Phil Dexter, British Council Teacher Development Adviser, responds to Carol Lethaby’s Voices article Four reasons to avoid ‘learning styles’ – and one alternative. He wants to take the debate further, to understand how teachers can use visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities effectively and avoid locking their class into one way of learning.
Do you disagree with Carol’s position on learning styles?
I agree with Carol. This is what she said about learning styles:
‘…the idea that some learners are primarily visual, auditory or kinaesthetic, and that learners learn in different ways because of how their brains work is incorrect, even though it originates in valid research. Different types of information are processed in different areas of the brain.
However, the brain is so interconnected that, as soon as one modality (e.g., sight, hearing) is activated, others are too. While it’s true that learners express preferences about how they want to receive information, scientists say this is nothing to do with how the brain works.’
I think we can take this debate further. We use our senses in life, so of course we use them in learning.
If a teacher decides a learner is a visual learner, for example, or responds best to a kinaesthetic style, the learner is locked in to that approach. Let’s open up. We can do that with a multisensory approach, which includes a variety of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities within one lesson.
How does this work in practice?
A teacher presents a class with a sentence. In that sentence, there is grammar, vocabulary and word order. The teacher could ask:
What is the word order?
And the learners could identify the order of the subject, verb and object in that sentence.
To make the lesson multisensory, the teacher can also give everyone in the room one word on paper and ask them to stand up and physically make a sentence. The learners could then change position to create a new sentence. The teacher, or the learners, could colour-code different parts of speech. For example, green verbs and red adjectives.
A variety of activities can be fun. It can also support learning, because some learners will respond best to colour-coded words, or to movement.
That doesn’t mean that they will always respond best to a visual activity – in another lesson, the same learner could respond best to a kinaesthetic or auditory activity. But, if the teacher regularly uses a multisensory approach, there will always be something that works for everyone.
How important is it for teachers to know their learners' needs?
It is very important for teachers to get to know learners and their language needs. Building relationships between teachers and students is a vital part of that process, whether a teacher works with a class for one day or one year. One way of doing this is to take little steps, see if a technique or activity works, and if not to try it again. This means that teachers, and those who assess their work, must see a mistake as a positive part of a lesson.
That also includes giving the right kind of feedback – even if that is uncomfortable – while building rapport with learners. Learners need to know where they need to improve their skills and knowledge, and they need practical help to improve in those areas.
How does a teacher take that new knowledge of what works and what doesn’t out of their classroom, for other teachers to use?
The trials and errors that happen in every classroom are valuable beyond that classroom. Those trials and errors are research. Pitch your findings to magazines, conferences and blogs.
Our industry is awash with methodology, but we can only understand through practice. That is why teachers want to hear from other teachers.
There is also a lot we can learn from existing research – but your classroom is where it becomes meaningful. You try something, you learn something, you share your experience with other teachers and we all learn from each other.