The Myth of Different Learning Styles

Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic (VAK) learning

The model of different learning styles that was presented by Barbe and colleagues in 1979 separated three different modalities of learning: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic styles (abbreviated as VAK). In tango teaching, that could simply mean that some students would learn faster from verbal explanations, others from looking at the teachers when they demonstrate a technique, and a third group would rather spend the time on trying it out in their own bodies.

It sounds like an elegant and plausible theory, which is probably why the idea gradually became one of the most wide-spread neuro-myths: in a 2012 study (Decker et al.), over 90% of a sample of 212 school teachers from the UK and the Netherlands believed the VAK theory to be correct. However, reviews of existing studies (such as Howard-Jones, 2014) show no scientific support for the theory – in many cases results have instead contradicted the VAK idea.

Learning styles in tango

This means that tango teachers need to let go of the notion of finding the (VAK) learning style that will fit each tango student. Because the optimal learning style depends much more on the subject being taught than on individual student strengths. A mathematics class will require modes of input that are different from those of a dance class.

It may very well be that it’s a good idea to mix teaching styles within a tango class, i.e. to do a bit of talking, demo some things and then let students try it out – but if this works well, it is not because each student needs to get the input style that he or she can best absorb — it’s because tango dancing as a subject is best learned from a certain mix of modes of inputs.

Trying it out for yourself is essential for learning tango
Trying it out for yourself is essential for learning tango

So what is a good mix for learning tango? Well, apart from the obvious statement that nobody can learn dancing without trying it out in their own bodies (i.e. the kinesthetic style ought to be essential), we can only speculate about what the proportions need to be. I suspect that the physical skills in tango dancing primarily come from trying it out, where instructions could be given either in verbal or visual form. To the auditory learning style, we could also add the music as a (perhaps more subtle) source of input.

Tango dancing is more than physical skills, however, and I see some teachers who spend a lot of class time talking, e.g. describing the social atmosphere at milongas or addressing some of the insecurities that their students might have in relation to dancing. Although this time spent on talking may not be optimal from a strict dancing skill point of view, it will, according to some teachers, make students stay in tango and happily attending milongas, rather than abandoning tango for other activities.

But, to sum it up, regardless of your view on what specific skills should be taught in a tango class, science suggests that the best learning style to cater for does not depend on the preferred learning style of different students, but rather on the subject matter itself.

References

  • Barbe, Walter Burke; Swassing, Raymond H.; Milone, Michael N. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths: concepts and practices. Columbus, Ohio: Zaner-Bloser.
  • Dekker, Sanne; Lee, Nikki C; Howard-Jones, Paul; Jolles, Jelle. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Front. Psychology 3:429.
  • Howard-Jones, Paul A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 15, 817–824.