Why Should I Care about Learning Styles?

Jeffrey Keefer

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Let me share the down and dirty, so to speak, about learning styles. Only enough, that is, to make sense of them and incorporate them into any teaching, learning, coaching, presenting, or communicating you will do. You are likely working from home while still trying to keep the kids focused on their schoolwork, so they don’t get behind, and perhaps this can help.

At first, learning styles may seem academic or theoretical, so let me remove those notions right from the beginning! Having an awareness of learning styles can be useful whenever you want to communicate anything to anybody, from co-workers to children and beyond.

Learning styles quite simply refer to the ways that people (prefer to) learn. Simple as that!

Some people like to learn by reading printed books, others through ebooks or online articles, while still others like listening to recording lectures. Some people like talking through new things and, in the process, learn a lot about them. One way is not right or wrong, better or worse. They are just different, somewhat like we are different.

We are different, and so are the ways we prefer to learn—each in their way.

What Are They?

A few years back, discourse about learning styles involved three basic learning approaches — visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

Schools of education, instructional designers, and workplace learning folks used to pine away about using just the right instrument to help you determine your learning style, which often became imprinted on you like a scarlet letter.

"Oh, that's Bob, and he learns best through reading, so make sure to have printed papers for him."

"That's Sue, and she is more visual, so make sure there are plenty of color images posted."

Of course, dividing things into three predominant styles and then freezing them into semi-permanency made things easy to work with. What could be easier than dividing all people into one of three areas?

Armed with that knowledge, we learned how to focus on developing our talents while also being sure to include the other two's elements to embrace diversity and inclusion when trying to teach something to others.

While there was little evidence to support this oversimplification, its myth persisted for some time. That is, until discussions advanced into multiple learning types and the fleeting nature of permanency.

Types

Most people would likely agree that things are a bit more complicated than dividing all people into three groups and then maximizing all learning. We have come to realize there is not a single list of all learning styles for all people. However, some that are most commonly discussed include:

  • Visual (see)
  • Auditory (hear, sounds, music)
  • Reading / Writing (process of making meaning)
  • Kinesthetic (bodily movement)
  • Social (construct meaning in groups)
  • Solitary (personal or active reflection)
  • Logical (mathematical or reasoning)

There may be more when considering technology and complexities in contemporary society, but you get the point.

Many different people prefer, almost intrinsically, learning in different ways—nothing wrong with that, especially in a diverse society.

Fleeting Nature of Permanency

Learning styles may change and develop depending on the topic and how it is experienced and layered onto the previous ways we have made meaning. To state one has “learning style X in Y situation” has the danger of freezing these into place. Teaching adults in the same way we teach children does not work (per the concept of andragogy). Likewise, training people in the same way without any variation also lacks an appreciation of human complexity.

Just because I prefer to learn new recipes by reading those new ones in the printed newspaper each week does not mean I like learning to change the oil in my car by reading the owner’s manual alone, sitting at the table with a cup of coffee. They are both very different things to learn, and what works for one does not work well for the other.

If anything, we are complex, and freezing learning styles from one situation in life to another situation, and expecting the same learning approach to work in the same way, has the effect of black boxing them, as if we are frozen and do not change nor develop.

The next time you think our actions are consistent from one situation to another, watch parents try to make sense of their children (at any age!!)! You may note we like consistency, yet we rarely achieve it repeatedly in our actions with others. How on earth could we consider learning to be any different?

2 Reasons to Care about Learning Styles?

If learning styles shift with experience, people, culture, situations, needs, and even desires, what good are they to even talk about?

Well, they are helpful in two distinct ways:

  1. The first being when trying to provide people with more about what they need when it is already clear what that need is. If some people like to learn by reading printed books, don’t bother buying them a Kindle. If others need to talk through what the changing work policy means in practice, let them!
  2. The second is when we create some communication, we want to ensure we meet the needs of the variety of people who will receive it and are expected to somehow act upon it, especially those who learn differently than we do. If you only communicate or teach people in the same way you learn, then you will likely (ok, definitely!) miss others with the message.

Consider this: What is the best way for you to learn something (like how to do statistical analysis or give driving directions)?

Once you have a sense of this for yourself, in other words, what would be most helpful for you to learn how to do these, then consider how others may need it another way. Would what works for you work in the same way for your children, parents, or friends? Perhaps you would likely need to think about how they are all different and may require different approaches.

If you have to teach others how to do that, make sure you also employ a variety of other methods, as other people will undoubtedly learn differently! Learning styles are most useful when we are aware of our audience's needs, for why bother giving them something they will not be able to work with?

Next Steps

Think about the last time you needed to teach somebody how to do something, and it did not work out well. Was it because you did not know what you were doing, or because the other person was too dense? Not likely. If anything, it was probably because your explanation did not resonate with what they needed for them to learn it.

So, what could you do differently next time?

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Educator. Writer. Open Knowledge Advocate. Institutional Researcher. I help people navigate their learning needs and take informed action.

New York City, NY
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