, though, to have a working knowledge of the learning styles-relevant terminology so that it can be drawn upon, and so that identifications can be made at points where they are going to be useful in classroom situations.


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