Is it time to forget learning styles?
I’ve spent my career advocating for leadership development interventions that meet the needs of the individual learner. Yet increasing evidence suggests this isn't reflective of how we learn.
Learning styles – a good thing, right? Like many of us, I’ve spent my career advocating for leadership development interventions that meet the needs of the individual learner. The idea that someone learns best with either visual, auditory, reading / writing or kinaesthetic input – often referred to as VARK – has long been embedded in our collective psyche. But increasing evidence from the scientific community suggests that this concept isn’t actually reflective of how we learn.
I won’t lie and say it’s been easy for me to accept that learning styles are not an important factor in leadership development programme design. But, like all development and growth, curiosity put me on a quest to discover: are learning styles debunked once and for all?
A dissenting voice
It started in the Holiday Inn, Kensington, London where I was attending training with Patricia Riddell, Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading and co-author of The Neuroscience of Leadership Coaching.
When Riddell posited that the idea someone learns best with just an auditory, a visual, a reading / writing or a kinaesthetic input is simply not true, she was met with stunned silence. Quick rebuttal followed: this was a room of educators, coaches, mentors and consultants who, like me, had spent their careers tailoring programmes to meet the learning needs of participants.
It’s not that learning styles aren’t part of the picture, Riddell assured us, it’s that research suggests people have better learning outcomes when they experience the content in various different ways, not just one.
A combination of learning styles is proven to produce the best learning results.
What Riddell shared has big consequences for the future of leadership development. Once the dust had settled a bit, I started to investigate the research around Patricia’s assertion.
A 2017 article for The British Council discussed four reasons why learning styles should be avoided, including that the styles themselves are ‘not consistent attributes’; that ‘no evidence’ exists to show that using them improves learning, and that neuroscientists and psychologists consider the learning styles concept a ‘neuromyth’. The article went on to explore alternatives: using learners’ prior knowledge to help them learn new things is one such evidence-based approach. FYI, it’s worth noting the comments on this article for a few challenges to some generalisations within the text – while Lethaby proposes there’s evidence to discount the concept of learning styles, it doesn’t mean contrasting evidence doesn’t exist, just that researchers such as Pashler and colleagues aren’t satisfied with the studies.
The work of Polly Hussman and Valerie Dean O’Loughlin at Indiana University, though, was explored in an article in Scientific American in 2018. While it’s clear people have a strong sense of their own learning styles, it’s less clear that these preferences matter; Hussman and O’Loughlin’s research revealed that ‘students whose study strategies aligned with their VARK scores performed no better’ than their peers. Most students used multiple learning styles, but no particular style or combination of styles resulted in better outcomes than another.
Even if we have to accept that learning styles are not the golden grail we might once have perceived them to be, the article reminds us that cognitive science has identified a number of methods to enhance knowledge acquisition, such as experiencing ‘the material in multiple modalities’, and making ‘meaningful connections’ rather than engaging in simple repetition of information.
With all the evidence out there from reputable, peer-reviewed studies, it’s time to stop talking about learning styles as a primary driver for learning design, however, that doesn’t mean all the theory is inherently useless: much of what we’ve used to date can be repurposed to improve how learning sticks.
It’s this concept of ‘learning stickiness’ that brings me full circle. The leadership programmes I’ve created – by dint of being experiential – effectively employ all the learning styles, creating learning results that ‘stick’ much more memorably than traditional classroom-based teaching. I now understood why our methodology – the magic in our mix of learning interventions – has such positive outcomes. I’d like to pretend the original planning of this was all based on the latest research, while in reality it was nothing short of good fortune.
One of the most important take-aways for me from this revelation was to be open to having your beliefs challenged. If you’re responsible for learning design or you’re a leader wanting to develop your people, I’d urge you to be open-minded about this too. I’d have happily carried on for years talking about learning styles had I not been willing to accept what I ‘know to be true’ is in fact not. As a leadership development professional, if I’m not willing to confront my own assumptions, I can’t expect my clients to either.
The Take Aways
Now, it’s your turn:
Review materials – take a look at your current programmes through a new lens. What opportunity do you have to update what you’re currently doing to ensure your people have the best learning experience possible?
Rather than one of the constituent elements bringing magic to one leader over another, the magic IS in fact the mix. The overall experience is far greater than the sum of the parts, significantly boosting the learning experience. What experiences are you creating that employ all the learning styles?
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