If not Learning Styles, then what?

Last week I wrote this blog post about why Learning Styles should be consigned to the bin. Not just my opinion on it, but because there is no research of any kind that supports the use of Learning Styles in the design or delivery of training/learning solutions.

For those who have trained for years using this type of model – and don’t forget, Learning Styles is many theories not just one thing – it can leave a sour taste. If I don’t use Learning Styles to design a course, then what do I use?

It’s a valid question.

The answer lies in our understanding of training problems / learning needs.

Often, business leaders will inform us of the problem they face. My team need communication skills training. My team don’t deliver their sales targets.

Then comes the request. Can you deliver the training course we need to fix either of those two problems?

A lot of trainers / L&Ders see this as their mandate to deliver for the business. That they can show their value by doing what was asked for. That they will have clear learning objectives.


Before you’ve even started designing or thinking about how you could deliver on the solution, consider these further lines of enquiry back to the business leader.

What change are you seeking from the training?

What are you doing to manage that need yourself?

How are you giving the team feedback on these needs?

What are the structures in place that either support what you’re asking for or hinder the outcome you’re expecting?

What have you tried already?

Who else is doing something impressive that you have seen?

How are the team measured on these needs?

Any one of those questions will start a further line of enquiry with the business leader. What I like about this performance consultancy approach is that you’re engaging the business leader and asking them to take responsibility for the results they’re seeking without defaulting to your training course / learning solution.

That whole process above will nearly always result in a different set of solutions – one of which may still be a course – but that doesn’t become the default option trainers are used to.

Then when it comes to the design of the thing, don’t start from the content side of things. The content is only important if you understand the context the team are working in.

Spend time with the team. Sit with them to understand what challenges they face with the training need identified. Use their input to inform the content you need to design for. Ask questions on what kind of practical solutions they want a training/learning solution to provide. Then design for those things specifically.

Through none of that does it matter what kind of learning preference the individuals may or may not have. You’re not delivering against their learning preferences – that’s not the business need. You’re delivering against their performance needs. That’s what will be measured.

There are many other options when it comes to thinking about the design of training / learning solutions including areas like user experience, behavioral economics, the 70:20:10 model, and experiential learning. Learning Styles has no place in the work we do.

It can be hard to have to re-learn what we know and trust, and if we can’t demonstrate that in ourselves then how are we hoping our learners will fare any better?


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.

Lessons in personal resilience

Life has thrown some stuff my way in recent weeks, and it’s meant I’ve had to really look at my own practice when it comes to my personal resilience. I need to keep resilient and positive for those around me, ensure I have a fair handle on the reality of stuff, and that I’m being aware of others needs and supportive where I can be.

In no particular order, here’s how I’m trying to maintain my personal resilience:

  • I’m audio journalling far more than I have done previously. I’m checking in with myself every other day or so. Asking myself questions like: What is today’s situation? How is it different from yesterday? What happens next? How am I being affected? What does that mean for me? What is different about my own behaviour? Is anything happening of concern? What patterns of thought / emotion / action are happening I need to be watchful of?
  • Talking regularly with friends and family. Different people ask different questions. Different people need different answers. Some I trust more and can talk more freely. Others I say what I need and no more. But talking is super helpful. It helps me make sense of what I think is happening and what I think will be happening next.
  • Making sure I’m eating well and sleeping well. Most evenings by 10pm I’m exhausted from the day and sleep easily until 8am the next day. I am getting more than enough sleep! But I know I need it. I’m also really trying not to just eat junk food. It’s easy for me to do, so I’ve been making super conscious choices about what I’m eating. Have discovered I’m a really big fan of salads.
  • Talking to the professionals and trusting their choices. They are experts in what they are doing, and the best I can do is listen and understand. From that I can make as informed a set of decisions as I can.
  • Accepting there are days when I will wain. I have had a few low days, and that’s ok. I don’t force myself to feel positive. I also don’t wallow. I just let that down day happen. The body and mind have their own way of preserving our condition, and it’s important to pay attention.
  • I have massively restricted my social media output. I’m known to be a prolific tweeter, and post across multiple different social media. I know that I will readily throw myself into conversations of all sorts. I know that I will readily burrow down rabbit holes of content and topics of interest. I’m keeping fairly well disciplined about limiting all that. My emotional resilience is significantly lessened by me actively engaging in social media, and it won’t allow me to be well for those around me.

