learning styles: the limiting power of labels

There’s an ongoing and lively debate in the world of education about the prevalence and relevance of ‘learning styles’. Various models try to place a label on how people prefer to learn, and the number of labels within these models also varies widely. In a coordinated effort, the Debunker Club is targeting the ‘Learning Styles Myth’ throughout the month of June.

VAK Debunked
Image Source: Mairi Thomson

While there are a large number of learning style models in-use, the VAK/VARK model is widely promoted. Most people who’ve attended a personal or professional development workshop in the last 30 years have probably heard about this model and how it helps with understanding your own personal learning style so you can be a ‘better learner’.

Even more worrisome is that, despite being quite thoroughly challenged by evidence-based research, this model is still being promoted in programs for educators at all levels, with the intention that if you understanding the learning styles of ‘students’, you will design and deliver better learning experiences. While I’m all for continuing to explore every possible way to make learning better and easier for everyone, the purpose of this post is not to go back over the research findings that have debunked learning styles as a valid educational or instructional theory.

Google Trends
Image Source: Google Trends

Even though Google Trends shows a diminishing interest in the ‘learning styles’ topic, a search today still returns millions of positive results, with many hosted on .edu domains! So what’s most interesting to me is how the ongoing promotion of learning styles as a valid theory of instruction, and the placement of labels on people, could actually be limiting the effectiveness of learning.

 

Labelling Theory

In life, labels are useful, no doubt about it. They help us to identify and analyse information quickly, and allow us to relate new information to what we already know (or think we know). But when it comes to ourselves or others, labels might not always be so useful. Wikipedia defines labelling theory as “how the self-identity and behaviour of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them.”

So imagine now that you’re a participant in a lesson or course, and you have no background in educational theory. You’ve just been on the receiving end of a session about learning styles. You may have even taken a scientific-looking questionnaire that confirms what your personal ‘learning style’ is.  Something in the result resonates with you, because you trust the facilitator, and she has encouraged you to relate your preferred ‘learning style’ to thinking about all of those times when learning was either very easy, or very difficult for you.

“YES!” you think. “Now it all makes sense! I’m terrible with numbers, because I’m a kinaesthetic learner, and my year 8 Maths teacher never gave us hands-on activities to do!”

What could be the limiting power of this label? At the very best, it will likely now be in the background of your life as self-talk forever, reminding you that  maths is not your strong suit. At worst, maybe it will hold you back from wanting to learn more, improve your skills, or apply for that job that would be perfect for you, if only they didn’t want someone who was halfway decent with numbers…

The science of learning and how believing you can get smarter actually makes you smarter

Learning is, at it’s most basic definition, the process of collecting, modifying, understanding and using information. How effective we are at learning new and different things is influenced by our context, our environment and importantly, our own attitudes towards learning.  This excellent research shows that believing you can get smarter can definitely make you smarter.

So calling all learners and educators: for the love of learning, please stop using the ‘learning styles’ myth to label (and limit) learning potential. Instead, lets take ourselves on a journey of open learning possibilities…

blue-sky
Image Source: http://www.skitterphoto.com

Post-Publish Update:

This afternoon, my daughter and I had a conversation about her day at school. I then told her that I’d written and published a blog post on learning styles. I asked her if she’d heard of them, and she said “Oh yes – we did that at school one day. I’m a visual-kinaesthetic learner.” I kind of stopped in my tracks a bit and thought about it. I’m not one to interfere too much in her at-school learning processes, as I believe that you’ve got to put trust in the teacher as the ‘person in the room’, and I never want to undermine those relationships. But later on, I asked her what being a ‘visual-kinaesthetic learner’ meant to her in everyday classroom activities:

“Well, I learn best when I see something, or have a chance to do something. If someone’s just talking, I find it hard to listen or pay attention. So that’s what it means.”

“Do you think it’s different if you’re really interested though?” I asked. “Does the topic or subject have any impact on how you learn?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “If it’s an interesting topic, that’s different. I can listen and understand then.”

So again, this ‘labelling’ and it’s potential limitations, concerns me. Do we really want people of any age going through their lives with a pre-conceived notion of how they learn best? Does the self-perception of “I’m a weak auditory learner” have a negative impact on how people then engage with content when it’s presented aurally, or requires a verbal discussion?

The world is full of a fascinating array of information that’s presented in lots of formats, and these formats might not always provide a match to a perceived learning preference. Shouldn’t we be focusing on helping learners understand how learning really works, and supporting them to know that they can and will learn, when they meaningfully engage with content in all it’s formats?

EduTech Conference 2015: My personal learning moments

I spent a couple of fantastic days last week at the EduTECH 2015 Conference in Brisbane.  I got to meet some Twitter friends in real-life, some new people from around the world and around the corner (who I’m also now connected with on Twitter), and was fully inspired by lots of great sessions in the Workplace Learning and K-12 Education Leaders streams.

Like so many others, I’m a big fan of Twitter for professional development, and I also use it during conferences to capture the best bits  to share with others who can’t be there, and to nugget-ise my own learning and create a trail of digital breadcrumbs for further reflection and action.  Here is the ‘nugget view’ of EduTECH from my perspective, via Eventifier.

There were so many great ideas being shared that I could write a post that goes forever. Ain’t no one got time for that, so here are  my personal learning moments.

