Independent Thinking’s founder Ian Gilbert (Or @ThatIanGilbert if you are on Twitter) strides into the debate on learning styles:

The father of general semantics, Alfred Korzybski, coined the phrase ‘The map is not the territory’ to describe the gap that exists between the way things are and the way we represent them through language. ‘It’s not what it is, it’s what we call it’ is the way this is summed up by Richard Bandler, if not the father at least a co-parent, of Neuro-Linguistic Programming .

NLP as it is known by some (or ‘pile of crap’ as it is known by others) is a good place to start a little diatribe about learning styles and the vehement ‘for and against’ debate that is circulating online and elsewhere. Like learning styles, for every person pointing to the evidence proving NLP is simply pseudo-psychiatric tosh, there are others simply getting on and using it to make a difference. There may be no scientific evidence to support the claim that when we visualise things we tend to look up and that good spellers tend to have a visual strategy for spelling words indicated by the fact that when they spell a word they tend to look up. Even so, I have taught poor spellers to spell better by using that strategy. I have also taught people to be less scared of things that scared them and how to feel confident facing an Australian fast-bowler using techniques from NLP.

It may be hogwash but as it works I’ll carry on using it until the research matches the evidence one way or the other. (A case in point is controversial new research that indicates we may indeed have a visual dictionary in which we store words.)

Similarly with learning styles, the last thing anyone should do is hand out stickers to certain students that say ‘I’m a kinesthetic learner – wake me for the role play’. Pigeonholing, classifying and treating anything as ‘the way that it is’ in a classroom is on shaky ground in my book. But the essence of learning styles is variety. If you don’t ‘get it’ one way (for example the teacher telling it to you) then maybe you’ll ‘get it’ another way (for example the teacher showing it to you). And if you know that when you hear it, it doesn’t go in but when you see it, it does, than maybe you can refer to that as a ‘preference’. Or even a ‘learning style’. But whatever you call it, it isn’t what it is, it’s just what you call it.

I have been in too many situations where young people who weren’t ‘getting it’ one way then started ‘getting it’ when we tried a different way, to dismiss the whole learning styles thing as a fad.

As a teacher, I don’t care what the different learning styles a class of children have (although knowing such things when working with individual learners can be useful in my experience) and I don’t care what you call it. All I know is that a variety of learning approaches (you can call it VAK, you can call it multi-sensory learning, you can call it the application of the Dunn and Dunn Learning Styles Model, you can call it whatever you want) makes a difference and helps me as a teacher and them as learners.

An understanding of learning styles was a big move forward in the push to ensure classrooms were places where children learned not just where teachers taught. Retreating to the ivory tower and insisting you aren’t going to countenance learning styles until there is irrefutable academic evidence to prove they exist, other than the fact they do, could simply prove a backward step when it comes to 21st century learning.

And there’s enough of those going on, taking us into some very dodgy territory, as it is.