It’s How You Teach, Not Learning Styles

Teaching Methods

One of my jobs at Acumen Consulting is being a technical trainer. It’s the thing that until recently has made up the backbone of my work for the last fifteen plus years.

There’s a very interesting article in Scientific American about something called Learning Styles. I’ve always been skeptical of learning styles in general but this article confirmed my doubts. The article attempts to be even-handed, so much so that I think it bends over backwards to soothe those who believe in Learning Styles.

I imagine this post of mine will generate some anger from those who believe in Learning Styles, we’ll see.

The idea behind Learning Styles is that students best learn in different ways and that educators need to take advantage of this. That some students learn by listening, some by watching, and some by doing. That those who learn in particular ways should be taught in that way.

There is no empirical evidence that this is true. It sounds true and that is what makes it attractive to people. We like things that have the ring-of-truth to them. Often times those sort of things are in actuality true. However, just because something sounds like it is true doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be experimentation to prove it.

In this case they’ve finally done some studies and no one has found any connection between a Learning Style and learning faster.

What they’ve found, and what my own experience tells me, is that good teaching methods yield more learning. Period.

I was taught what is called the three-step method. Tell people what you’re going to do, do it, ask them what you’ve just done. It works.

The more senses you get involved in learning the better you are. If you show them that’s a start. If they do it, that’s even better, if they talk about what they just did that’s best. If you are studying don’t use the highlighter. Get a notepad and write down what you would have highlighted, say it out loud as you are writing it.

In the article they mention the type of learner makes no difference when teaching geography. A learner who does best by listening? Bunk. Show them a map and they’ll learn more than if you describe the shape and size of the great state of Missouri. It’s how we teach, not how we learn, if there is even a real “learning style” which I doubt.

Some people are smarter than other people and there are those with severe mental disabilities but if we eliminate those at the ends of the Bell Curve I think it’s more than possible to teach almost everyone critical thinking and analysis. Teach them useful skills so that they can enter adulthood with the ability to work and earn a living. With a population schooled in these tools we can build a better society.

There are good teachers, great teachers, and those less talented. Hopefully you had a great one somewhere along the line. The odds are whatever that great teacher taught is what you are now doing as a career. That’s how important teachers are in the world and our lives. Great teacher inspire us and change us.

So, don’t fall back on the excuse that you’re a visual learner and that’s why you failed to understand something. Ask your teacher to explain it better. You can learn it, you can do it.

Tom Liberman