City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development

Understanding the VAK model and its application

By Nick Grist
nick.grist@skillsdevelopment.org

"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 environments.

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 environment.

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