There are some things I haven’t been able to maintain as well as I’d like:

  • Pretty much all gym and physical activity routine has been put on halt. Normal routines are not in play for now. The best I’ve been able to do is pilates at home. I’m keen to restart swimming and the gym, and I’m not trying not to unduly pressure myself into going, nor feeling guilty about not going. This period demands other focus, so that’s what I’m doing.
  • Blogging and podcasting. Both are normally good outlets for me. Pursuant to the above point on limiting how I engage with social media, I miss producing content. It’s such a regular part of my life, that not doing that stuff is noticeable for me.
  • I’ve also pulled back on the different groups and networks I’m connected to. I just don’t have the energy or the attention I could so easily give before. It’ll return once this stuff settles, so I’m giving myself permission to let those things idle along as they best can.

One final note. I am not writing this for sympathy, nor for solutions, nor for any kind of self-aggrandising. I am not seeking anyone’s well-wishes or solidarity. I’m writing this as I think it’s important to have that level of congruence that I write about wellbeing and resilience, and I live it as best I can. The above, I hope, is a personal example.

The deep bias facing L&D

As we continue our understanding of bias, prejudice and privilege in society, we also start to develop the capability of interrogating our own spheres. I have written before many times how there is a problem of diversity of people of colour in L&D. The most obvious place we can observe this is on the conference circuit. In the main, speakers will be white. It is incredibly rare to see Black people, Chinese people, Indian people, taking the stage. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I’m saying it’s rare. In the L&D space, it’s hard to find leaders who fit those demographics, and who are willing to speak on the conference circuit.

But that’s just one place where we can readily observe the lack of diversity.

If we think about things from a systems perspective, we start to see just how the L&D ecosystem is perpetuating completely and thoroughly white perspectives on the world, and it’s in every aspect of everything we experience. I’m specifically talking about L&D here – not the wider societal impacts of white thinking.

And I want to be very clear here – I am being critical of the complete lack of diversity in the system. I am not being critical of any individuals nor their thinking nor their contributions to L&D. In a lot of cases, we have very strong L&D thinkers, leaders, practitioners, consultants who design and deliver fantastic solutions and products. I applaud of all that, thoroughly.

What I am seeking to highlight here is that at the vast majority of our events that we hold, from the books that are written, from the speakers we hear, from the consultants who design, we are getting – in the majority – white perspectives. Yes, there are those who are of colour doing good work in our space, and they are in the minority.

What I see and experience is that we perpetuate and roll along very willingly with all this, and it seems like there is little effort to positively make a difference. White voices are heard, white voices make decisions in our profession, white voices determine the models and theories we follow, white people lead the vendors – do you see?

And let me be clear – I am not saying this makes any of us racist. It is just how it is. If we look at this more critically, it means we’re all complicit in the perpetuation of the same.

This isn’t about people of colour not taking the opportunities to present themselves, or put themselves forward – some already do that. It’s that through the systemic ways in which we operate, so much is done with a white person lens, that we willfully neglect and do not consider that there is a lack of any other voice other than the white ones.

What do I mean? When a call is made to the vendor and an account manager takes the call and puts forward the brief to their team. When a project needs to be managed and the project manager decides on the actions that need to be taken and who’s accountable for what. When a conference organising team is a handful of people. When the academics we laud and talk about and listen to and whose models and theories we want to learn more about. When the books we read are given accolades. When the awards are judged and the decisions are made about the winners. When a new product is launched and there’s a big marketing campaign.

