Across the Great Divide: learning styles and the prog vs trad debate.

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(Or, why I’m a ‘Trog’)

A recent twitter post got me thinking again about the Learning Style debate and how this has become a highly political issue.

A guaranteed way to garner approval, ensuring your tweet is buoyant with likes, is of course to criticise and renounce learning style (VAK) theory. I even read a tweet from one of the ‘learning scientists’ which claimed that seeing VAK (learning style) resources made her feel physically sick – not a very scientific response.

Before we explore learning style theory, it’s useful to understand the political climate in the edu twittersphere, which of course reflects attitudes in the teaching profession, albeit the more strident, polemical ones.

Those with traditional views (Trads) often come into conflict with those with more progressive views (Progs). These opposing views may be reflected in the different roots of the Latin for ‘education’: educere and educare.

Educare suggests to shape or mold (Trad), and educere: to draw or lead out (Prog).

The difference is well explained here in a blog by Matthew Gioia:

In an article which explores the dichotomy between the Trad vs Prog extremes, Oyler and Becker discuss the approach in which the student’s personal knowledge is neglected vs that in which the teacher’s achieved cultural knowledge is ‘an embarrassment’. They suggest a variant on the old metaphor: the rock and the soft place. The rock represents the teacher as the authority, the boss, the font of all knowledge, supported by the current Trad narrative of ‘expert vs novice’. The soft place represents the teacher as gardener, facilitator – providing opportunities for the student to work things out for themselves.

Where does learning style theory fit into this?

Learning styles theorist Neil Fleming developed the acronym, VARK, Visual, Aural, Reading/Writing, and
Kinesthetic, referring to the instructional preference in which students, or people in society
prefer to take in and give out information. According to Fleming, the Visual aspect of this
acronym refers to those who prefer to look at graphs, charts, hierarchies, symbols, and things that
other teachers use to represent words (in place of words). For a person with a visual instructional
preference, the layout, design, and colouring of a page give them meaning.

The Aural/auditory part of the acronym refers to those who have a speaking or hearing instructional preference. For example, these people learn best through group discussions, receiving feedback, phone calls, presentations, and through speaking with others.

The Reading/Writing part of this acronym refers to those whose instructional preference is working with words that are either read or written. Lastly, the kinaesthetic part of this acronym refers to those whose instructional preferences are through “learning by doing” for example, experiences, examples, and/or practice (Fleming, N. D., 2011).

Fleming was interested in inviting teachers to explore their own individual preferences, which in turn would help them to understand and meet the needs of their students.

Another theory originated from David Kolb, who published his learning styles model in 1984 from which he developed his learning style inventory.

Kolb’s experiential learning theory works on two levels: a four-stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles.  Much of Kolb’s theory is concerned with the learner’s internal cognitive processes.

Howard Gardner (1989) believed that students learn in ways that are identifiably distinctive.
Because of this, Gardner thought it would be best to assess learning in a variety of ways, which
is how he came up with the idea of multiple intelligences. Under the Gardner’s multiple
intelligences, he describes seven different and distinctive learning styles into which he believes
that students, and society for that matter, are categorised.

The commonality between these theories is that they are all student centred. This is at odds with the Trad perspective: that students should not be encouraged to express learning preferences and that to engage in this is somehow ‘damaging’ (see above tweet), that the teacher is expert and a disseminator of information.

The demonisation of learning style theory serves to shift pedagogy to the left, Trad view, with teachers claiming to be ‘socialist in principle and conservative in pedagogy’ (is this possible?). Instead, the theory is to be replaced with ‘cognitive science’ and Cognitive Load Theory – Sweller’s work which packages working memory theory with instructional design.

In doing so, what is lost?… perhaps the student voice and experience, which are crucial if we are to engage in metacognitive processes (another current buzz word).

Working memory theory is of course the link between Learning Style Theory and Cognitive Load Theory. If one accepts the construct of working memory, as comprised of a separate auditory and visual aspect, it makes sense that students who struggle to process and retain auditory input benefit from visuals.

In fact, it is possible to measure these abilities separately, and students with dyslexia typically have a strong visual memory; a poor auditory one.

Moreover, when talking with, and supporting students from Primary through to degree level, I find this to be the case: access to visuals helps them to retain auditory information.

