Most of us have probably encountered some form of learning style quiz.  Even very recent education theory favoured identifying if a learner preferred one of four main learning styles or VARK ( Visual, Auditory, Reading and Kinesthetic).  I have used this myself with younger learners. Recent research like the link above, moves us away from a reliance on categorizing learners.  While it is useful to understand that learners need different styles of teaching and environments to learn, we must also be clear that learners can have a range of preferences and reactions.

Much of the attention has been on kinesthetic learning. In my experience this is because traditional learning environments are not conducive to learning! Most learners need to move, to change position in the room or at the desk, to touch or to interact with materials.  Sitting at a desk, rote learning, for hours at a time, leaves learners bored and causes classroom behaviour issues. We see this even at adult level with people struggling to sit still or remain quiet in conferences, seminars or meetings that are unengaging or which run over time.

Dual coding is essentially mixing images, symbols, colour and text in order to map, record and retain information. It builds an easy to remember reference that people can then revise or work from. Many people automatically default to this style of recording notes or thoughts. It permits a visual and informative record of key information. So people who doodle or who note take with diagrams and text are to be encouraged. It is often a more reliable means of retaining information long term.

We do not need to forget VARK. What we can do is turn it around and make it more about teaching style. Are we varying our materials and classroom set up? Are we allowing students to move, to interact, to have time reading as well as time creating? This is a process called differentiation. Differentiated materials offer accessible learning or are tailored to different student levels. Preparing such learning support for large classes can be a challenge.  Recently, I have seen this replaced by Mastery learning theory: this states that students are all equally expected to rise to a challenge. Mastery asks learners to keep challenging themselves and to find where they failed.

My teaching experience would suggest that a balance of the two is necessary. Teaching is a human experience: it requires nuance and careful management of a room where needs can change in a second. Not all learners will respond to the unforgiving Mastery method, which is similar to the Try Harder culture in Information Security. Balance. Just balance is needed. A teacher’s one job is to ensure that everyone understands and meets the lesson outcomes. It is a demanding job that is part performance, part social worker, part psychologist. A good teacher understands that not everyone in the room will be able to access material at the same level. That even the learner who grasped it all yesterday, might be having a bad day today.

To teach is to aim to inspire a love for a subject and a desire to know more. It is about showing students that they are capable of more than they imagined.

That means that before we say try harder and dismiss a question. Before we slam down ten booklets of course content or begin a long lecture, that we should pause and remember the humans in front of us. Learning new things as adults especially, is an incredibly vulnerable moment.  For all learners, a classroom exposes them to risk of failure and ridicule.

If you run a classroom, you are responsible for encouraging and supporting people through what is often a challenging experience. How you react to their questions is critical to how they will respond to others’ who ask questions in the future. Taking a course isn’t a rite of passage or the Hunger Games. It isn’t trauma that we seek to pass on to others.

Learning happens when teachers take the lid off the pot of knowledge and reveal the secret ingredients in the recipe. It happens when people understand things they never expected to, discover new things and develop a desire to use and communicate this new knowledge.

So I like dual coding: it reminds us that there are two sides in a classroom- teacher and learner. I also think it is a pleasing way of making notes. Most of all because it reminds us that there are many ways to learn.

Photo credit: #UKBlackTech

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