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On Learning styles and Phil Beadle: throwing babies out with the bath water

In my last BLOG I discussed Learning Styles. I would perhaps say a little more on this issue. Also I note the debate on Phil Beadle’s book, “How To Teach”. I won’t address the issues directly, enough has been said already but I will give a view from my own experiences.

I went to a bog standard comp’ in the seventies and eighties, in one of the poorest wards in the country.  The area was full of drug dealers and general disorder was common place. The school was full of violence, intimidation and aggression. Thankfully the students weren’t that bad.

Listening to Michael Wilshaw recently, I didn’t recognise my school from his description of 1970’s schools to the education select committee (or whatever committee it was ). Trendy teaching didn’t exist and poor behaviour was mainly exhibited by teachers. I was hit regularly with pumps, metre rules, chalk, sticks and almost any throwable missile. The reasons; forgetting Art apron, talking, smirking and well, just being within reaching distance. I suppose if you are under forty you might be surprised that this level of violence was widespread in the education system.

And no I wasn’t scarred by it. In fact one of the problems was that after a period the teachers couldn’t hit you hard enough to really make a difference. So it stopped working. That was of apart from one teacher, a Math teacher. In later life I wondered why his particular brand of violence was so effective and the others so ineffective. I realised that the difference was that  he used his punishments to manage learning whilst the others did it to manage behaviour.

I was always poor at Maths regularly coming bottom of classes of 30 or more students. I encountered Mr Brown (as I shall call him) in the third year. In the first lesson I took up my usual place in the class at the back. My mate and fellow conspirator Greeny was late and was forced to sit in the middle. After a few minutes Mr Brown already had my number and made me switch from the back to the middle. This was a puzzle not only had he sat me next to my mate but also, in the middle, not at the front. Rubbing my hands with glee I immediately began to perpetrate the kind of annoying low level disruption, that drives us all mad. I wasn’t that bad really, but you know we all had our moments.

“Greeny Greeny did you hear the Quo on Top of the Pop’s last night, Rocking all over the world”

“THWACK”

“What the f*ck Sir”

“THWACK”

He had launched board duster that hit me square in the middle of the forehead between the eyes. The pain was incredible as was the surprise. And then did it again.

And that was the way it was with Mr Brown. No warnings, no messing around just pain. Not only when you misbehaved but when you performed poorly, or your attention began to wander, “THWACK”. And that was the difference , you didn’t know when it was coming. Just THWACK and pain.

Generally teachers hit your hand with a metre rule. Even if they raised it above their heads it didn’t hurt that much. It wasn’t a shock there was no chance you were going to be maimed or scarred. Arguments had been had before the event. Much nudging, sniggering and back slapping after the event.

That board duster, though, just THWACK, pain and continue. Strangely enough I did really well in that class. Mr Brown had no charm or charisma but he did have an effective teaching style. Simple instruction, lots of practice and praise. Genuine praise! Within 6 months I had progressed into the top ten in the group and began to enjoy Math for the first time. It didn’t last. The next year I was passed onto to someone else and went back to the bottom of the class again. Not that the new teacher was  bad a teacher, but just not what I needed at the time. Some people get Math easily and others not. I always like to understand why I was doing something and Math was too abstract for me. So I just decided that it was pointless. Mr Brown made me realise there was a point to it. You did it because otherwise, he hit you between the eyes with a board duster.

And you might say what is the point of this salutory tale? Well I think you can learn a lot from Practice. Research evidence is good but it has to work in practice, what is best is what works. Now I’m not advocating a return to corporal punishment or the teaching techniques of the seventies. But sometimes they worked really well and you can learn from them.

I experienced Mr Brown’s practice and eventually saw the point of it. Could you replicate that in a research scenario? Sometimes you have to let things develop before you reject them. Often what is important is understanding the circumstances in which they are to be used. And that has been the problem with education. Poorly conceived and delivered professional development, and a huge hierarchy engaging in box ticking activities removes the context and purpose from pedagogic approaches that could be purposeful.

So Learning Styles have been debunked by some Psychologists. Others continue on with it from the perspective of it’s meta-cognitive properties (Carol Evans being one) . Is it too early to ditch it? I think so but let us be clear the kind of idiocy that sees it used as a means to allocate a V, A or K to a learner has to end. That is where the problem lies not with exploratory pedagogic approaches.

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