Why I Don't Believe in Learning Styles Anymore

A while back I listened to Pat Flynn’s podcast episode with Derek Halpern about selling. In the episode, Derek explains his POD technique for writing sales copy. But before he described his framework, he said something that I had never heard anyone else say out loud: you don’t just have one target customer, you have multiple.

Derek was right. (You have customer segments.) And yet, countless Internet gurus spread the myth that you have a single ‘customer avatar.’

(Sidebar: there is a good reason why people tell you this but it sends us down a rabbit hole, so let’s ignore it, k?)

The same is true with learning styles. They’re a myth. At best, they're an outdated theory on how we learn.

But Janelle, I’m a visual learner! No, friend, you’re not.

Look, I’m not immune. Until recently, I not only believed this, but I described myself as a visual learner. But the truth is you and I tend to process information visually.

That’s not the same as learning.

Learning Styles: A Primer

When it comes to learning theory, one of the key things you'll find is that for a very long time we've believed that people have different styles of learning. The four main styles are:

  • Visual (seeing)

  • Verbal (reading/writing)

  • Auditory (hearing/listening/speaking) and

  • Kinesthetic (doing/moving)

(Note: There are many more styles out there. These are just the four most common.)

The idea is that each of us learns a particular way (style).

One Style Doesn't Fit...?

What always irked me was that I also knew that I learned certain things by doing too, which made me partly kinesthetic. So which one was I?

For example, riding a bike is learnt kinesthetically. Right now I’m learning how to be a scratch DJ, which is definitely something that’s only learned by doing. I can watch all the tutorials I want, but I have to do the thing to truly learn it. You get the idea.

Then I started listening to podcasts. And I realized that I was not only listening but learning. Wait a minute! Wait a MINUTE! Hadn't I always told people that I didn’t retain auditory info? Mind. Blown.

Learning Modes Not Styles

You don’t have just one way of learning. You have modes of learning.

To break that down, I have to explain which definition of mode I’m using. Here’s the Apple Dictionary definition:

mode |mōd|
noun
1 a way or manner in which something occurs or is experienced, expressed, or done: his preferred mode of travel was a kayak | differences between language modes, namely speech and writing.
• an option allowing a change in the method of operation of a device, especially a camera: a camcorder in automatic mode.
2 a fashion or style in clothes, art, literature, etc.: in the Seventies, the mode for activewear took hold. (Nope, not this one.)
3 Statistics the value that occurs most frequently in a given set of data. (Not this one either but kinda maybe.)
4 Music: a set of musical notes forming a scale and from which melodies and harmonies are constructed. (Nope, not this one. Although learning feels like music when it kicks in.)

HOW I’M USING IT

• a way or manner in which something occurs or is experienced, expressed, or done: his preferred mode of travel was a kayak | differences between language modes, namely speech and writing. AKA "PLACE"
• an option allowing a change in the method of operation of a device, especially a camera: a camcorder in automatic mode. AKA "BRAIN"

You see, I believe that we learn in different modes. Those modes can be different places and/or different methods of operation.

Think about it. Are there times when you've had to learn something a specific way because it was more convenient (an audiobook during your commute?) or applicable (taking bad photos to learn to be a better photographer)? 

MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES

While we might have a preferred mode, our brains can and will adjust to fit the situation. In fact, studies prove that most people have multiple modes of learning. (For further geekery, read this article on multiple intelligences.)

Why is it that there are so many proven ways of processing information, yet people want us to pick one “style” of learning?

Because humans like boxes. We need to be able to put things in categories to make sense of them. 

What Does This Mean For Your Courses?

Mainly, it means that if people switch learning modes often, you've got to be strategic in your teaching techniques. You can do this by providing materials and resources that accommodate:

  • your learners preferred way of learning

  • their place of learning

  • what works best for the content.

WHAT DO I MEAN BY WHAT WORKS BEST FOR THE CONTENT?

Great question. Here's an example: I was at DJ practice the other day and a classmate complained that her instructor spent the entire class explaining the theory behind DJing. They’d gone weeks without doing anything.

She felt like she hadn’t learned anything because DJing is kinesthetic--you have to do it to learn and improve. Did her instructor know this? Sure, but his teaching didn’t reflect it, which made for some pretty upset students.

So if your content is visual in nature, create activities that are primarily visual. Just make sure you provide multiple formats for your lessons. 

(Something that’s not discussed often enough online is creating content that accommodates learners with disabilities, e.g. audio downloads of lessons for learners with vision impairment.)

Summary

I didn't write this to be "right." This is just my latest theory after thinking deeply about how I learn and noticing that other people learn in multiple modes too. As instructors, we have to be more aware of how and where learning happens.

RESOURCES TO CHECK OUT

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