Education and Politics · Policy and Practice · Teaching and Learning

The “others” who just know

Have you ever wondered who makes the decisions that affect us in the classroom? Yes? So have I. So if you’ve ever been to a professional development session and wondered where a particular concept came from then sometimes it’s worth doing a bit of digging. I once took the time to try to find out why VAK learning styles had become so endemic in education. In the end, it didn’t turn out to be an easy task but two things became clear; firstly how many people involved in education policy are not educationalists and secondly how many government bodies there are and how often they change their names and functions.

So where does the VAK learning styles story begin? I originally assumed that it began in the field of research. As it turned out there was relatively little research on VAK learning styles. A huge number on learning styles per se (see Coffield, 2004) but little specifically about VAK learning styles.

Therefore, I changed tack and looked at government policy documents. In fact, the earliest reference to VAK learning styles I could find in government documents was a VAK learning styles questionnaire produced by FEDA in 1999. Subsequently I found references to VAK learning styles by government funded organisations such as BECTA. Both organisations are now gone as are many others.

It seemed from a policy perspective that VAK learning styles really began to gain traction as a construct to support the policy of personalisation. In 2004, David Milliband was as a junior minister in the department of education and skills. In his policy document, Personalised learning: building a new relationship with schools, Milliband describes

……. a system in which every child matters; careful attention is paid to their individual learning styles, motivations and needs; there is rigorous use of pupil target setting linked to high quality formative assessment and marking; lessons are well paced and enjoyable; and pupils are supported by partnerships with others beyond the classroom

(Milliband, 2004, p. 2)

Milliband refers specifically to “individual learning styles” within the context of the Every Child Matters (ECM) agenda but does not state a specific type of learning style or how they should be used.

The purpose of the personalisation agenda was described as a means to diminish the persistent achievement gaps between different social and ethnic groups outlined in the White Paper: Higher Standards, Better Schools for All (2005, p. 50).

At the time personalisation was a concept that had been floating around think tanks for a while, in this case Demos, and introduced into the policy arena by the publication of a paper Personalisation through participation by Charles Leadbeater in 2003. It is not clear whether Leadbeater had much experience in the social services or education it seems that he was a journalist prior to his move into policy with Demos. Nonetheless, personalisation developed with the intention of including service users in the planning of provision, by the time Milliband had finished with it the concept had become something different altogether.

Now if you are anything like me the hackles begin to rise when you hear a “mish mash” of fairly bog standard teaching concepts such as; learning styles, formative assessment, marking and delivering enjoyable lessons described as “pioneering work” as it is in the text below from the Milliband’s original policy document. There is also reference to two other government bodies, the Implementation Review Unit, which was setup by the partners to the National Agreement on Workforce Reform. The former is currently being (or has recently been) reviewed and the latter is …well…. if you are interested, feel free to look it up.

The proposals have been developed significantly from the pioneering work of the Implementation Review Unit, which was set up by the partners to the National Agreement on Workforce Reform, and I pay tribute to their efforts and look forward to working with them as this agenda progresses.

(Milliband, 2004, p. 2)

As I began to lose interest (and the will to live), I did begin to wonder how many government agencies, quangos, “think tanks”, and policy makers does it take to cobble together a personalisation agenda. Clearly, it takes quite a few. Ironically in the very same year that David Milliband was launching his policy document proclaiming a “new relationships with schools” another government department, the  Learning and Skills Development Agency (subsequently the Learning and Skills Network and now gone) funded a piece of research by Frank Coffield. This research poured quite a good deal of scorn on the notion that learning styles can identify an individual’s learning preferences.

I’m not sure I really got to the nub of VAK learning styles. I think it was little more than a policy convenience. It sounded right – it made sense. If you only engage with education at a conceptual level and do not enegage with it at a practical level it probably sounds plausible. Even so it was interesting to note that since personalisation was announced in 2004, the department of education and skills (formed in 2001) has been  split it into the Department for Children, Schools and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in 2007. Subsequently Michael Gove created a single department in 2010, the Department for Education.

The ECM policy agenda has now been shelved but not before a great deal has been spent on glossy brochures and, professional development etc. Personalisation as a concept still exists albeit as ill defined as it ever was and teachers still formatively assess, mark, and deliver enjoyable sessions as much as they ever did. VAK learning styles are still being debunked on a daily basis (see Daniel T Willingham).

As for David Milliband we all know that after his brief stint in education he is no longer in politics. The moral of the tale is that as a profession we tend to think that someone somewhere knows more than we do. The “others” who just know. Often that is not the case. As often as not those making the decisions or influencing decision makers are not educational professors (in their ivory towers) but those who have made a career influencing people, journalists, think tankers, politicians and the like.

Time for a change perhaps? 2014 seems like a good year to start.

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6 thoughts on “The “others” who just know

    1. Thanks for that. I’d heard of a strain of research into VARK by a guy called Smith in the mid 90’s but never encountered VAK.

      You learn something new every day.

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