This is not a post about Learning Styles…


So as the title suggest this is not a post about learning styles. I am going to refer to them but only in the wider context of ideas that seem to me to have been shared, clung to, used (poorly in a number of cases – and there’s the rub) and then condemned.

What’s interesting in the debate around learning styles is that there seems to be some sense of agreement that people access different things in different ways and that a variety of approaches is useful for ensuring that learners have a way in. In a study of effective teaching methods summing up lots of other studies of effective teaching methods that I have been using to refine our Trust Principles of Learning, the understanding of student misconceptions and the need to look at the way the learner approaches problems in order to help them overcome them was seen as being pretty useful and this seems fairly similar to understanding the need for different ways in.

I also remember when I was exploring poetry with a pretty boy heavy and sharp year 11 class in the tiniest room in the school, last thing every Friday. Their focus and contributions were great. We never did those lists of poetic techniques or device spotting or pretty grids from the ‘How to Teach’ the anthology type books because we didn’t need them and didn’t like them. Well, I didn’t. This was all very well for the majority but there in the class was Hannah, a very intelligent, diligent, hard working girl who was desperate for a grid as it was the way she organised her thinking and she couldn’t access the free form fast moving conversations we were having.

I don’t ever remember calling it Learning Styles but there was something that I wasn’t doing (because it didn’t match or suit the way I liked to work or learn) that I needed to do to support this learner. So I changed my practice. I probably would have, and looking back I’m pretty sure I did, approached it differently with a group of students working at a lower level as I would have thought more about the need for structure. So maybe it wasn’t learning styles, maybe it was differentiation? Maybe it was personalisation? But then I’ve heard both of those decried as well, or at least talked about in hushed tones as if they were dirty words. What it was about was knowing the students and making sure they had the best opportunity to learn.

But this isn’t a post about learning styles. I’m not here to defend them but not really here to bury them either. It seems to me this sort of issue crops up a lot with ideas that clearly have some validity (knowing your students, anticipating, understanding and addressing misconceptions to help them make sense of what it is you’re teaching is a good thing yeah?) but seem to have been implemented badly or used as some sort of bolt on or panacea and as a result now seem to be massively flawed.

This gap between the idea and the implementation first screamed out at me when I was visiting a school which was championed as being expert in using Kagan strategies. I visited three classrooms and saw teachers who were using the tools and timers and students were responding well. They understood the way things were done and the routines and it provided a great environment for learning. Perhaps not enough to convince me to build a school around the approach but it was having impact.

The fourth classroom was different though. One example typified the issue here when the teacher used the classic countdown from five to zero to bring the class to order. Now I’ve seen this used really well when a teacher adjusts the countdown speed to enable students to register what’s going on, comments positively on students that have put things away or are sitting silently, moves to stand near those that haven’t while counting etc. But what was happening here was a poor soul happily looking at us as visitors to his room while he counted down from five and was happily ignored by 28 kids who, while they were grouped in fours with opposite partners and neighbour partners as suggested by Kagan, seemed to learn very little.

Again I’m not writing this to criticise Kagan any more than learning styles or anything else but to encourage us to consider implementation when we decide that something does or does not have value. All too often teachers and schools are in a situation where they are so desperate to do well and improve practice that they look for quick wins and off the shelf solutions without real consideration about how these need to be adapted and integrated into schools and classrooms. Without this they don’t have the desired impact so are dismissed and everyone moves on to something else which again isn’t thought through. It has its messianic moment in the sun prior to being thrown out with all the other naughty boys and its beautifully laminated posters are left filling up filing cabinets and drawers everywhere you look. So the bank accounts of the quick fixers providing solutions that require little thought or effort and never really work are filling up as quickly as the frustration at ‘another bloody initiative’ grows and the good will of a staff dissipates. And even if it’s a well thought out and considered approach that can have real benefit poor implementation leads to the same end result.

When we deliver TEEP (Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme) training there is a slide that features on the third day but I always bring in earlier. Here are the main points from it:

When considering an activity to use, think about:

  • What will the students actually learn?
  • Will it encourage them to link prior learning with the new things they need to learn?
  • Will it demand active learning behaviours?
  • Do they have all the learning skills they need to do the activity?
  • Can these skills be transferred across different discipline areas of the curriculum?
  • Will it demonstrate the individual student’s knowledge and understanding?

I bring it in earlier because I think it’s crucial that we encourage people to consider why they are using any strategy and technique and to make sure they have an answer that goes deeper than, “because I got shown it on a course” or, “someone said they did it and it was good.”

