In the mid-1800s Chinese labourers working on the transcontinental railroad in America would rub snake oil into the aching limbs of their fellow workers. It had been used for centuries in Chinese medicine to treat joint problems such as arthritis and was an oil derived specifically from Chinese sea snakes. It was when this critical ingredient was replaced with oil from the more abundant and, for marketing purposes, much more scary rattlesnake that the term ‘snake oil’ began to become the catch-all term for lotions and potions that promised more medically than they delivered physically.

Within education, ‘snake oil’ seems to be a badge of honour on Twitter profiles and blogs among people looking to ridicule claims about learning theories that are not backed up by rigorous scientific research. They particularly save their ire for the ‘VAK’ concept which grew out of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) which itself grew out of a controversial brand of Californian hypnosis and psychotherapy in the 70s. And, on one hand, rightly so. Educators have a professional responsibility to be cynical about ideas and innovations that promise to be the silver bullet but that don’t deliver (that is to say, all of them).

For me, though the bigger question is whether thinking in terms of different approaches to learning in a classroom setting is a bad thing? I’ve spent many years talking to teachers about VAK (among other things and never, ever, in terms of sticking labels on children that say ‘I’m a kinaesthetic learner!) and using it in the classroom. I’ve seen teachers introduce ideas using only spoken language that made little sense to me or the children but when represented visually suddenly become a great deal clearer to all. I’ve seen demotivated, disinterested children suddenly start to engage with their learning because they had the chance to interact with it physically. I’ve seen children unable to ‘get it’ by simply reading about it, quickly ‘get it’ when it is explained out loud to them. I’ve seen entire classes become transformed by teachers who started to take seriously the old adage, ‘If they don’t learn the way I teach them then I’ll have to teach them the way they learn’.

Now, whether that’s about learning styles or whether it’s simply a question of multiplicity of learning approaches I don’t know. And to be honest, I don’t really care. If something makes a difference in the classroom, I’ll take it. For me, as I have always said, it all boils down to the magic word ‘variety’ anyway. ‘Different approaches in different ways at different times’ goes a long way in helping all children become learners in my experience. If the concept of learning styles works as a tool to open up teachers to the idea of learning and learners and not simply teaching and delivery than I can live with that.

It’s like the 90s craze for water in the classroom. Many teachers I spoke to at the time felt that it made a positive difference when they introduced it yet when I asked my paediatric neurologist friend if there was any research on the use of water to improve learning he said there was none. He did, however, go on to give me a number of possible theories based on sound neuroscience as to why water in the classroom could help. In other words, the claims behind why this particular snake oil worked may not have been true but that shouldn’t mask the fact that it made a discernibly positive difference.

There is, after all, a big distinction between asking ‘how it works’ and asking ‘if it works’.

My worry with all the clamor for randomized control trials, research-led education in the classroom and all the pseudo-intellectual backbiting taking place that we will end up using the question, ‘Where’s the research?’ when we should be using the more pragmatic question, ‘Does it work?’ As one report on the placebo effect in medicine cited in the BMJ suggests, ‘We cannot afford to dispense with any treatment that works, even if we are not certain how it does’.

What’s more, the blogs that I have read happily decrying learning styles don’t seem to offer an alternative to what teachers should be doing instead apart from, apparently, wait for Ben Goldacre to tell them what they can use instead. Not offering a variety of ways of learning seems to imply teaching everyone the same way all the time? Now that would surely be a backwards step.

I have always encouraged teachers to embrace a more action-research-based approach to their practice, to treat their classroom as laboratories and to do things with and not to their children. I also urge them to keep up to date with whatever science will start to tell us about learning but to do so with an ever-vigilant pragmatic eye based on one simple question, ‘Does this improve learning in my classroom with my children – yes or no?’ If the answer is no, move on. If the answer is yes, embrace it and wait for the research to catch up.

Talking of which, research since the 1980s has identified the medical benefits of omega-3 fatty acids for reducing inflammation in conditions such as arthritis as well as improving cognitive functioning and reducing blood pressure and cholesterol. One rich source of these omega-3s is the Erabu sea snake, the very same animal used in the original Chinese snake oil that brought relief to the railroad workers one hundred years before. Funny that…