In nearly every one of those scenarios, I’m willing to bet that there are more white voices involved in all of those scenarios than there are active voices from people of colour. I am not suggesting we stop working as we do. I am highlighting that the system enforces the voice of the white person.

This is the deep bias.

Our problem in L&D is that we think we’re above prejudice, above bias, above discrimination. We think we are more inclusive than most, more accommodating of needs than most, more aware of bias and prejudice than most. And yet, it would be tangibly very difficult for most of us to genuinely put forward multiple examples of where diversity bias isn’t so clearly lacking. I’m saying multiple examples because one or two examples from your own experience isn’t enough. I’m talking everyday actions, not specific moments in time.

Our problem in L&D is the same problem in society at large. We believe that our everyday interactions and actions are as genuine as they can be and that we’re treating people well. This isn’t about how well you personally treat others, or what you personally do to make a difference. This is about how the system at large is designed so heavily in favour of white voices that we don’t even recognise the lack of non-white voices.

And for completeness, we are woefully biased against so many other demographics, which I’ve not even tried to address here – disability, social class, sexual orientation, gender orientation, formal education or not, and so many more.

This is the deep bias.

There are no easy solutions here. I’m not asking for solutions. I’m also purposefully not proposing solutions. This blog post isn’t about that. It’s to cause debate. It’s to state observations which I believe to be blatant and very present. This blog post is to bring this discussion to the fore.

Discussing this topic won’t get you in trouble for being racist – unless you use racist language, or say things in racist and discriminatory ways. In the main, most of us will understand how to not do these things, so your contributions and thoughts will be welcome. If you’re not comfortable commenting in the open space, then DM me on Twitter or send me a private LinkedIn message. It is from discussion that we can keep things moving forward. When we don’t discuss things like this openly, we remain complicit in perpetuating the strength of white voices and do not do enough to include voices from people of colour.

Final Point – I hope in this writing you will have seen that I haven’t accused anyone of anything. I’m not singling out any one individual. I’m being quite measured in my language and the points I’m making. I am talking about the L&D ecosystem which is all of us.

The fine line of not being a psychologist

In L&D we have a long list of trainers and consultants helping to deliver services and solutions to clients in many ways. That can range anything from MBTI to leadership development to coaching to unconscious bias training to NLP.

Some of these have a sound basis in psychology. Others just don’t. There is a difference in understanding a topic so well that you can design and deliver training on it, and having read The Chimp Paradox and think you have a superior grasp on emotional intelligence, leadership or high performance.

There is a line we as trainers cross quite regularly where we start talking about psychology and how people learn or what makes people tick or how to be a better salesperson. And that line needs to be traversed everso carefully.

That ethical line is important and I fear too many just don’t think about the implications of the stuff they may think they’re sharing. What I mean to say is that too often trainers overestimate their insight into the human condition and believe they can support clients beyond just delivering training and crossing into being life coaches.

Trained psychologists spend years of their time learning their subject. And even then, they’re really only learning about one area of psychology. No one person can be well studied across all of psychology. And there are many areas – cognitive psychology, educational psychology, occupational psychology, counselling and psychotherapy, evolutionary psychology and much much more.

We can fool ourselves very easily into believing that because we’ve read books or watched a TED video or heard a speaker at a conference that we’ve got the same level of insight into the human condition – and sometimes even thinking we are better informed because we’ve read a range of things!

The challenge is to not get so confident about this understanding that you think you are a psychologist by default. Faux thinking around things like:

  • I understand how the brain works even though most neuroscientists can only give you specific information about specific aspects of the brain and I’ve never done any research into how the brain works myself
  • I understand how people learn because I can design and deliver training – they are not the same things
  • I understand how to enable high performance because I deliver training on coaching
  • I understand how people think even though there are many many theories about how people think
  • I understand how to influence people because I’ve read a book on how to influence people

I could easily go on.

