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How to Learn and the Nonsense Talked About 'Learning Styles'

People may learn in different ways, but it’s what you teach them that really matters.  

Every September in the UK sees the start of the new school term which naturally means lots of happy, excited faces around the breakfast table. I for one was always overjoyed to see the back of our three little cherubs after six long weeks.

Schooling has changed. Originally, the emphasis was on the three ‘R’s. We were taught grammar and syntax, how to add up, divide and take away, and some pupils were forced to do P.E. even if  they didn’t want to.  And the result? Lots of us went to red brick universities, got good jobs and are now running successful businesses.

However, there’s always room for improvement, right? So the the ‘learning to learn’ concept was introduced. It teaches them how to learn the things that they should be learning if they weren’t studying how to learn. Then there’s all the ground-breaking initiatives that are enthusiastically introduced and quietly withdrawn a few years later. Like not bothering to correct spelling or grammar because it inhibits creative thinking and discourages communication. Well, as you can see, it’s never stopped me. Not ever. Never.

So why do I mention this? Well if, like me, you’re ever called upon to give a presentation you might be tempted to cede to the current fad known as ‘Allowing for people’s different learning styles’. Despite what they may tell you on a presentation skills course, it’s poppycock. And I don’t care if that’s one word or two. Forget about ‘building learning systems around the preferred learning style of the audience’. It’s nonsense. Just be grateful if they’re still awake and facing your way by the end. Maybe even taking notes.

The first clue that ‘learning styles’ might be just another in a long list of psychobabble is that there’s lots of people making money out of it. Consultants will promise to ‘measure the preferred learning styles’ of your people and then ‘help you design training modules to match’.

Complete couilles, if you’ll pardon my French.

They usually cite the VARK model designed by Kiwi, Neil Fleming, who thinks that learning styles can be split into four basic types; Visual, Aural, Reading and Writing, and Kinesthetic. That last one means doing stuff like using a keyboard to learn to play the piano.

I kid you not.

And all these years I’ve been trying to get a tune out of the ironing board.

Anyway Frank Coffield of the University of London did a thorough analysis of all the ‘learning style models’ and found that there are seventy different ways to get information into the brain.

Seventy!

And the real problem is that the only way to establish someone’s ‘preferred learning style’ is to ask them. And that’s a bit like asking the fashion-challenged to look in the mirror and then answer the question ‘Why?’

They won’t know. It’s just what happens every day when they get dressed.

So here’s the bottom line. The thing that ought to influence the way you present is not the audience but the subject. For instance, the best way to communicate the vastness of Australia is to do it visually with an image of it superimposed on an image of Europe.  Don’t talk numbers of square mile ~ show them a map. If the subject is dance or how to use an iPod then we need to teach that kinesthically. Touch it, feel it ,work it out.

It’s not rocket science. Which leads me to a question that I’ve long since pondered. What term do rocket scientists use when they’re performing a task that is relatively easy? After all, it’s still rocket science, isn’t it?

I’ll leave you with that one.

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