Most of us like to be presented with information in a way that is personal to our own individual learning style. For example, if you asked for directions would you prefer:
- To be told how to get there?
- To be given a map?
- To be personally escorted?
Depending on your answer you might say that you were an aural learner who needs to hear information (option a); or a visual learner who needs to see it (option b); or a kinetic learner who needs to get up, move about, and physically do the new thing (option c).
Working with an Individual Learning Style
As a L&D specialist, I have heard learners tell me, ‘it’s no good, Mary, I can’t take it in just by listening to it/looking at it/copying it!’ So strong is the label which we put on ourselves for one learning style or another, that it can be challenging to be presented with information in any other way, and expected to learn it.
But why do people feel so strongly about individual learning styles, and where did the idea first come from?
The Background to Individual Learning Styles
Learning styles, as we recognise them today, were first proposed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford in the 1980s. They identified four distinct types of preference:
- Activists. This person learns best by doing. They need to get their hands dirty and throw themselves fully into a new project. They are less interested in heavy theory or the reason why we do something, they want to just get on with the job.
- Reflectors. These learners like to listen, watch from the side-line, collect information, and have thinking time before they try it themselves. They learn best by listening and talking. The reflector is the sort of learner who successfully teaches themselves a whole new language from an audio download!
- Pragmatists. This group are very visual. They are not usually interested in abstract theory or concepts, but just want to be shown what to do, and then do it themselves. They often like to experiment with doing things in a new way, and they made lots of written notes.
- And finally, there is the Theorist. Theorists like to think about and understand why we are doing what do. They like models, concepts and facts, before putting all of the information into a logical pattern that they absorb. I have left this learner until last as they are the smallest group and there is usually only one of them (if any!) in a classroom
Beyond Honey and Mumford
Honey and Mumford’s work has since been taken further by academics such as Howard Gardner who has suggested that there are more than four learning styles. Gardner has presented the ‘multiple intelligences’ theory which has broadly added three new styles to the original four:
- Logical learning – the learner prefers to use reasoning and systems to learn;
- Social learning – the learner prefers group work and team activities;
- Solitary learning – the learner prefers to work alone.
Individual learning style theory has massively caught on. It is now accepted as fact to the extent that 90% teachers in the western world automatically adapt lessons for ILPs, and L&D departments in the workplace, to a lesser extent, do the same. But, there is some criticism …
Criticism of Learning Style Theory
Some academics and educators believe that there is no real hard science in Learning Style Theory. They have suggested that the idea spread during the late 80s and early 90s at a time when schools were becoming more open to the idea that students were not all the same, and that some learnt in a different way from others. Previously, nearly all schools and teachers had assumed that every student would learn effectively by the old ‘chalk and talk’ method where the teacher stands at the front of the class talking and writing on the board. It therefore followed that, if every student was different, then every student must therefore have their own individual learning style which was unique to them.
More than just one Individual Learning Style?
Later research suggests that learning styles might not be as fixed as we thought. Rather, it is the case that, while at school, people just fall into certain study habits and start to believe they cannot learn any other way. People do of course have different abilities and general preferences, and from an L&D specialist’s point of view it is sometimes simpler to employ one style over another.
- When I am working with a group who do not all have English as a first language, it makes sense to present information as visually as possible.
- If I am supporting a group to perform a manual task such as data entry, then the best way of them learning how to do this, is kinetically – to simply just do it.
Common sense tells us that most people can learn in multiple ways. We may prefer to do it one way, but that doesn’t mean we cannot do it any other! We probably automatically use more than one learning style to learn something new, without really thinking about it. To learn to play an instrument we need to:
- move the body (kinetic learning)
- read music (visual learning);
- and listen to it being played (aural).
We nearly all eventually pass our driving tests. To do this we need to:
- perform a manual operation (kinetic);
- read the Highway Code (visual);
- and listen to instructions (aural).
So it’s Individual Learning Preferences, rather than Styles?
In summary, perhaps we should stop thinking of ourselves as exclusively one type of learner or another. While it’s not that something terrible will happen if we think we can learn only in one way – it is more that there probably isn’t as much benefit to it as we tend to believe. This is not to completely disregard Honey & Mumford, Gardner, or any of the other academics.
Most educators (myself included) would completely agree that awareness of our own preferences is a good thing. Personally, I know that I will find it hard to retain information from just listening to a lecture – not least of all because after twenty or so minutes my mind begins to wander! If I want to learn a new skill, I know that I will find podcasts and aural learning material less useful than watching a TV programme or taking part in a class. Increased awareness of how we like to learn can only help, and this is the gateway to development.
So while Learning Style Theory might not necessarily help us to learn, it may well help us to learn to learn!
What do you think of Learning Styles Theory? Do you think people only learn in one way, or do you think it is less straightforward than that?
You can discover what sort of Honey & Mumford learning style you prefer by clicking here.
Header image credit: https://scimath123.com