Every learner is different but not because of their learning styles – Clive Shepherd

I’ve been reading Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter Brown and Henry Roediger (Harvard University Press, 2014). What a great book! It provides a whole load of useful tips for learners, teachers and trainers based on solid research. Although, believe it or not, I do have a romantic side, primarily I’m a rationalist and I’m drawn to new evidence relating to learning and teaching, even if this confounds my current thinking.

Finishing this book coincides with The Debunker Club’s Debunk Learning Styles Month. And learning styles really do need debunking, not because we, as learners, don’t have preferences, but because there is no model out there which has been proven to be genuinely helpful in predicting learner performance based on their preferences.

Luckily, I don’t have to rant about why learning styles are unhelpful, because I can allow Brown and Roediger to do that for me:

“The idea that individuals have distinct learning styles has been around long enough to become part of the folklore of educational practice and an integral part of how people perceive themselves. The underlying premise says that people receive and process new information differently: for example, some learn better from visual materials and others learn better from text or auditory materials. Moreover, the theory holds that people who receive instruction in a manner that is not matched to their learning style are at a disadvantage for learning.”

There appears to be no scientific evidence to support learning styles theories and plenty of evidence to suggest that they may be doing more harm than good:

“A report on a 2004 survey conducted for Britain’s Learning and Skills Research Centre compares more than seventy distinct learning styles theories currently being offered in the marketplace, each with its companion assessment instruments to diagnose a person’s particular style. The report’s authors characterise the purveyors of these instruments as an industry bedevilled by vested interests that tout ‘a bedlam of contradictory claims’ and express concerns about the temptation to classify, label and stereotype individuals.”

This is not to say that learner differences do not matter. Every person in the world has a unique brain shaped by their genetic inheritance and their life experience, and good teachers and trainers are empathetic to these differences. So what differences should learning professionals take into account?

In my book More Than Blended Learning, I suggest some characteristics which both research and practical experience have shown to be important:

• A learner’s prior knowledge of the subject or skill in question (novices will require a lot more structure and support than those with more elaborate mental models).

• A learner’s likely level of interest in the learning experience (without this, you are going to have to make a special effort to engage them).

• A learner’s cultural expectations for a learning experience.

• The hopes and fears which learners bring to the experience.

Brown and Roediger suggest some more:

• Language fluency and reading ability.

• A learners ability to abstract underlying principles from new experiences and to convert new knowledge into mental structures.

• How a learner sees themselves and their abilities: “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”

As professionals, I believe we have to respond to the evidence of what works and not to fads, fashions and what people are trying to sell us. As such, I would be perfectly comfortable with shifting my position again on learning styles if you can provide me with some solid evidence.

About the author – Clive Shepherd

Clive is a workplace learning and development specialist, with a particular interest in the application of media and technology. In a career spanning more than 30 years, Clive has headed up a corporate training function, co-founded a leading multimedia development business and operated as an independent consultant. In recent years, Clive has devoted his attention to the new role of the learning architect, the design of next generation blended learning solutions and the design of digital learning content.

Connect with Clive on Twitter @cliveshepherd

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