Learning Styles – Fact or Fiction?

About a month ago, a frenzy was stirred up when critics of Learning Styles suggested that the U.S. government should not permit any federal funding to be used for differentiated instruction in K-12 public schools. This idea of adjusting the way we teach to the way our students learn is why we (as trainers of adults) create blended learning and why we try to offer as many different channels of information (audio, visual, physically interactive) as we can when we create training. The Learning Styles critics cited a 2008 peer-reviewed journal article as their justification.

Curious whether this should impact how we create and deliver training in the world of adult learners, we took a closer look. Here\’s what we found. First, there\’s a lot of information out there about learning styles. If you\’d like to get a solid background in learning styles, we recommend David Kolb\’s descriptions of learning styles and Howard Gartner\’s detailed theory of Multiple Intelligences. Next, the authors of the research article noted that an industry surrounding the diagnosing of learning styles and training of teachers to differentiate instruction has emerged and appears to be gaining strength continuously. Then, they acknowledged that solid research exists to establish that learners do have strong preferences for how they learn. In the end, what they focused on is the idea that particular styles of teaching haven\’t been directly tied to supporting each type of learning style. They go into detail about how the experiments should be conducted in order to get real scientific proof that applying a teaching strategy helps a learner of a particular style learn. Their final conclusion is that the experiments need to happen in order for us to know that all of our efforts in this direction are justifiable.

So, what should we do?

If you have any doubts about the usefulness of teaching to learning styles, ask around. Ask your learners if they found themselves absolutely riveted by listening to their grade school teachers read from a textbook. If everyone tells you they love to learn that way, then you can train everyone with large volumes of plain text. We say this because we know (we talk about learning all the time!) that each of us had a particular class or a particular teacher that was riveting. It was the way they engaged us in discussion, the way we learned by experimentation, the ah-ha moments that came from building a working model of the solar system, or the way we finally understood geography by writing a poem. We know your learners will tell you they have strong preferences for learning in a particular way and they know from their own learning experience what works best for them. Some things don\’t require broad scientific research before action is taken. Some things are obvious. Keep blending your learning and accommodating the diverse styles of your learners. They will thank you for it – and science will eventually catch up.

Your turn. Tell us how Learning Styles have been working for or against you in your efforts to train adults in the workplace. What advice would you give a learning professional who is about to diversify how on-the-job training is offered?

What else?

Do you have a topic on your mind that you\’d like us to research and write about? Tell us.

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