Saturday 21 February 2015

The Problem with Learning Styles

I first came across David Kolb's learning cycle many years ago, and it seemed to me (and still seems) a useful way to think about how people learn. 

In the first place it has quite high face validity: I can think of specific occasions when I have learned like this. But immediately, that introduces the risk of confirmation bias:if I look for such occasions and find them, I start to believe the model. A better test is to look for counter-examples: times when I have learned which do not fit the model - and I can identify some of them, too.

So it may have some validity in some contexts, but is not, perhaps, a complete or universal model. And that is fine.

In fact, why I like it, as a trainer, is that it reminds me to design learning in ways that include both theoretical and practical aspects: that seems to lead to a richer learning experience, and one that people with different preferences can enjoy.

That word, 'preferences' is key here, I think. There is no doubt that some people prefer theory and observation to practice, and some prefer experience and experimentation to theory. But my take on that is that these preferences should not limit how we learn. 

We can shortcut this learning cycle unhelpfully in two ways. On the one hand, I could cycle between reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation, without ever actually engaging in trying things out in practice. One might label that, somewhat unkindly, the 'ivory tower' syndrome. On the other hand, I could cycle between active experimentation and concrete experience, without ever pausing to reflect. An unkind label for that would be the 'headless chicken' syndrome.

Insofar as the model alerts people to those risks, and to a consideration of including both theory and practice in their learning and teaching, I think it is helpful.

However, when people start to label themselves theorists, pragmatists and so on, I think the problems start. Both Kolb, and later (and with huge commercial success) Honey and Mumford developed Learning Style Inventories or Questionnaires to help people to determine their preferred learning style. And my question is, to what end?

In the introduction to Honey and Mumford's Learning Styles Questionnaire, they make a leap from the claim that some people prefer one way of learning, to some people learn more from one way of learning.

The evidence does not seem to support that hypothesis, any more than it supports it with regard to other learning style preferences (such as the Visual, Auditory, and Kinaesthetic model, so beloved of NLP).

In fact, proper research experiments to test these hypotheses are remarkably thin on the ground, given how widely the theories are promoted; and the majority of the experiments that have been conducted that properly test them demonstrate no correlation between learning style preference and better learning outcomes.

Where it gets really unhelpful, though, is when people are taught that they learn best in one way, and cannot learn in another. I came across someone recently who refused to try to learn from a practical exercise (not on a programme I was running, as it happens) on the basis that 'I'm a theorist. I can't learn from things like that unless the learning goal is explained first.' The worst thing was, the individual concerned is also a trainer and coach.

The problem is that such a belief risks being a self-fulfilling prophecy: and that in such cases, the Learning Styles movement, far from helping people to teach and learn better, is teaching people that they can only learn in particular ways, and thus disabling them from a huge range of potential learning.

In fairness to Honey and Mumford, they also say that the learning cycle should be completed in all cases, and that the preference indicates where someone should enter the cycle. But the earlier statement seems to stick fast and is profoundly unhelpful.

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