My #LearningStyles Awakening

Let’s get this out of the way quickly. I don’t believe there’s value in designing learning experiences to cater to individual learning styles.

Please keep reading anyway, especially if you disagree with that statement. This post is less about my conclusion and more about the journey I took to reach it.

I’ve heard about learning styles a number of times since I entered the field. Most of what I was exposed to in the early years was about different models of learning styles, the most common of which is the Visual, Auditory, and Kinestetic model. The concept made sense, there was plenty of documentation available on it and tools to identify an individuals style. Plus, if we know how people best learn, it can only help us do our jobs better, right? It seemed to make sense, so I accepted the theory as truth and incorporated it into my work.

And in that was my first mistake.

Let’s start with the concept of ‘everything I read’. In truth, it probably wasn’t a hell of a lot. It definitely wasn’t enough to allow myself to make a conclusion that I took action upon. There were a lot of gaps that I allowed myself to fill there simply because the concept ‘felt’ right.

I don’t think I’m a unique learning and performance professional in making that mistake, and it’s a mistake we make in plenty of areas outside of Learning Styles. We tend to do things because it’s always been done, or because someone ‘who knows’ said it’s what we should be doing. We’re quick to accept theory and put it into action without verifying or tracking if the idea translates in practice.

As time went on, I read more things about learning styles, seeing different models and assessment tools that I could leverage. That was my second mistake, and also a common one. When we accept things as true, we tend to see the world through that lens. I was reading things that already supported the conclusion I made. There’s no growth in that, it simply validates the decision I’ve already made.

I never went so far as to intentionally design a course to accommodate a learning style, but the acceptance of learning styles as having impact no doubt shaped many of the design decisions I did make.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I reached the next milestone in my learning styles awakening journey. If I could describe that milestone in a single word it would be this: Twitter.

It wasn’t the service itself that made the difference as much as it was the world it connected me with. It was through Twitter that I really discovered my Personal Learning Network (PLN) and was able to connect with leaders in our field from all over the globe. As I connected with more and more professionals, established professionals with credentials and experience that dwarfed my own, I noticed a common thread in some of their posts that conflicted with my position and beliefs about learning styles. While the verbiage varied, the core message was essentially the same:

Learning Styles Don’t Exist.

This was a problem for me. First, it’s a fairly absolute statement, and I hate absolute statements. Second, I’ve read numerous things about learning styles, and knew people who implemented tools related to them, so obviously they *exist*.

This idea that they don’t exist or are a myth was a common thread though, and something people I respected were passionate about. It warranted additional exploration. So I dove in, and discovered a rapidly growing portfolio of research on the other side of the pool.

The more I started examining both sides, the less interested I became in answering the “Do Learning Styles Exist?” question. By this time in my career I had started focusing much less on what people know, and more on what they actually do. Through that lens, I looked at learning styles and thought “Let’s assume they exist, what would learning professionals do with them?”

And that’s exactly the moment the entire house of cards collapsed.

Most of the applications associated with learning styles involves adapting design to best connect with the learning styles of the workers. Conceptually that theory seems to make sense, but numerous research studies have been conducted on the subject, and all of them come to the same conclusion: there’s no evidence that adapting design to learning styles results in more learning.

What is shown to have value is adapting design to the message or meaning the worker needs to receive. At a simplified level, this would mean using visuals to explain an art style, or using audio to explain why Van Halen is much better with David Lee Roth as the lead singer than with Sammy Hagar.

Sorry… got distracted by Spotify for a minute.

So my goal for this post, and for #LearningStyles ‘Awareness’ Day in general is to ask you to focus. Forget about debating if learning styles exist. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. That’s not the point. If you currently believe that they exist, put them to the test. That’s when I had my awakening on the subject. Learning Styles simply don’t have value for learning and performance professionals.

The point is, if there’s no value in doing something, we shouldn’t do it; or in the case of learning styles, we – as a profession – should stop using them.

I close with two pieces of advice that I learned during this journey.

1) If something doesn’t have value, don’t do it. Seems simple doesn’t it? The don’t do it part is easy; it’s the part about asking “Does this have value?” that we tend to miss. Ask that question early and often. You’ll probably be surprised by the answer.

2) Nourish your PLN. Personal Learning Networks are no longer a nice-to-have. They’re a necessity in today’s world. Things move too fast. If you’re not connected, listening, and participating in the community of your field, chances are you’re falling behind it’s evolution.

Ok, three pieces of advice.

3) Stop debating learning styles. Please, just stop. We have more important and impactful work to do as a field.

Thanks for reading.