Understanding the VAK model and its application
By Nick Grist
"Develop your senses... realise that everything connects to everything else." Leonardo da Vinci
Much of the interesting research into pedagogy comes
from developments in the field of teaching strategies for individuals
with learning difficulties. The Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic (VAK)
model is no exception. It was originally devised in the 1920s to help
teach children with dyslexia and has subsequently been more widely
applied and its relevance well established. The model is based on our
senses and the three primary modalities used to represent information,
with the idea being that one will usually dominate. There is, however,
some confusion over how this information should be applied to teaching
practices and how we can best make use of the model.
The representational system that dominates has
previously been linked to a teaching style that will emphasise that
modality. For example, it was thought that a visual person (one for
whom the visual sense is the dominant one) would absorb information
more easily if presented would absorb information more easily if
presented with it in the form of pictures, diagrams, charts, handouts,
demonstrations and videos; an auditory person would prefer hearing a
lecture, having a dialogue, discussions and music; and the kinaesthetic
person would have a preference for practising skills, role play,
simulations and anything hands on.
However, recent research has shown this view to be
overly simplistic. Discovering someone's dominant representational
system and teaching in a style that focuses on that particular sense
has not been shown to improve their speed of learning. The human brain
has evolved to operate and develop in a multisensory environment and we
are programmed to process multisensory signals. Also, the dominant
representation system of an individual can change in different
In tests where learners have been trained to recognise
different species of birds up to 60% less time was taken to learn the
different species by those who were shown pictures accompanied by the
sounds those birds made. Remarkably, these results remain even if the
final test is conducted purely on the basis of visual recognition
without the accompanying sounds. The multisensory inputs provide
different 'hooks' for retrieving the information allowing faster
learning and improved recall.
There is also an issue of congruency. Learning will not
improve if we simply stimulate more than one sense simultaneously.
Using the above example, if we simply play music whilst showing
pictures of the birds to our learners they will only experience a
marginal reduction in learning time.
So what does this mean for teachers and trainers? The
real value of the VAK model has been in getting people to think in
terms of the different representational systems. By combining the
different teaching methods listed above, and thinking about the
different ways in which we process information, trainers can start to
develop a multisensory learning environment. Rather than tailoring
teaching techniques to each individual, a combination of simultaneous
congruent stimuli will enable an entire classroom to improve their
encoding, storing and retrieval of information.
There is also evidence to suggest that multimodal
learning increases the amount of information that can be processed; the
different modalities can be more easily broken down and grouped in the
short-term memory and used to build long-term representations.
Much of this research is conducted in controlled
settings with simple stimuli, and more work needs to be done to further
test these approaches and to support teachers and trainers in their
application in the education system. Our brains have evolved to process
multisensory signals in our natural environment, and schools following
methods such as the Montessori approach have been successfully
employing multisensory teaching techniques for nearly a century.
Teachers and trainers should therefore be given greater freedom and
encouragement to access these methods and bring them to the training
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