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Learning Styles at University

Back at the beginning of September, I received my reading list from uni. Book upon book about learning styles.

Considering all I’ve read over the course of the last year, it was playing on my mind when I went to enrol.

I flicked through the pack of documents we were handed and inwardly sighed when I found three questionnaires to be filled in to determine what sort of person I am. I really didn’t want to be that person – some sort of know it all, questioning things on their very first day.

During the afternoon, we had to fill in the first of the questionnaires to find out if we were reflectors, pragmatists, activists or theorists (Honey and Mumford) and were separated into our respective groups to discuss how accurate we thought it was, how well did the descriptions fit us and what the limitations were.

After this, we were given time to complete the other questionnaires.

So far, so frustrating.

We were sent on our merry way with some tasks to do before the next day school, which included writing up our findings from the questionnaires (allowing me to put my point across) and reading some articles about learning styles. About the ‘dogma invading our classrooms’, about how ‘VAK-uous’ it all was. Better. We were to write a critique about one of these articles so everyone must have gotten fairly well acquainted with at least one of them.

Roughly a month later, we all reassembled for day school 2. We’d all done some research on a chosen theorist – Bloom, Maslow, Kolb, Goleman and Illich, which we then fed back to our peers.

Then it got a little bit interesting.

We were asked to raise our hands if we thought learning styles were of value and use. A lot of hands went up. We were asked to raise our hands if, after all of our research, we thought that learning styles were questionable and of little value. I raised my hand as soon as the tutor started formulating the question. I was quietly joined by a few others.

Split into groups to formulate some arguments for and against, I found myself in a group of five. In the middle, the undecided of about seven or eight and then, at the other side of the room, a huge group of at least twenty, perhaps more.

Patiently, we listened to their side of the argument. We didn’t make it to the end of ours before an outraged person interrupted. Obviously, we were the enemies of children and education, denying them the chance to learn in the way that really suits them. Of course, we batted back with all we could (research? Proof? Evidence?) but they were pretty closed off to any other opinion.

It was actually a bit prickly at the time.

The undecided remained undecided.

I tried.

Learning through play

After failing abysmally to keep up with #ukedchat on twitter, I thought I would write here what I should have wrote there.

Learning through play sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? It works so well in the EYFS/KS1 bracket, it’s a shame that it isn’t more widely used in the higher age ranges, isn’t it?

Well, that depends.

I trained, many moons ago, as a Playworker. With a capital P. So I can only answer questions about play from that, slightly altered perspective.

First things first, what is play? Bob Hughes is a good place to start; this is from his book, “Evolutionary playwork and reflective analytic practice”:

“According to the literature, behaviour has to satisfy several of the following criteria to be play. It has to:
– be spontaneous (Patrick, 1914)
– be first-hand experience and include struggle, manipulation, exploration, discovery and practice (Bruce, 1994)
– be goalless – it is often described in terms of process rather than product (Bruner, 1972)
– be freely chosen, i.e., is a voluntary activity (Neuman, 1973)
– be personally directed by the child (Hughes, 1996b)
– be intrinsically motivated, i.e., performed by the child for no external goal or reward (Koestler, 1964)
– be where the child is in control of the content and intent (Hughes, 2000)
– contain play cues or meta-signals, like eye contacts, facial expressions and body positions that start processes of many social and non-social engagements (Bateson, 1955; Else and Sturrock, 1998)
– be a performance of motor patterns in novel sequences, like galumphing, or movements out of context, like the cat that runs sideways with its tail at an odd angle (Miller, 1973)
– be repetitious, thus facilitating learning of complex skills (Connolly, 1973)
– be neophilic, i.e., attracted to the novel, new, fun, interesting (Morris, 1964, 1967)
– be non-detrimental (King, 1987)
– balance experience (Hughes, 1988).

And if it does not satisfy several of these criteria, whatever else it is, it is not play.”

Certainly, some of those criteria can be met in a playful classroom – but can enough of them be seen to use the term “play”? Having a quick game of blockbusters-wants to be a millionaire may be a fun way to reinforce learning but it’s not play. Having the play dough out so the children can make animals (and you can get them to do a bit of maths) -it’s not really play. Anything you plan wipes out a huge proportion of that list.

Even a subject like art (in our school, at least) has a focus on the outcome. That surprised me. I still struggle with that, to be honest. I’ve heard children be told that they aren’t painting in the correct way – same direction only, folks! I thought art was about freedom of expression and creativity. The argument is there that the children need to learn the technical aspects, they need to practice, consider and refine. Play could be squishing your hands in the poster paint because it feels cold and slimy. You might find out that when you rub your yellow hand and your blue hand, they both turn green but that’s because you like the slippery slidiness and the unfamiliar feel of it on the backs of your hands. You might decide to wipe it along a piece of paper, just to see what happens. This doesn’t get you to paint in the style of Kandinsky though, does it?

This is where I begin to struggle to conflate (capital P) Play and (school, outcome obsessed) learning.

Maybe you have a better experience? I’d love to hear about it if so.