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Professor pans 'learning style' teaching method

 
Baroness Greenfield
Baroness Greenfield

A leading scientist has dismissed the latest approach to teaching that has been endorsed by the Government and embraced by teachers.

Under the new system children are considered to have different "learning styles" and instead of being taught by the conventional method of listening to a teacher, they should be allowed to wander around, listen to music and even play with balls in the classroom.

But now Baroness Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institute and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, has dismissed as "nonsense" the view that pupils prefer to receive information either by sight, sound or touch.

She said that the method of classifying pupils on the basis of "learning styles" is a waste of valuable time and resources.

The approach, first introduced in the United States following research on brain development, is being adopted by an increasing number of schools, colleges and local authorities and forms a key part of the Government's drive for "personalised learning". In effect, it dismisses so-called "chalk and talk" teaching as inadequate.

Pupils are instead given questionnaires to discover if they prefer to learn through "visual, auditory or kinaesthetic" (Vak) teaching. Once identified, the teacher will allow a visual child to learn through looking at cartoons, pictures and fast-moving computer programmes. A "kinaesthetic" learner will be allowed to spread their work on the floor, wander round while they are thinking or learn through dance and drama. In some schools, pupils' desks are even labelled to indicate their learning styles.

According to Susan Greenfield, however, the practice is "nonsense" from a neuroscientific point of view: "Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together - the sound of a voice is synchronisation with the movement of a person's lips - that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart.

"The rationale for employing Vak learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that Vak, or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits."

Baroness Greenfield's heavyweight criticism will be welcomed by academics who have been trying to debunk the notion of learning styles, as it fast becomes education orthodoxy in the UK.

Frank Coffield, a professor at London University's institute of education, who reviewed 13 models of learning styles, insists that the approach is theoretically incoherent and confused.

"As well as Vak, I came across labelling such as 'activists' versus 'reflectors', 'globalists' versus 'analysts' and 'left brainers' versus 'right brainers'. There is no scientific justification for any of these terms," he said.

"We do students a serious disservice by implying they have only one learning style, rather than a flexible repertoire from which to choose, depending on the context."

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