One of the things that’s always asked on TEEP training when participants are given the opportunity to comment on what trainers could do to help them is to provide a resources pack, a set of tips and tricks “that you can use the very next day and that will make you an outstanding teacher of x.” Come on, you’ve all seen the CPD flyers! While we do take people through some examples to, erm, exemplify what the stages of the cycle are about we resist presenting these as any sort of quick solution. At each stage it’s about understanding what you are trying to achieve for your learners not just about repeating what you did on the training or performing simplistic tricks. Much as it’s great to hear people engage positively, when people tell you they’ve “TEEPed” a lesson it often causes a shudder as it can mean that things have been bolted on or chucked in to existing plans rather than any substantial (re)thinking around approaches to planning overall. One of the worst examples of this was seeing an NQT copying an old plan across word for word on to the TEEP layout and supplying this as an example of applying the training. In the schools where the programme really has impact it becomes an integral part of what the school is about, the shape for the language of learning and is used by every teacher in every classroom in every lesson. Where it fails is where it’s taken or left, an optional extra or actually an extra at all as opposed to being central.

And it happens everywhere no matter where you sit on the edu-spectrum and whatever label you find yourself being given. Guy Claxton spoke of how his work has been poorly implemented by people chucking the ‘Rs’ in without in depth understanding or fundamental and as a result not had the impact he believes it can – I wonder how much this has contributed to the perception of his work as ‘woolly will-o’-the-whisp’ that he is charged with?

A colleague also told me recently that Dylan William once remarked on how the application of his ideas in some quarters was so far removed and distorted from the original thinking that they are hardly recognisable as his work. I wonder how long it will be before a current favourite of the educational chattering classes Doug Lemov comes under attack and is put down by those who currently advocate his work because of diminishing returns? When it happens I’d imagine that it will be in no small part due to people that are, as one teacher put it to me “choosing one idea and doing it over and over” with the intention of getting good at it, but without consideration as to whether this idea is appropriate or relevant to the children being taught and their needs – or whether they might need more than one strategy…

So this isn’t about learning styles – defending or condemning them – any more than it’s about TEEP, Claxton, William or teaching like a champion. On the simplest level it’s about ensuring that we have a deeper consideration as to why something hasn’t had the impact that it might have done and I think in many cases it’s the application of these ideas, or too simplistic an understanding of them, that’s often at the heart of the issue. Which isn’t to say that we can excuse every idea that doesn’t deliver by suggesting it’s simply a lack of understanding (otherwise we would be suggesting that my complete bewilderment around Mrs Brown’s Boys is because I haven’t understood rather than it just being awful) but maybe the ones that seem to cause such controversy or have been championed and then turned on. Perhaps their popularity has led to a clamour to use them which in turn heightens the possibility for dilution and misunderstanding as everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Mastery statements anyone…?

On another level I suppose I’d like to encourage us to think about why we get into this position in the first place. In some cases there is a tendency to look for quick fixes or the path of least resistance/work; the message about tenacity that was given out by a key argument against mixed ability teaching being it was hard work for the teacher was an interesting one, and I often react to suggestions that group work is ineffective because students take a back seat with “don’t just put them in groups and expect it to happen then, maybe teach some effective collaboration skills and create and environment where all students take responsibility and want to contribute!” However in the vast majority of cases I’m sure that teachers are looking for something that will make things better for their learners and simply don’t have the opportunity to really investigate and explore these ideas and approaches to ensure that they are fully understood and implemented in a way that means they really have a chance to deliver. It’s because of this that I’d suggest these ideas fall down and teachers and schools lose faith before moving on to the next idea that will probably suffer the same fate.

One of the reasons why I think TEEP (this isn’t an advert by the way it’s just something I know more about the strengths – and potential failings – of) was identified by the Teacher Development Trust as having impact in schools is because where it is done well it’s prepared for in advance, becomes the sole focus for teaching development, given time to develop and be understood (the training itself is spread over three of four months in the best examples) and while it will have impact and make a real difference it’s not seen as being a quick fix or something you can start monitoring teachers against after the first day.

So yes, if learning styles (which this is certainly not about) equates to a student being told he is a kinaesthetic learner at ten and then learning about every topic by running around or representing Hamlet by building lego models and never writing anything, while someone next to him is doing it in song or only reading poetry and never hearing it aloud then something is wrong. Similarly if you have a skills based curriculum that is never actually used to develop knowledge or understanding, or a knowledge based curriculum that fails to include the knowledge of how, building expertise alongside the knowledge of what, then you’re on an unhelpful tangent too.

How about we think a little more and look a little deeper? Help everyone to work out where they are by giving ideas the chance to be fully understood before we decide they have no worth? Can you imagine being a teacher in need of help and ideas and coming on twitter to get direction? For everyone promoting something there’s a gang ready to run it down and on both sides people determined that the way forward is to have the opposing voice silenced with no room for both. No scope for building on each other and seeing if there might actually be a better way that enables us to be stronger by listening to other voices and combining them with our own. We have days set up entirely around confrontation and one idea vs another, we have bloggers chopping and changing ideas and seeming to be at odds even with themselves at times.

Perhaps it’s not just those confused NQTs and bewildered teachers and school leaders that are trying to grab on to a quick fix that need some sort of affirmation by being sure that they have THE answer? Maybe we could all stop trying to be so bloody right all the time and see that things are a little more complex than soundbites and how clever we can look in 140 characters.

Lots of Love