The field of cognitive psychology focuses on processing deficits such as phonology, working memory and processing speed. Educational research tends to ignore dyslexia or to include it with other reading difficulties, making interpretation of the data difficult. Much of what does exist that adds to the discourse around the dyslexic experience, comes from autobiographies or collections of case studies outside academic research (Riddick, 1996).

Educational research focuses on ‘what works’ for all, when the truth might be that for learners with good arousal, strong memory and automatic skills of reading and writing, the quality or style of teaching has little impact. Instead, consider what works for the struggling learners, this is where the impact of effective teaching can be found.

As in the field of education, there is divide in the field of scientific research. The positivist approach is logical and mathematical, delivered with certainty and reliant on data, whereas an interpretivist approach focuses on finding meaning and exploring the human experience: reality is complex and multi-layered. In this approach researchers use interviews and observation.

In her article ‘Learning Style: Snake Oil or Solid Strategy’, Tilly Mortimore talks of the limitations of the Random Controlled Trial (RCT):

‘How can we avoid over-refining the context and eliminating any of the nuances of real life?How reliable are the instruments we develop to measure impact or change in an interventions study?Can we collect a sufficiently large and standardised sample and can we really divide it reliably into, for example a dyslexic group and a non-dyslexic control group? This kind of research may be effective and reliable with medical trials or neuroscientific work but lab rats are not complicated human beings’.

The rise in accountability measures and the commoditisation of education has triggered an exponential rise in the number of ‘experts’ and resource providers.

Does this serve to detract from, and undermine, the ‘teacher as expert’ narrative?

Simon Gibbs’ book Immoral Education suggests that teachers have been reduced to operators, with their professional identity eroded:

 ‘…the book provides a rationale that argues an essential ingredient of good education is the quality of teachers who have a reaffirmed sense of creativity, autonomy and agency. The book presents a role for educational psychology in informing educational and inclusive processes, filling a longstanding need for a text that delineates the way psychological phenomena underpin education.’

It makes sense that teachers have access to appropriate research on the science of learning during training to be a teacher, that they enter the workplace feeling equipped with knowledge and that they go on to develop a singular practice, with co-agency, purpose and a sense of autonomy.

The Learning Style backlash seems to serve to punish teachers for the one theory they tried to adapt and use in the classroom, further shaming and reducing them. Perhaps it is the resource providers and trainers that are to blame for misinterpreting and oversimplifying the theory – something that has happened with Mindset theory and is just as likely to happen with Cognitive Load Theory etc

Metacognition is thinking about thinking, understanding how we learn best is part of this and it helps to combat learned helplessness and passivity in the classroom. In the words of Steve Raynor, former Emeritus Professor, Newman University, UK:

‘The key theme for utilising the style construct theory is captured perfectly in the popular song, It is not what you do, it is the way that you do it. The point is not that content is unimportant but that being aware and knowing more about ‘how I tend to do it‘ can immeasurably help in my ‘doing it better‘. Steve Rayner (2015).

As an assessor and teacher of learners with dyslexia, I have a unique insight into how they think and learn. Moreover, I am curious and always ready to learn from them in turn. I neither feel that a learner is an empty vessel to be filled with knowledge, nor that a learner can acquire knowledge and skills solely through exploration and play. This misapprehension is particularly popular amongst early years practitioners and is deeply problematic.

On the prog/trad scale, I am somewhere in the middle – a Trog you might say.

As @paulgarvey4 says, it seems there is #thereisnobestwayoverall . The most strident advocates of each extreme, the ones engaged in the most aggressive debates, are usually the most poorly informed.

This does not bode well if these are the people we hope will foster critical thinking amongst our students.

Can we have the best of both worlds? Perhaps if we remain curious…


Haswell, Joanna, “A Close Look at Learning Styles” (2017). Honors Senior Capstone Projects. 23.

Mortimer, T (2019) Learning Style: Snake Oil or Solid Strategy? PATOSS Bulletin vol 32, no 2

Rayner, S. G. (2015) Cognitive Styles and Learning Styles, Newman University, Birmingham, UK., Elsevier Ltd

Oyler, C., and Becker, J., (1997) Teaching beyond the Progressive. Traditional Dichotomy: Sharing Authority and Sharing Vulnerability, Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter, 1997), pp. 453-467Taylor & Francis, Ltd.

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