Monday, 30 July 2012

Forget learning styles

This morning I responded to a LinkedIn discussion on learning styles, questioning the interest.  In my blog post of 4 May I noted that “Honey and Mumford’s learning styles theory, along with the competing theory of Colin Rose, has been widely discredited, at least in academic circles”, and cited this handy compendium of evidence and comment debunking the learning styles myth.

Let me showcase one useful quote, from Harold Stolovitch:

There is so much press about learning styles. First of all, it's hard to even pin down what this construct is. Is it preference, habit, or inborn trait? The general definition is that a learning style is a mode of learning that is most effective for a person. It helps the individual obtain superior learning results. However, more than 25 years of research on this and related themes have not provided any form of conclusive evidence that matching the form of instruction to learning style improved learning or even attention”.

I confess to my own complicity in this.  Two of the tools highlighted in my 2011 book, 101 Learning & Development Tools, are about learning styles.  It’s only in the last year I’ve come to understand that this is pop science at its worst, akin to claims that women can’t read maps and men never listen.

The real question is why use of learning styles “theory” persists.  As Allison Rossett perceptively puts it:

What interests me is why. Why have generations of educators glommed on to learning styles when the research is settled or pretty darn so? Seems to me that's the interesting morsel here”.

I hope it’s just that not enough work has been done to highlight, to communicate, how wrong-headed styles thinking is (the research work has been done), and people need time to break the habit.  I’d hate to think it means many L&D practitioners are like butterfly-brained new age gullibles, latching onto any seductive nonsense regardless of the evidence base.

I think learning styles models are useful in getting people to think about how they learn, and what motivates them.  No more than that.  And even then, they should be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

Thursday, 26 July 2012


At the risk of striking too sombre a note, death and loss have troubled me lately.  Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting older, but a number of recent deaths have prompted me to reflect on the strapline of this blog, and lessons for how we learn.

JackieOrme, whom I never knew or even met, but was leader of my profession, stepped down from her role as Chief Executive of the CIPD earlier this year to fight cancer, only to succumb this month, at the age of just 46.

My old student friend Kenny Harris died suddenly last month, at age 53 perhaps too old for the usual platitudes about dying too young, but as a near-contemporary I feel his untimely loss no less.  Kenny’s “headsurfing” philosophy, about maximising and utilising creativity, struck a chord with me.

And Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, also passed away this month.  Among many great insights, Covey said that principles should underpin our behaviour.

From Covey to Tovey – I recently discovered David Tovey, who points out in his blog post on “muscle learning” that we often develop ingrained habits for doing things the wrong way, and have to unlearn them before we can learn the right way.  This, I think, is a crucial improvement on the work of Roberto Moretti (see a previous blog post).  It also chimes with the work of action learning sets, which emphasise unlearning as a key stage in tackling a problem and learning what the solution should be.

So we may not die tomorrow, but if we live every day like we will, then one day we’ll be right.  Hopefully we’ll have learned all we can along the way, and passed on as much of that learning as possible.  It looks like a necessary step along the way is to unlearn the things we’ve got wrong, so let’s keep questioning, and let’s keep our minds open.

Long life and happiness.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Happy sheets

For years the Industrial Society (an independent charity until 2002, now the WorkFoundation, part of Lancaster University) used to conduct an annual survey of what was happening in training in the UK.  Every year they asked the question “what did you like most about the training?” and every year, without fail, the most popular answer was “the friendliness of the trainer”.  Not their competence, effectiveness or relevance – how friendly they were.
 Proust-like, I’ve been pondering what this means for years, and I’ve recently had a new thought about it.  I don’t know whether the Industrial Society asked what was the one thing people disliked most about training courses, but I think I know what the answer would be.  At least for those who attend courses frequently, it must surely be the dead ten minutes or so at the end of the day when the trainer passes out reaction sheets and asks people to fill them in.

Learners rarely see the results of these sheets, and truth be told organisations rarely make much use of their findings either.  Not really surprisingly, since most reaction sheets are poorly designed, with little thought for how they may be analysed and what will be done about the results.

Astonishingly, organisations continue to distribute these sheets regularly and routinely to everyone who takes a course.  How do I know this?  I have asked this question of six separate audiences recently, and almost everyone in each audience confessed to “regularly and routinely using reaction sheets”.  I wasn’t just following a hunch, check the footnotes on page 1 of the latest Airthrey paper, Making Evaluation a Priority.

I would go so far as to guess that immediate post-course reaction sheets are the most commonly completed surveys in the world.  And yet all to so little avail!

Here are some suggestions to vary your practice:

1. Put your reaction sheets online (many have already done this)
2. Even if they’re not online, don’t distribute them until a short time after the course (what’s so valuable about immediate reactions anyway?)
3. Consider breaking them into two sheets, one on issues about the quality of the learning and one on the hygiene factors (comfort, catering, etc)
4. Review your scales – are they biased? (in my experience, most are)
5. Review your questions – are they biased? (in my experience, most are)
6. Try using ballot boxes instead of survey sheets for the novelty factor
7. Consider who is responsible for reaction testing – is the trainer the right person? (probably not)
8. Think about what the sheets are for (quality testing? gauging learner satisfaction?), and only ask questions you think you may follow-up with action for change
9. Consider sampling: if you have an annual throughput of hundreds of learners on courses, a lot of your effort is wasted, when you could get as much useful information from a judicious sample
10. Consider getting rid of them altogether, which should prompt you to focus on the real value they provide

Any other suggestions?

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

What are you reading?

In Sunday’s Observer, Peter Preston noted the trend among US newspapers to cease publishing on at least one day of the week, typically their lowest sales day, and speculated why this phenomenon has not (yet) reached the UK.  One of the recurring themes of Preston’s weekly column is the decline of print-based media in the face of competition from digital.

This got me thinking about which print-based publications I still read, other than books.  My wife and I read one newspaper every Saturday (the Guardian) and every Sunday (the Observer), as part of our relaxing breakfast ritual.  I don’t take weekday newspapers – what’s the point?  And I don’t pay for any other print-based publication on a regular basis.

The magazines I read regularly include: Management Today (excellent) and Professional Manager (so-so), which I receive as a benefit of my membership of CMI; People Management (good), which I receive as a benefit of my membership of CIPD; and HR Network Scotland (poor), which is free.  All have online complements, all of which I consult from time to time.

But if I didn’t get these through other deals, I doubt I would deliberately pay for them – the possible exception is Management Today, which despite Luke Johnson’s execrable column, is always both entertaining and informative.

This marks a massive shift over the last 25 years.  I used to access lots of publications through work: I brought home the Glasgow Herald and the Financial Times daily, and I subscribed to the likes of the journal of the British Association for Commercial and Industrial Education (now defunct) and Training Officer (still going strong as Training Journal).  And I subscribed, or bought at newsagents, a variety of other magazines – now I buy none.

Most of my reading is online, and even if some of my sources move to charge (although the pace of this is incredibly slow), I expect that to continue.  Like Peter Preston, I can’t see much of a future for print-based media.  Which begs the question – who on earth is buying all those rows of glossy magazines that still fill the shelves of WH Smith et al?

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