I’ve pointed out the problems with learning styles in the past, but I want to rethink them with you, as we took quite a positive out of them in a unique way. This was back in 99-2000, when I led a project developing an intelligently adaptive learning system (Intellectricity ™; inspired by Joe Miller‘s vision of a system that respected who you were as a learner). The system took a unique approach, adapting on the basis of who you were as a learner instead of your demonstrated domain knowledge (though it did that, too, though not like an intelligent tutoring system).
To do this, I looked long and hard at learning styles, including Jonassen & Grabowksi’s uncritical compendium, and (the other) John Carroll’s Cognitive Factor Analysis research. I decided then what I still do now, that essentially all of the learning style instruments are garbage. It’s not just me saying this, but so does a commissioned study by the Learning and Skills Research Centre. And, as I previously reported, psychologist Daniel Willingham says we shouldn’t adapt learning to styles. So, is there anything to salvage?
I want to say yes. The obvious reason is to recognize that learners do differ, and help learning designers be mindful of that. And there are some insights. For example, take Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. When I was investigating learning styles, I didn’t like having bimodal dimensions, say where you’re either an introvert or an extrovert. The problem is, those are so context-dependent that you could be an introvert in the classroom, and an extrovert in the lunchroom. Or even topic by topic. I liked that Gardner assesses how social (interpersonal) you are separate from how independent (intrapersonal) you are. That became one of our principles when I challenged our psychometrician and our senior cognitive scientist to argue contrary, and they agreed with me.
So we took a different approach. Starting from a premise of how learners differ in regards to learning, we made it more a competency than a characteristic: “how good are you at learning socially” (and I’d now add Marcia Conner‘s distinction of small group versus large group) separate from “how good are you at learning on your own”.
We ended up developing 31 different characteristics to evaluate, and chose the 9 we expected to have the most leverage into the first version of the system (which we got up and running). These were across cognitive, affective (read: personality, e.g. the big 5 psychological traits), and conative (motivation, anxiety or ‘safety’, etc). We had the system adapt on the basis of these competencies, not in changing the media to accommodate styles, but looking at different sequencing between (what I argue are the important characteristics) of example, concept, practice, etc.
We also believed that many if not all of these learning competencies could be improved, and designed strategies to develop skills over time. The premise did require a long-term relationship with the system, but that was our goal anyway.
The point here being that if, instead of fixed characteristics, we think of a suite of malleable learning competencies as a way in which our learners can differ, we gain two things. First, we find ways we can support learners who have weaknesses in particular learning competencies (dealing with visual data representations, for example), and second, we can develop them in those competencies as well (which goes hand in hand with Michelle Martin & Tony Karrer’s Work Literacy).
It’s also a tangible investment in organizational competency, and potentially the only real leverage an organization can have, going forward. Think: learning skills instead of learning styles, and develop your learners accordingly!