Learning styles: serious tool or parlour game? - 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.



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