Ah, learning styles. You do have a way of getting under people’s skins.
The Washington Post published a column by Jay Mathews highlighting the recent research published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. This was quickly followed by a blog post by Will Thalheimer and a snowstorm of follow up comments and posts.
What many people seem to want is a black or white, binary status. Learning styles are either right or wrong, good or bad. But the truth will most likely lie in that grey area that most of human psychology belongs to. There may well be some situations where a person’s expressed preference for how they learn will lead to better performance results. Conversely, there will be situations where the way something is learned is more important than a person’s expressed preference (you can’t learn to swim by reading a book).
The important question is, on balance, can we predict which approach works better? And the answer at the moment is absolutely not.
A learning styles questionnaire can be used to prompt discussion and self reflection about how we learn best. The results, when presented as a bit of fun, can help us to question which approaches will work best for us when we need to learn a new skill or increase our knowledge base. However, that’s not how they’re normally used and there are other ways of achieving the same outcome without using a questionnaire that maps onto a simplistic model for how people learn. This, combined with the way they’re used by people who have limited understanding of the background to them to ‘label’ people, makes the case for not using them at all pretty powerful.
The role of a workplace learning professional is to help people do their jobs more effectively. Understanding the current thinking about how we learn, and how that process might be optimised, is important because it enables informed experimentation. If we only ever used evidence based approaches, progress would be very slow indeed (just look at how long it takes for a piece of research to get published).
However, when it’s found that something we’ve been using doesn’t work, we should be sufficiently un-dogmatic that we simply stop using it.