Why does it matter if Learning Styles is still used?

In the world of training and learning and development, there are certain practices that just do not go away. A lot of us in our early days of becoming trainers were taught about some variation of learning styles. How we have to design learning for people who need to hear things (auditory), for people who need to see things (visual), and for people who need to do things (kinaesthetic) – and possibly even people who like to read things (reading).

It was staple training 101.

And then some smart researchers decided they would test out the theory to see how effective it actually is in learning outcomes. So they tested learning design against the proposed theory(ies).

In all empirical studies, learning styles has been left wanting every single time. Never once has the use of learning styles in the design of learning made a tangible difference to learning outcomes. It’s been tested in all sorts of settings – corporate, schools, universities, public sector. And it’s been tested and retested year after year. We’re not talking stuff which is out of date research. There is absolutely masses of research that tells us learning styles as a theory has no validity, has no reliability, and should not be used for designing anything related to learning or training.

Yet it persists. Like a bad rash, it has potency. Its potency lies in nothing more than its simplicity as a theory. Even though the theory is wrong, it has the semblance of offering some insight. And just like a bad rash, the more you scratch at it and pick at it, the more it persists and doesn’t go away.

So does it matter if trainers and some L&Ders still use learning styles? Yes, yes it does because they’re designing and delivering things in a fundamentally flawed way.

In a world where we are peddled many mistruths about many things, where evidence and research is available to help us make good decisions then we should avail ourselves of it. If we don’t, we are essentially being lazy about our craft and arrogant in our knowledge. Ego has a place in any work, but should never come before insight and better work.

Does it harm anyone if learning styles is used? Not direct harm, no.

The harm is caused from the blind acceptance from our learners that the design of the training they’ve been given is ethical and research based. Otherwise we’re not helping our people genuinely learn stuff in a helpful way, we’re just touting a belief based on no more than faith, and religion is not part of the training/learning function.

We should just let people be! I hear some of you say. It’s just a tool! It can be helpful to some people!

Mates, I don’t want the ambition of the stuff we do to be helpful to some people.

If we’re using design principles that are unhelpful to most people, then why in the world are we insisting the theory has any value at all?

If there are better tools for design of learning/training that can help more people why are we pretending that it’s acceptable to use a poor theory to design our solutions?

We have the strong fortune of having access to very many strong L&D designers and thinkers in this age. There are some solid frameworks we can work with that can enable the kind of outcomes we’re seeking to provide.

As always, let me know what you make of this. Very interested to hear others thoughts and comments.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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