Training design - The systems thinking and training blog - Bryan Hopkins

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Learning styles: serious tool or parlour game?

Published by in Training design ·
I have recently been involved in looking at several different training of trainers events. Although the events have been for different target groups and in different sectors, in all cases some time in each course was spent on analysing (and subsequently referring back to) learning styles of different types, in particular those based around Kolb's experiential learning cycle.

Now, I've often done similar activities in my own training, and know that participants seem to find this kind of self-analysis quite fun and interesting ...  but is it just a bit of fun or is it really of significance?

I've started to ask this question more since I have been looking at training and learning from a systems thinking perspective. Every system has to have its own environment with which it has some sort of relationship, and this relationship influences the functioning of the system in some way. What does this mean if 'learning' is the system?

Thinking particularly about Kolb, his work comes from a humanistic psychology perspective, which means that he considers how a whole being behaves, and does not consider how that behaviour has come to be. This contrasts with more psychoanalytical approaches which seek to understand how a person's history (i.e. their environment) has affected their behaviour. So his cycle of experiential learning describes how some free-floating individual makes sense of new information, which is fine as we, when using the idea, can consider how what is going on around the individual might influence how it works.

However, quite a few writers have suggested that when we take Kolb's ideas further by saying that individuals have a preference for one or two of the stages in the learning cycle, that the humanistic approach creates a problem by ignoring the effects of the environment. Learning styles questionnaires work by asking people to reflect on how they learn in different situations, and they then receive some sort of summary as having one or two 'preferred' learning styles. Their contention is that this analysis is only valid for the situations considered in the questionnaire and at that moment in time, so for different situations or at another time the individual might respond quite differently. Which means that there may be no such thing as a person's always preferred learning style, only a preference at a given moment. Which makes the questionnaire a bit pointless ...

For me I know that I approach new learning situations differently depending on various factors, such as what the situation is, how familiar I am with it as a general class, how much time I have, how well I need to be able to respond, and so on.

So I'm left feeling that learning styles might be a bit of fun to talk about, but that pinning "Activist" or "Reflector" badges on people might be at best a bit of a waste of time, or worse, misleading and perpetuating one of training's great myths.

Bored doctors or well-trained doctors - your choice

Published by in Training design ·
A few days ago a friend of mine who works as a doctor in a local hospital called by for a cup of tea. She was just on her way home from a training course where she had been all day. Always interested in other people's experiences of training, I asked her how it had been. "Really boring", she said, "Just listening to somebody reading off slides all day."

I always find comments like this somewhat depressing. How is it that organisations these days can still think that it is cost-effective to take highly paid people, sit them in a room and make them listen to an expert talking on all day long. The direct and opportunity costs of an event such as that must have been considerable, and with the overall effect being to bore the participants.

My experience in quite a few organisations who rely on this type of training delivery is that they still think that the information transfer model (or what I call 'information dumping') is the best or only way to communicate content. I guess that a major reason why this happens is that people are familiar with lectures from their university days, where a person with all the knowledge attempts to transfer this to people with very little knowledge, like pouring water into an empty vessel, as the analogy goes.

The difference with training professionals is that they already know an awful lot, and really need to be able to integrate new information with what they already have, to refine their existing mental models.

Probably many of the people who are called on to deliver training of this sort will never have studied ideas about cognition, so concepts such as Kolb's learning cycle will be unfamiliar to them. The diagram below is a representation of Kolb's theory, and its familiarity to learning professionals means that it needs no explanation.

However, from a systems perspective one of the things that I have noticed about how this is normally presented is that it is portrayed as an individual activity: each one of the four stages is described as something which goes on inside one person's head. However, this is not what really happens in reality, because if it did there would quickly be no learning because each of us would eventually run out of the energy and inspiration needed to reflect and develop new conceptualisations.

Instead, what happens is that as we work round and round the learning cycle we draw in ideas from the world around us, in particular from other people. This new energy coming into our learning cycle is what enables reflection so that each iteration of the cycle improves our mental modelling. We can therefore represent what is happening as a networking of learning cycles, as in this diagram.

This is essentially the idea of the social construction of understanding, an idea attributed to the Russian psychologist Vygotsky. He reasoned that children learn by conversation and negotiation, which leads to a shared understanding of how to behave and how to do things.

This, I think, is why trainers who can let go of the control of the PowerPoint presentation and let people talk about stuff will usually get better results. I'm sure my daughter would have had a much better learning experience had she been able to engage with the trainer and other participants in discussions where she could talk about things she did not understand, listen to other explanations and so end up with a much better understanding of the subject.

I would certainly feel more comfortable lying on a hospital bed feeling that the medical staff looking after me have had the chance to really get to understand their subject, rather than having spent days being bored stiff by PowerPoint presentations.

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