Articles for parents

Identifying different learning styles

Mar 2024

The concept of ‘learning styles’ has drawn widespread interest within the field of education for a number of years, but what are learning styles, and how useful is it to focus on them within educational practice?

Unquestionably, many of us can (and do) express personal preferences for how we like to receive information. Some of us may feel we learn best through reading and recalling how information was set out on a page, and others prefer to listen to or engage in conversation in order to learn. While it’s widely accepted that such preferences vary from one person to another, how our preferred learning styles should be defined and categorised has led to the emergence of a number of frameworks.

Perhaps the most famous is Barbe and colleagues’ VAK model, which proposes that we can all be categorised into Visual, Auditory, and Kinaesthetic learners. The theory puts forward that Visual learners tend to recognise words by sight, use lists to organise their thoughts, and benefit from using mind-maps or drawing diagrams. Auditory learners are proposed to learn best through verbal instruction, discussing ideas and engaging in debates; whilst Kinaesthetic learners enjoy practical activities, learning best when they are involved and active, such as using models and objects to understand concepts.

This was originally an appealing framework, and popular amongst teachers who felt they could benefit their students greatly by tailoring classroom activities to match each individual’s preferred learning style. However, there is in fact little-to-no evidence to show that adapting teaching methods in this way actually impacts on learning outcomes. On the contrary, classroom teachers who attempt to accommodate multiple learning styles in their lessons to suit all individuals can overburden their students. Categorising students is also believed to contribute to a ‘fixed mindset’, leading the child to believe that they are only capable of learning via a single method. Naturally, this can be demotivating.

As such, the Education Endowment Foundation (which supports teachers with evidence-based ideas and resources) does not advocate the matching of material to learning styles as a useful teaching method. So, should we disregard the concept of learning styles altogether?

Possibly not. There is an argument that simply reflecting on your own preferred learning style is useful in itself. The very act of thinking about how we learn helps us to select what tools and methods we should use to assimilate information around us. In essence, students who understand their preferred learning style are able to take ownership of their learning. This is hugely powerful; the ability to self-learn develops children into confident individuals who feel able to face all challenges life throws at them.

Perhaps, therefore, a more useful model for teachers to consider is that of ‘active’ versus ‘passive’ learning. That is, delivering lessons that encourage children to think and work out answers for themselves - often called ‘student-centred learning’ - as opposed to presenting information via spoon-feeding, or what could be considered ‘teacher-centred learning’.

17-year-old Kumon student, Kirsty, studied the Kumon Maths Programme for seven years, reaching completion in March 2021. Kirsty feels that the student-centred learning approach she experienced with Kumon has been instrumental in developing her ability to work out answers for herself. She said,

“The Kumon programme has helped me learn how to solve problems independently by teaching me individual skills, step-by-step, which I’ve been able to apply to more complex questions. I was able to perfect these skills by following examples, practising daily, learning from my mistakes, and with guidance from the Kumon team who always encouraged me to work out the answers by myself when they knew I was capable.

My ability to solve problems independently has benefited me with maths-related scenarios in life, such as dealing with money. It has also helped me massively in school, especially in maths, by allowing me to quickly answers questions without teacher assistance, therefore improving my confidence and ability with exam questions.”

While matching teaching material to children’s learning styles is no longer believed to be a constructive teaching approach, it can certainly be argued that there is still value in students reflecting on how they learn best. Those that do so, develop the maturity to take ownership of their learning, and the confidence to tackle unfamiliar situations head-on, both at school and in all aspects of life.