Sunday, December 02, 2012

Death to Learning Styles?!

In the past two years, I have learned so much about so many things that if it weren't for Evernote and PearlTrees, it would be hard to keep track of it all! One of the things I've learned about and appreciated was the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory.

Once the group I was in learned what style they most closely connected with and then separated out into those sub-groups, we had a blast! (Well, the Divergers certainly did!) I was utterly amazed at how blatantly we demonstrated our learning style characteristics and it truly opened up a new way of thinking for me. It also helped me improve my instructional design that I was working on at the time and helped me to challenge myself to learn in varied ways.

Now, over the past month, this lone tweet in the Twitter-verse appeared along with a subsequent blog post and has stirred up some conversation:

I posted Mark's blog post on Twitter and LinkedIn and was honestly surprised at the quick responses and to which way they were leaning -leave the learning styles behind. Surprised because of how valuable learning about these styles had proven to be for me and others.

Mark writes:
It is the desired Learning Objective or Performance Outcome (and, to some extent, the content) that will determine an appropriate instructional strategy. While instructors and leaders may have a responsibility to support the learner through their progression from (potentially) novice to (developing) expert, they still have to acknowledge the optimum methods for delivering said instruction. Any instructor trying to adapt instruction to ALL learning styles (e.g. Kolb) is setting themselves up for failure.
I read this and my immediate reaction was, 'Really??' And my second reaction came from my love of Social Media: 'How great it is that I can connect and discuss issues and topics like these with people from all over because of a tweet and a post!'

The Learning Objectives and the Performance Outcomes we focus on are certainly crucial to effective instruction and training and I agree that adult learners are ultimately responsible for their learning. But aren't we called 'facilitators' for a reason? Are we not out there to facilitate deep, meaningful and engaged learning? And can we not enhance our approach by ensuring that in our Learning Objectives, Performance Outcomes, content and presentation that Divergers and other learning styles are 'targeted' and considered? I have come to believe that the 'optimum methods' for delivery would mean making sure you don't simply cater to Assimilators and hand your learners a textbook and say, 'Read it'. So, if you're not 'adapting instruction to ALL learning styles', who are you leaving out and disengaging? And can you make those that aren't engaged 'responsible' for their own learning when you've basically left them out of the equation and they can't relate?

I still believe from personal experience and conversation, that many people do not adopt Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook into their professionl development or personal lives because of their learning styles. But don't quote me on that, because as a lifelong learner, I'm still doing just that -learning.

I would love to know what you think about the Learning Styles approach to instruction and training, so please add your comments below and thanks for continuing the conversation!

SPECIAL NOTE: Join me for tonight's Learn with Me Twitter Chat at 8pm EST (December 3, 2012) where we will be discussing this issue of Learning Styles and their value, the case against and what alternative viewpoints and approaches lead to engaged learning as well. Use the hashtag #learnwme and see you tonight!


  1. Apparently there is a glitch preventing comments. I do apologize and hope this problem ends ASAP!

  2. This comment was passed on to me from @hilmcleod as she had trouble posting here:

    I agree with your response, Jamie. It behooves us as instructors to aim for the optimal learning experience for our students/audience. I do agree though that trying to make the material fit into every Learning Style mould at every teaching point can be artificial. However, over the course of the whole unit it should be possible to ENGAGE every learner. The material, the learner and the preferred Learning Style of the instructor all must be part of the decision. But these are only some of the wonderful array of lenses through which we can present our material. Barrie Bennett (of OISE) has explored the rich menu available to us in his excellent resource: "Beyond Monet: the Artful Science of Instructional Intelligence".

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks for testing, Dave. I'm hoping it works for others as well!

  4. Another reader, K Ronan, with comment posting problems sent me her feedback:

    In the K-12 education sphere, understanding learning styles is very much a hot topic! It's called Differentiated Instruction. And any teacher worth his/her credentials will readily adapt lessons and assignments to meet the needs of his/her students. It's true that a teacher cannot meet the needs of ALL students, but they sure as heck try to do just that!
    I also wholeheartedly disagree with the idea that "the desired Learning Objective... will determine an appropriate instructional strategy." As we all know, there is more than one way to skin a cat!

  5. Learning styles, like Myers-Briggs types, are among those things that some people love and others can't stand. Disclosure: my synonym for the MBTI is "corporate astrology."

    To me, they're mainly confirmation of self-chosen leanings. If you like to see yourself as a Leader (capital is deliberate) then you're prone to see certain tendencies of your (that others regard as bossiness and impatience) as decisiveness and swiftness. That doesn't mean you're wrong--but it also doesn't mean you're right.

    Here's the reality: most workplace learning -- the overwhelming majority of it -- occurs outside of, and often in spite of, formal instruction. People learn on the job, not (primarily) through classroom training, through elearning, through seminars, through webinars, or any of the other things that training and development people work so hard on.

    So fiddling around with "learning styles," which mostly come into play in formal events, means we're ignoring most of what influences learning at work, which means we're ignoring many of the potential ways to help foster that learning.

    As for "many people" not adopting Twitter or other social media because of their learning

    styles -- well, on the one hand, it's hard to argue with that, because I have no idea if "many people" means "25 folks in Bend, Oregon" or "20% of the population of Canada."

    My own hunch - with no evidence whatsoever - is that most people who've had the opportunity to see Twitter but haven't taken that opportunity up simply haven't found a worthwhile benefit in it for themselves.

    In other words, it's not because it's insufficiently kinetic, or doesn't make enough noise, or doesn't have embedded audio. It's because the gap between what they want or need to do, and the relevance of social media, is further than they care to investigate.

    1. I agree about your view that informal learning happens much more than formal training does, and likely 'sticks' more, too. And I completely agree with your take on why people don't adopt Twitter and use it. I hear that from people all the time, and I simply tell them that if they were to dig in, they'd probably get hooked pretty quickly. But maybe that happening to me isn't everyone's experience.

      Now, informal learning aside, I wonder what people who are 'anti-learning styles' do when they approach their design? I'm hearing/reading 'death to learning styles' these days, but am not given any alternatives. Sure there's no proof to back Mr Kolb up, but then I ask, "What's your alternative?"

      And I love that Social Media is giving me a way of finding out.

  6. Jamie,

    I no longer bother telling people to just try it, because in my experience that's far too context-free. Instead I describe some ways that I've found Twitter useful professionally, ways that might connect to interests the other person has. This is assuming the other person has expressed interest or at least curiosity; I am not in the evangelism business.

    So I'll talk about following people in fields I'm interested in that are outside my own, so I get links to articles in those fields. I'll talk about quick networking, such as asking iPad owners about their experience with external keyboards. Only after someone's shown active interest will I mention Twitter chats, which I think are very strange to hear about if you're not already active in social media.

    "Anti-learning styles?" I'm not anti; I'm indifferent, except insofar as I avoid things that serve no purpose. You say yourself that there's no proof of effectiveness. Why do I need to justify an alternative to "pointless?" If I claim that playing the tuba during meetings increases people's alertness, I've provided just as much evidence.

    More seriously, I believe that what helps people learn, either in formal sessions or informally, is a chance to work with and not just hear about skills that produce worthwhile, job-related results. I designed a 90-minute session on Excel as part of in-person training for salespeople who were new both to the application and to computers in general. In that session they learned to enter text and numbers, compute simple formulas, edit and format their entries, save and retrieve a worksheet, and apply these skills to worksheet templates created by their employer.

    When people saw they could save at least two hours a week using the digital expense report, they were a hell of a lot more motivated to apply these skills than any well-meaning effort at addressing kinesthetic or auditory preference would have made then.