Learning Styles and Manuals

This is really a continuation of my conversation with @gobman on twitter, but it was too big for twitter, so I’m dumping it here.

Do I believe in learning styles? Yeah. I think so. I believe that people have different approaches to solving problems, and that to me seems to be learning.

I, for one, never read manuals. I jump in, get going, and only when I get stuck do I finally consult the thing. My wife tends to read manuals. The net result of this is we are good at different sorts of things. I tend to be good in any undocumented area, where there are no set practices and there is no good documentation. On the other hand, my wife can outperform me, sometimes even on technical tasks, when the best method is to read-up fully first.

I’m not the one you want putting something together from IKEA, or making a meal from a cookbook. I’m actually crap at a bunch of things that are supposed to be the traditional male stuff too, always getting stuff out of sync on how to change a car headlight. On the other hand, she’s not the one you want troubleshooting the TVersity player, fixing the snowblower, or improvising a meal out of the three final items in the fridge.

This actually works out pretty well. We’ve found our chores over time and it’s partly that knowledge that we supplement each other’s weaknesses that makes for such. I’m a hacker. She’s a master of method. I write code and songs, she executes amazing things like this, one pencil stroke at a time.

So learning styles/problem-solving styles exist. But here’s the question – if my wife is teaching a class on how to assemble an IKEA couch, does it make sense to separate people like me and show us how to do that without reading the manual, or does it make sense to teach me to read the manual, even though my preferred style is to dump all the Allen hex bolts on the floor and see what makes sense?

I know that sounds reductive – there certainly are multiple ways to solve problems – but my point is that even where there are multiple ways, the styles that work are determined in a large part by the nature of the problem, not the nature of the learner. If my wife was to show me how to execute that piece of art I linked to above, there would be a lot in that method that would be anti-thetical to how my mind works, but it might turn out to be necessarily so.

So where does that leave us?  Rather than argue about whether we should tailor specific instruction to learning style, presumably so students can better regurgitate material into blue books, why not create environments that function more like the real world, where differences in problem-solving style are the strength of teams and communities (and marriages) – places where the planners can plan and the hackers can hack? That means project- based, collaborative education, education that helps students answer much more pressing questions than the stuff on the test. Stuff like how they might design their place in life better by understanding both their strengths and limitations.

If that’s what learning styles is about, I’m all for it.

6 thoughts on “Learning Styles and Manuals

  1. “…but my point is that even where there are multiple ways, the styles that work are determined in a large part by the nature of the problem, not the nature of the learner”.

    I don’t think you can dissect learning styles by only examining the problem at hand (which might be better categorized as styles of problem solving). I think it’s more interesting and worthwhile to talk about the multiple possibilities in which students are able to demonstrate what they’ve learned. The rub here is that education is designed to value the written assignment which is, as we know, the hallmark of ‘academic rigor’. Of course there are exceptions to this but it’s rare that a teacher will ask students to submit a video project, an art project, or the results of service work instead of a 20 page paper (fields in which this is the end-product, are of course, the exception). When we get to the point where we recognize learning can be demonstrated in multiple ways and that the evaluation of learning transcends the written assignment, then we will have made some progress. And now we can talk about equity in styles of learning.

  2. I’d agree, wholeheartedly, but I’d say again, that’s not really learning styles — the problem here is that assessment is not authentic. Authentic assessments are multi-dimensional.

    Again, I think that the idea that many people learn and perform differently (and that’s a good thing!) is true, but I’m not sure how useful it is to focus on the four different types or eight different types or five different classes of learners when designing courses. So as a tool I’m not very impressed. I can’t see any problem that learning styles addresses effectively that is not already addressed by simply focusing on making learning authentic.

    That’s why the study’s conclusion sounds right to me — if I spend time designing a class around learning styles vs. designing around principles of authentic learning, I’m going to bet that *all* students do better (or as well) in the authentic learning class, at least when it comes to application. My hunch is that learning styles focussed design only excels against the control scenario of a lecture class.

    But complete agreement on the assessment piece — i just wouldn’t advise faculty to use precious development time learning learning styles over more useful tools…

  3. Here’s where I’m confused. I’m a course designer and do offer many options for assessment: do a video, a PPT, a podcast, a brochure, a chart, an evaluation, a “how to”, and of course, a paper. But what material do I present to facilitate at least the foundation of what needs to be grasped before producing the product. I develop psych courses and part of what needs to be grasped are things like “history of psych”; I try to be constructive, allowing students to see how the theories and research in various eras emerge from the zeitgeist. But first, don’t I have to explain “zeitgeist”, eras, different theories and research, name some names, etc.? What’s the best way of getting that across to various learners, that very basic stuff? Don’t tell me to skip it, please!

  4. Mike,

    Thanks for the great read.

    Don’t forget that the purpose of a lot of real-world group work (efficient, correct project completion) is different than the purpose of a lot of educational group work (skill improvement of the group members). I fear that an instructor’s attempt to create the most authentic, real-world environment would produce situations where the people in learning groups would figure out who’s good at what and divvy up the tasks according to each other’s strengths. Like you mention, this is great for marriage or for efficient working in a company. But does it help me stretch myself to learn some new skills?

    When a bunch of people get together for the purpose of learning (for instance, in a course with an instructor), I think there is a lot of value when the instructor composes groups and assigns tasks without trying to mimic authentic work environments. When I’m a learner, I don’t want to learn something I already know. I don’t want to practice a skill I’m already comfortable with. If I struggle with reading manuals, I want to be in a group with a bunch of other people who struggle with manual-reading, and I want the instructor to give my group a project that requires good manual-reading. Then my fellow manual-dummies and I will work together to figure out how to do effective manual-reading. I’m practicing a new skill, learning from my colleagues, and getting something done. And there’s something very in-authentic and non-real-world about it.

    So I’m not opposed to authentic, real-world learning experiences. But I think there’s also a place in formal learning for projects and environments with non-real world constraints.


  5. @Andrew – great points. I probably should back off my authentic as possible stance just a bit, because I do agree there has to be some room here for failure-based learning… we may want (depending on context) the students in a learning environment to experience failure in a more explicit way than they might in the world — and that does mean you are engineering group work in a somewhat different way.

    But I also think work in the real world also tends to bring us up to basic levels in things that aren’t our direct talent — programmers *have* to learn to write, and writers *have* to learn the basics of computational thinking.

    So I would argue that teams provide the correct context, but that what you may need are support modules around that, both peer-based and teacher-based, and maybe also some Just-in-Time digital media support.

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