Learning Hard or Hardly Learning?

29th August 2019

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September brings about a new academic year, as well as new beginnings for many students and teachers. You have meetings about the institutional targets for that year, especially any highlighted from previous Ofsted inspections, and the Leadership team might dust off the buzz words they want to see again as evidence that you are helping students learn. You know the ones, right?


Whether you are catering for visual or kinaesthetic learners, or synthesising over analysing, after a few years in teaching you realise that ideas like Learning Styles and Bloom’s Taxonomy go in and out of fashion with schools and colleges, depending on what targets are being set each year. Although they can be useful in terms of examining  the ways your students absorb and retain information, there is actually no evidence to suggest they have any significant impact on improving a students ability to learn. Many educational psychologists have labelled them as “neuromythology”, where the ideas withstand time due to popularity rather than proof to support their validity. I remember when I was training to teach and being handed leaflets with lovely verbs on in a pyramid to explain the complexities of Bloom’s Taxonomy and being encouraged to include them in my lesson plans. Did it help my students learn? Possibly. However, after more years of experience, I realised that learning doesn’t fit neatly into the boxes that these learning styles promote. Speaking in a lecture style for long periods of time in class will eventually bore even the most auditory learner and it isn’t practical to have learners jumping up out of their seats to suit kinaesthetic ones. You also never get a class full of just one type of learner, so you have to include a mixture of modes anyway. There are also valid arguments that indicate that catering to the style that best suits a learner is actually detrimental to them as they do not develop more rounded skills to improve their learning and do not develop strategies to overcome the ways they find learning challenging. Many people are not just one thing and are in fact multi-modal, in that  they can look and listen, or watch and move to imitate, so categorising people as one style of learner is not accurate anyway. Research recently carried out in Greece also highlighted that there was a significant disagreement between the teachers and students about their mode of learning, with less than a 50% agreement between results in the questionnaire carried out and the self report about how learners preferred to receive content. This also seems to suggest that we put learning styles to bed for good.


However, as teachers it is important to keep in mind the ways in which young people will engage with learning and utilising that knowledge in our lessons. That means using these first few weeks to get to know them and working out where they are confident, where they are a bit too passive and figuring out ways to nudge them forward to make them more independent learners. As we’re working with young people, these positions change on an hourly basis as they have other things going on in their lives that affect their behaviour and attitude. I once had a class that had a break in the middle, due to timetable constraints, and they could be brilliant in the first half and then utterly demotivated in the second half, where teaching them was like pulling teeth. But we persevered and adjusted to make the break work as part of the lesson. That’s what teaching is about; it’s what we do.


Ofsted are supporting teachers to include more technology in their lessons in order to reduce teacher workload and stress. This seems like another positive move forward, as most students frequently use their phone, tablets and laptops to access information. We can use resources that are available online, or have already been developed, to deliver content, leaving us time to work on skills that will improve their success in their exams. Our previous piece, Flipping out before summer”, for example, discusses the pros and cons of a flipped classroom model, where utilising video clips and online quizzes are ways for teachers to assess their classes without creating more marking for themselves. By using resources like these, teachers are able to tailor their lessons to their students’ strengths, whilst still challenging them to approach learning in other forms outside of their comfort zone. But it all depends on getting to know your students and trying new things.


We all know that at the start of the academic year, successes are counted and suggestions for what can be done to make further improvements are given. School targets are addressed, individual department targets are set and you may have your own personal targets to focus on as well. You already have a lot to do and the kids aren’t even back yet. When the circle of learning styles comes round again, you may feel that it is easier to just nod and include it as part of any observed lessons or you may want to challenge the Leadership Team to look at more recent psychology regarding learning. After all, Bloom’s Taxonomy was written over 50 years ago and the ways in which we understand learning have certainly moved on. Teacher blogger, teachingbattleground, satirically states that Blooms Taxonomy is “preserved in the amber of education, where no idea ever dies out as long as it has enough jargon to fool the uninitiated”. Discarding outdated ideas in favour of trying new things also doesn’t mean that you can’t still have your students jumping up out of their seats or talking at them in a lecture style when it’s necessary, so just keep doing whatever works for you and your students. As Ofsted commented, teachers are not expected to “reinvent the wheel”. Whatever your stance, remember that you are great at what you do and it is acceptable to use resources you may not have created yourself if they lighten your workload. You might even enjoy it.


From all of us at Your Favourite Teacher, have a great teaching year.

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