And I’m cautious. There are those we work with who are genuinely well personally studied in the area of psychology. They have taken the time to really go deep with their thinking and their practice. They have valuable insight because of their deep study and thinking. I’m not talking about those people. They aren’t pretending to be something they’re not.

This fine line I’m talking about is when you have someone have so much self-belief that they just spout stuff which has little basis in actual psychological insight and is nothing more than their opinion.

There is a level of humility I think is missing from many who deliver training and try to delve into psychological topics of which they have a superficial understanding. To be able to understand when you as a trainer are entering into a conversation which you are clearly untrained for. That you don’t need to fake it to make it. That you don’t have to meet the need of the client in that moment because their need is for better support and intervention than what you can offer.

Professionalism vs Personal touch on social media?

A couple of weeks back, I posted this statement on Twitter >

It’s always hard to know what kind of response a tweet will garner. This attracted a fair amount of comment, from a lot of people in the L&D space. I’d recommend reading the many responses to the tweet.

What was I basing this statement on? The open nature of social media. What does this mean? I mean the way that social media means you are more than your brand, and we can understand so much more about each other based on what is available in the social space.

Let’s look at this from a different point of view. These days on social media we see big brands making a lot of effort to be more human and more personal in the online and digital space. They have teams of people who actively respond to complaints so that customers know they are dealing with a real person. They spend a lot of money on PR and marketing of their CSR efforts, their diversity and inclusion agendas, their various initiatives / activities to improve local community / society, and even their political stances where it makes sense for them to do that.

When that happens – do we see the brands as being less professional? Do we see them as being less credible?

Importantly – why are big brands trying to make the effort to be more human in the social space?

But, independent consultants (seemingly) struggle with sharing their personal stuff online. By personal stuff, I don’t mean family or friends stuff. I mean things like the big brands make big efforts to talk about:

  • What are your political beliefs?
  • What are your thoughts on LGBTQ+?
  • What are your thoughts on sexism?
  • What are your values?
  • How does any and all of this show up in the design of work you do?

These things matter. We don’t live in bubbles where these things are only private matters not to be shared with the world. That way of operating is long done with. Politicians and public figures take to the likes of Twitter to air their opinions about all these topics and more. We don’t live in an age where only if you’re a professional commentator are we allowed to hear your perspectives on life.

In my social network feed I have people – consultants – commentating on:

  • Menopause
  • Mental health
  • Day to day life
  • War
  • Politics
  • Family life
  • LGBTQ+ issues
  • Sexism

And I value each and every opinion in this vain. It lets me know what these individuals stand for. What they believe. Their posts help me to know if I think the same. If my own thinking needs to be challenged. It’s important because it lets me know if they’re the kind of person I want to create a longer lasting relationship/friendship with. Not because we might do business with one another in the future – but because they’ve made themselves more human.

It’s an interesting ongoing space to balance. I’m clearly advocating for more openness of opinion from consultants. But that’s not easy to do. Sometimes we may want to say something, but can’t find the words. Sometimes we have an opinion but fear what others might respond with. Sometimes we just don’t like the person and turn off from what say. Sometimes people struggle with the content because it triggers or provokes a visceral reaction. And there may be more besides.

As always, I’m interested in knowing your opinions. Either here on the blog, or over on Twitter or LinkedIn.


What I learned at the inaugural #WomenInLearning conference

I was highly appreciative and privileged to get a late ticket to the first #WomenInLearning conference last week.

When I’m at events like this, my bias is to share the insights as best I can. I try to honour the speakers for their content as much as I can and offer my stuff in addition to what I hear. So I live tweeted the event. You can catch the complete thread here. Better than that thread, though, is the actual #WomenInLearning hashtag which has everyone’s contributions at the event.

We live in an age where it’s becoming easier to identify where there is unfairness against women, what kind of societal norms prohibit and reduce the progression of women in the workplace, how discrimination both knowingly and unknowingly takes place, and just how much privilege there is to just being a man. This doesn’t mean that men have it easier than women, it means that the barriers to ease are less than they are for women.

