In 2000, I was in my 5th year as a teacher, working in a high school in Jerusalem. I was also working towards my Masters in Education through the University of Leeds, which weirdly happened to have a department above a Toyota showroom in the industrial quarter of the city.
As part of the course, we were encouraged to carry out action research, which I absolutely loved. It was the perfect way to marry academic enquiry and actual practice and it was a great way to challenge my own thinking around what works by taking an interest in evidence-informed practice. In vogue at the time was the now much-maligned “learning styles”. Working in such a diverse school, I found it fascinating how I would reach each and every student in my classes and set about reading everything I could about de Bono’s thinking hats, multiple intelligence, learning styles and more.
My learning styles action research project
For my final research project, I decided to undertake a two-term study with one of my groups of students, examining the effect of learning styles on the class. Having studied anthropology for my BA, I knew this shouldn’t be structured as some kind of scientific laboratory project and I wanted to make sure that my ‘subjects’ were fully involved so that they could give me valuable insights into their very subjective and personal experiences as we went along. I began by explaining to my students with great excitement what I had been reading, and what I planned to do with them over the course of the rest of the academic year. They were interested. Not least because they hadn’t had such an interaction with a teacher before and it made them curious.
I set about testing each student in the class to see what their dominant learning style was and I did a test to see what my most comfortable teaching style was. Once we had all completed the test, we discussed what we thought this meant for each of us. It was so interesting to see best friends in the class suddenly realising that they were not the “same” in their favoured style of taking in and processing information and that they may need to part ways during lessons if they were to make real progress. I then went about the massive task of writing my lesson plans and homework assignments so that each and every child’s favoured style was catered for. Amazingly, I then taught an entire class of 27 kids, with each using their preferred learning style as identified by the test.
I distinctly remember stepping back one afternoon to proudly behold my bold creation as some students were huddled in a small group, one was pacing the room, a couple had headphones on and were lying on mats on the floor and one lone student, who learned best through traditional face-the-front teacher-talk had me and her working one opposite the other.
What actually happened was encouraging
Some amazing things started to happen. Firstly, I had been nervous about this experiment as the class was not easy to manage at the best of times. There was a small core of boys who misbehaved and some disengaged girls who were really struggling and therefore would switch off or egg the boys on to muck about and provide some distraction. But suddenly, there was a buzz of purposeful activity, the kids were arriving on time and getting stuck in, eager to receive their very personalised instructions for the lesson.
Secondly, they were all doing their homework and handing it in. Again, the personalised nature of the tasks and their knowledge of “what works for me” meant that they were now getting organised at home and trying out their newfound learning style preference without the intervention of the teacher. They were starting to take ownership.
Thirdly, their grades were improving. And the most stunning thing was that as their form tutor, I was being informed that their grades were improving across the board as was their engagement and behaviour in other classes.
I also learned that arranging every lesson in such a detailed, multi-faceted and involved way would kill me if I had to do it for every lesson and for every child. I taught English full time to Year 7 through to Year 10. This would not be realistic or sustainable.
What I learned about learning
We did a lot of talking about learning. Since these students were also my form tutor class, I had an hour a week to do what I wanted with them and we explored issues around learning a lot in discussions. I also carried out an in-depth interview with each child and recorded the interviews as part of my research evidence. I was delighted that each child seemed so much more engaged and motivated by learning and not just in my lessons, but across the board. I wanted to know why this was and asked the class what they thought were the reasons.
Reason 1: Enthusiasm
My own tangible excitement and enthusiasm for the project was contagious. The children were swept along. It also meant I had massive energy to prepare intricate and individualised lesson materials, which the children appreciated. My own conviction that this was going to work, probably made me completely focused on the elements of it that were working, and made me less anxious about any behaviour or other issues that might have escalated if I had paid any attention to them!
Reason 2: Trust
My attitude towards the students was completely trusting. I was ready to let them have some freedom and I trusted them to behave well and respect the experiment we were undertaking together. We had taken the time to talk through the evidence behind the reason for this experiment in the first place, I had trusted them to be equal partners in the process and they trusted me to be responsible and responsive to their needs. Compared with the sometimes very didactic and controlled learning experience these students were having in other classes, this was very enticing.
Reason 3: Metacognition
Recently, a study of 1,850 pupils in 30 primary schools, commissioned by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), tested a programme intended to develop pupils’ ability to think about their learning, assess their progress and set and monitor goals. In my opinion, this is the single most valuable thing about learning styles. Learning styles themselves are about as useful as knowing your horoscope and then trying to arrange the world around it. But the simple act of engaging deeply and meaningfully with yourself as a learner is absolutely vital to learning. In my in-depth interviews with the students, each of them had gone through a deep realisation that they were the masters of their own destiny as far as learning was concerned. And not in the usual blamey “it’s up to you so pull yourself together” kind of way.
It is the learning and not necessarily the style that matters
My students had been given an opportunity to think about the reasons why they found certain things interesting and other things difficult and had been pushed to think of ways to make things work better for themselves. The language had changed from “the teacher doesn’t teach in an interesting way” or “the subject is boring” or “I am not good at x” to thinking about what they needed to learn and how they could ensure that this learning stuck, allowing them to engage, encouraging greater depth and progress. One student found taking notes while listening virtually impossible. She opted instead to record the lessons and then make notes later at home when she was under less pressure. It freed her up to engage in discussion, ask questions and be fully present in lessons, knowing she had the rest recorded to refer back to. Another student found the skill of asking for further explanation, after years of pretending he knew what was going on because he was too embarrassed to appear slow. We had created a culture whereby there was no standard one-size fits all learner and different needs were acceptable. A huge part of real learning is ownership. It is thinking about thinking and knowing about knowing. It is knowing about yourself as a learner and owning that.
Even though it might be hugely embarrassing now to admit that I ever dabbled in the dark arts of learning styles, I am really grateful that I did. In a roundabout way, I discovered what I only learned a decade later to be called metacognition. It also reinforced my own belief that teaching is about relationships and that includes not only the students’ relationship to their teacher and each other in the class, but their own relationship with themselves as learners.