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March 22, 2017

Lively Debate Focuses on Learning Styles

Ian Moss

You are not learning anything by reading this so I suggest that you stop right now. It's OK, I'm just joking. But I'm not the only one raising doubts about an accepted approach to how we learn.

A group of leading academics in Europe and the US marked the start of international Brain Awareness Week on March 13 by questioning the value of "learning styles." The professors' and doctors' scepticism is focused on the school classroom, but this popular model is also relevant to the workplace.

The learning styles approach is based on education theorist David Kolb's 1984 book, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, and was developed by management trainers Peter Honey and Alan Mumford. It identifies people's learning preferences,  such as verbal, visual, hearing, and kinesthetic (learning by doing). The idea is that if you can identify your style and focus on it, the better you can learn and the more chance you have of reaching your potential.

Rigid Learning Style

Sounds reasonable? Not so, say the academics, who have combined their substantial brainpower in a letter to a UK newspaper, the Guardian. They claim that the theory is a "neuromyth," that there is no scientific evidence that it works, and that it could in fact hamper a learner's ability to, well, learn.

They point out that the four categories of learner identified in the original model have grown to more than 70, making the whole thing complex and cumbersome. Another problem, they say, is that "categorising individuals can lead to the assumption of fixed or rigid learning style, which can impair motivation to apply oneself or adapt."

The eminent critics include Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker and Oxford neuropsychologist Dorothy Bishop, so, at the very least, learning styles is about to find itself at the center of a lively debate. And it's only fair that Mind Tools should join the conversation.

This is not the first time the approach has been questioned. In fact, two years ago, a Mind Tools blog post asked, "Are Learning Styles Going Out of Style?" It highlighted the controversy surrounding the theory but suggested leaving the debate to the academics. It also recommended that L&D professionals continue with an instinctive and common-sense approach.

Positive Experience

That seems sensible. It is self-evident that some of us prefer certain ways of taking in information to others. I know I do. A lengthy lecture with no visual or practical content would leave me staring into space, more likely falling asleep. If someone physically shows me what I need to do then I feel much more at home. But, if I’m learning the guitar, say, no amount of time spent watching YouTube music tutorials will be a substitute for sitting down and practising.

Workplace L&D is more suited to the versatile and varied approach that the learning styles theory requires because, unlike a country's education system, companies are not geared toward getting millions of pupils through a must-be-followed-at-all-costs curriculum to take similar examinations.

What is undoubtedly important is that learning, whether by children or adults, should be a positive experience. And what better way to achieve that than by homing in on your audience's preferences? If a teaching method taps into a learner’s motivation and interest then both tutor and pupil are on the road to success.

So, while it will be valuable to follow and even participate in what is going to be an interesting discussion on learning styles, it's also probably worth keeping a safe distance and focusing on the practical task at hand: learning and enjoying.

How would you describe your learning preference, and would you agree that learning at school is not quite the same as learning in the workplace?

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