 

A new culture of learning for the #FutureOfWork

In his opening keynote to the Workplace Learning stream, Harold Jarche talked about (among other things) how robots were coming for anyone in a job that can be captured in a flowchart. We all know that robots have been slowly taking over the world for a while now, but this really got me thinking more about the #FutureOfWork and what this means for people, schools, organisations and society. Then I learned a completely new thing about a way to crunchily examine and display the societal effects of the adoption of a new way of doing things, and how it will impact via enhancement, retrieval, obsolescence and reversal. First developed by Marshall McLuhan, here is Harold’s take on the impact of digital networks on learning:

Learning Tetrad

I love new ways of looking at big ideas, so I’m definitely going to think more on tetrads…

In the ‘Power and promise of social networks for vocational and workplace learning’ session, Alec Couros furthered my thinking on our increasingly participatory culture, and what this means for learning at all levels.

Media and learning shifts

I was also reacquainted with a couple of favourite and often referenced authors from my time as a Master of Ed student (Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown) and their work on a New Culture of Learning

new culture of learning cropped

Michelle Ockers presented an excellent case study on the use of social learning strategies to support technical capability building at Coca Cola Amatil. Technical capability, for many large, complex and asset intensive organisations, is generally the province of more traditional approaches to training/learning, so it was great to hear about the a program that sets people free from the ‘training cage’ and the mindset of learned helplessness.  It can be done!

Social Learning Program Brief

And in an earlier panel discussion, a statement by Shannon Tipton really stood out for me with how to successfully engage social learners – so much so, that I captured it in a picture!

Find the Fish

Over in the K12 Education Leaders stream, Ted McCain from Maple Ridge Secondary School gave a fantastic presentation on ‘Teaching for Tomorrow: teaching as facilitating, learning as discovering’. I was particularly interested in the “9 i’s of modern learning”, which I frantically transcribed in long hand below:

The 9 is

What I love about this is how it breaks down the digital-age skills needed to successfully engage with content, for learners of any age from Pre-K to adult. You can access Ted’s full presentation here.

This also connected with a point in the closing keynote by Harold Jarche on the new literacy for the digital age – Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) and Intelligent Communication:

Intelligent Communication

In the Workplace Learning congress, Amy Rouse from AT&T University shared the fantastic success they’ve had implementing MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) across their workforce.

Got MOOCAmazingly, they have successfully ‘MOOC-ified’ a Masters of Computer Science, so the sky really is the limit when it comes to the complexity of content and learning that can be accessed in an open model.

In the spirit of openness and working+learning out loud, we also had a session with Joyce Seitzinger on Social Curation, with some fantastic tips on being more mindful and deliberate in how we go about collecting and sharing ideas. As an old corporate L&D leader/new freelance blogger/consultant, this resonated loudly with me, now I’m out in the big bad world and don’t have a captive audience… I particularly loved the suggestions below:

Social Curation

 

Want to engage learners? Make it #DifferentAndBetter

Marigo Raftopoulos eloquently shared her perspective on the importance of tapping into human desires when designing learning.  I particularly loved the notion of placing the learner as the hero at the centre of their own personal learning journey…

The future of work and workplace learning

Keep it real

Over in the K12 Education Leaders stream, there were some great sessions focused on immersive learning.

Matt Richards from the Mind Lab spoke about the success they’ve been having in creating and supportive collaborative learning and computational thinking in schools, via Learning Commons spaces,  virtual reality technology, student-led Maker Spaces and shared Minecraft worlds, where learners create challenges for each other.

Learning Commons

Minecraft Mineclass Challenge

A panel session on BYOD in schools with Georgina Allardice, Head of eLearning Jindalee State School, Ben Wells, IT Coordinator Sanctuary Point Public School, and Derek Wenmonth, Director eLearning CORE Education, was full of practical tips for schools looking to move towards a 1:1 device program for their students.  Here again, the big takeaway was that engagement – with learners, teachers and parents – was key to implementing a sustainable program. Derek described his view of BYOD, which I loved, and captured below:

BYOD

Georgina also stressed the importance of continually asking learners for their feedback throughout the BYOD experience,  which resonated with advice from an earlier session with Amy Rouse in the Workplace Learning stream…

BYOD Advice

Jennie Magiera gave an inspirational and passionate presentation on the work she and her colleagues have been doing at their schools in South Chicago. Here students face significant challenges  just getting to and from school safely each day, so a Student Innovation Team of 4th-7th graders came up with an app proposal. You can read more about this #ProblemBasedLearning challenge here.

Problem Based Learning

 

Problems as Motivations

 

Disintermediation – cutting out the learning middleman

Leadership for an open world – the topic of the session by David Price – focused on the ubiquity of social, democratised and  open learning, and built upon the themes of previous sessions.  And it got me thinking again about the shift that all learning practitioners need to be making to just keep up, let alone add value and stand out, in an increasingly self-learning enabled world…

Boring Training

The rise of social learning and the growing acceptance of badges as evidence of own-time/off-site gained proficiency, mean that  learners are no longer captive to organisational/institutional content. I even found myself in a meta-example of David’s excellent ‘Six Motivation of Social Learning’  during the presentation…

Six motivations of social learning tweet

A later session from Ian Jukes at the end of the conference reinforced this ‘Learners as Customers’ theme. It struck me that the fenced-in world of corporate learning, where most organisations have no clue about the hidden talents of their employees, and the monetised world of higher ed and learning services, are in for a paradigm shift whether we like it or not.

Students are our customers

Chief Learning Rebel Shannon Tipton, summed up my personal learning from EduTECH nicely, with her thoughts on what’s killing Learning Organisations right now…

Killing Learning Organisations

…and what we, as Workplace Learning leaders need to do about it:

Learning Status Quo