And for the sake of completeness, I think it’s fair to say this event was addressing exclusively bias against women. It did not look at bias against any other group. There’s a good reason for that, too. The event came about as the result of a survey carried out by Donald Taylor a few years back where he sought to understand the gender difference at senior levels in L&D. The results showed that only 31% of senior roles are occupied by women. From a sample of 2635 respondents, that’s fairly representative.

From those results, several conversations carried forward to a group of women – Kate Graham and Ashley Sinclair, deciding further positive action needed to be taken. (I’m sure others helped to make things happen, I just know these two did a good amount of PR and marketing.) How do you have a positive and progressive conversation about why there aren’t enough women in senior roles in L&D without it becoming a man bashing or destroy the patriarchy event?

You hold an open conference where men and women are invited to attend. I think in the room there were probably about 15-20% men in attendance. It might have been lower than that.

The speakers were chosen really well.

It was fascinating listening to Nicole Kilner, the CEO of beauty company Deciem – a $300 million global business with 800 staff. Oh and by the way she’s only 30. She shared some fascinating insights into how she leads and how she shows leadership to her whole team. In her company, they’ve chosen to use a combination of Thrive Learning and GetAbstract to provide learning solutions to Deciem staff. Instead of off the shelf content on leadership insights, Nicola and her team have recorded videos to be shared with their company. In her opinion, if you’re going to hear about leadership why hear it from people that have nothing to do with your company?

I loved hearing from Julie Brayson, Head of OD at Card Factory. When I think of how to use my platform when I’m speaking st conferences, its Julie’s example I recognise as being necessary and highly effective. Julie left school with no formal qualifications. She went on to work at a retailer who sent her ok workplace training to improve her skills. She learned that she wanted to be a trainer and thus began her career in L&D. Several roles and years later she’s now heading up OD for a national card retailer and later this year will take up her first Exec Director role. A far cry from being told that because she didn’t take typing at school she wouldn’t get a job as a secretary.

Catherine Cape shared her story of how she left school to join en estate agents where she first went on workplace training. And she, too, was inspired by the trainer. She shared that when as a woman you ask for what you need – a promotion / a raise / more experience, it’s not being pushy or demanding. It’s recognising your needs and honouring that. She told us that she’s fortunate to have a husband who supports her being the main breadwinner. Pretty fantastic.

The event finished with a panel of Jane Daly, Chief Insight Officer at Towards Maturity, Kristina Tsiriotakis, Global Director L&D at Deciem, and Catherine Cape. This was nicely done with the audience rating the questions they wanted the panel to answer. I do love good use of tech at a conference. And on that point, the use of menti.com is well worth checking out for your interactive audience needs at a conference.

Also, we found out Don doesn’t know what Percy Pigs are (they’re soft sweets from Marks and Spencers).

The conference was really helpful for my own learning in this space. As a man, I’m going to be mostly unaware of the day to day barriers and everyday sexism that women have to put up with. I try to do what I can in this space and a very recent experience tells me I have a fair amount to yet understand and be better.

What stood out for me from the women speaking on the day was their personal experience they shared with us all and what they’ve learned about themselves along the way. We all of us battle with narratives given to us from our younger years and have to find our way forward. For women, these narratives are often reinforced in many direct and indirect ways. As men, we can do a lot to just listen to the experience of women and understand it better. That’s why I went to the conference – to just listen. It can be really easy for men to feel they need to have to interject and comment on everything they hear. I’ve learned my voice is not needed in many situations – even those where I’m leading or facilitating a session.

There’s more to be done in this space. More for men to understand the experience of women in the Learning profession. More to do to actively seek to develop the progression of women into senior roles. More to be done to reduce gender bias in the profession. More to be done to raise empathy. More to be done where we have strong representation of women in decision making roles.