Dear CSTD…why you should stop talking about Learning Styles

While this response is directed to the good folks at CSTD, I leave it as a public artifact for those interested in the whole Learning Styles thing.

There was a time when I admit that I subscribed to the concept of Learning Styles. I also understand why there’s an instinctive sense-making and buy-in when people look at it. Whether you subscribe to Kolb (1984) or to the VAK theory, we generally accept that people tend to learn in different ways.



Where things tend to go awry is that many L&D professionals (who should know better) and other people who think they know enough about learning, is that a) the styles are taken as absolutes; and, b) that there is an assumed link from learning styles to teaching styles.

Let’s deal with the first bit.  Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle is, in and of itself, not a bad concept.  It addresses a cycle by which we may all process learning. One can enter at any point in the cycle, say, Concrete Experience (CE) and move through the other elements of the cycle. James Atherton’s Excellent “Learning & Teaching” site provides a good overview. The graphic below is taken from the site for illustrative purposes.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, with the identification of 4 kinds of Learning.

James offers one of the best quotes about Learning Styles by saying:

 Learning styles mean that:

  • At a minor level there is a need for adjustment between learner and teacher: sometimes their preferences are complementary, sometimes antagonistic, and of course sometimes collusive if they both tend to go for the same stages in the cycle.
  • At a major level, neglect of some stages can prove to be a major obstacle to learning.
  • At a really serious level, teachers are easy to con with plausible but pernicious snake-oil (e.g. ideas about “learning styles” —follow the links to the right).

The pervasive stereotyping and “absolutism” of Learning Styles adoptees is the scariest part of the issue. Adherents distill the Learning Styles Inventory (or the equivalent for other models, like VAK) and one is immediately shoved into one of the 4 quadrants, never to emerge again, and it is then assumed that an understanding of your style will lead to better learning performance.

Curious about the potential change, I did a little experiment. I did the Kolb LSI when I took the Adult Ed Certificate at OISE in 2003, and discovered (to little surprise) that I was an Active Experimentation (AE) and Concrete Experience (CE) kind of guy. I did my grad studies at RRU from 2006-2008. I was later part of the distance ed faculty (online) for Durham College from 2010-2011 and part of the Adult Ed course included the Kolb LSI. While I couldn’t change the curriculum, I decided to see if my Learning Style had changed as a result of all my analytical work, reflective observations, etc. over the years…particularly grad school.

Nope. Still AE/CE. Do with that what you will.

The other issue that is making the rounds among L&D Thought Leaders is there is no research-based validation of the theories. While I’m sure Kolb stands by his work (just like the Kirkpatricks do…hello, Dan Pontefract!), there’s simply not enough basis for applying the theory with such broad strokes. I’m not even sure that such models apply to anyone who is not a product of the Western education system, so what does that mean for our increasingly diverse community of learners who are operating in Western environments?

The linkage to teaching styles, is equally frustrating. Because an instructor (or Instructional Designer) thinks there are 4 learning styles, all Instruction now has to be multiplied by 4 to ensure “…that you hit all learning styles.”


If the learners are adults, who is responsible for the learning?

Right. The Learner.

It is the desired Learning Objective or Performance Outcome (and, to some extent, the content) that will determine an appropriate instructional strategy. While instructors and leaders may have a responsibility to support the learner through their progression from (potentially) novice to (developing) expert, they still have to acknowledge the optimum methods for delivering said instruction. Any instructor trying to adapt instruction to ALL learning styles (e.g. Kolb) is setting themselves up for failure.

I’m not alone in my distaste for the learning styles fad. I would direct you to the work of Guy W. Wallace, Will Thalheimer, and Daniel Willingham who have their own thoughts on the matter.

So, CSTD, that’s why your Tweet raised my ire a little bit.  By continuing to talk about Learning Styles and other dated theories and deeply-held beliefs (ADDIE, Kirkpatrick, et al), without giving equal due to the relevant criticisms, I believe you are doing little to aid your cause as an organization that is helping to advance the latest research and practice about Learning & Development.  As an erstwhile member, that concerns me.  As Harold Jarche asked me one day…

Q: How many learning styles are there?

A: What’s the current population of Planet Earth?

About Mark L. Sheppard

learning geek, lifelong learner, terminally curious, recovering blogger and Ed Tech explorer.

Posted on November 29, 2012, in commentary, CSTD, learning, opinion, rant, thoughts, Twitter, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Well put Jamie .. The world of “training and development” has evolved and our responsibility as learning professionals is to challenge thinking in the spirit of continual refresh and paradigm bursting. Technology has enabled learners in a new and different way and our old models of instruction, evaluation, etc must be challenged by ourselves and our peers. Self directed learners abound and our role is to enable their learning … Whatever that looks like?!

    • Thanks, Andrea. You’re right about challenging old ideas and refreshing the skill set. Without evolution we will go nowhere.

      Now if I could just figure out who Jamie is… 😉

  2. The post was added to MCATD group (you should join Mark) on LinkedIn by Jamie Good. If you click on a mobile it appears that he wrote it (can’t see the posted by part).

    World collide for me seeing to people I know, who don’t know each other come together on the Interweb/.

    I don’t think you even subscribed to Kolb when we were doing the certificate program at the old place. I know I didn’t.

    • Thanks for the clarification, Steve. I don’t believe I was aware of the group you mentioned. My thanks to Jamie for the re blog.

      I had some interest in Kolb, certainly more than MBTI. However, I had serious doubts about the whole pigeon-holing.

  3. Also, I don’t think there is any mention of learning styles in the latest competencies from CSTD.

  4. Ah, missed the tweet part. Didn’t see (or blocked it out). I wonder if it was a guest tweeter.

  5. Bravo Mark – maybe if we keep saying it then someone will challenge it.

    • Thanks, Andrew! I’m really pleased with the discussion the post has generated. I agree that we need to keep singing this song until people do the reading and make informed choices about their learners.

  6. Mark…good noodling on this issue. Like you, if is the “absoluteness” of the postulating and practice around Learning Styles that concern me. Much like the same rigidness and “religion” people make of the Myers-Brigggs, Belbin team, or any other “assessment.” I did a Masters thesis on learning styles (Kolb) as a frame for designing leadership training.

    For me, it is a good “framing” convention realizing that in your design you are trying to accomodate all styles, preferences, needs, and – in some cases – learning limitations whether they be physical, mental, psychological, or environmental.

    Another good presentation on this is Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT system.

    • Jerry: thanks for your comments and your input. I know many for whom MBTI is near-sacred and I could envision a revolt if it were ever withdrawn from use due to lack of evidence.

      I wasn’t aware of the 4MAT concept but I will be sure to take a look.

      FYI, part of my MA major project included a reference to Prensky’s concepts…something I now regret with the benefit of hindsight and additional learning.

  7. I’m also guilty of using the concept of Learning Styles for a few years in my training. What I found interesting was what you mentioned:

    “a) the styles are taken as absolutes; and, b) that there is an assumed link from learning styles to teaching styles.”

    What was interesting? Because people usually shared their specific style, other people started relating to them as if they were that style….this happened even more when people shared their MBTI style.

    I even went to a job interview, many moons ago, where I had to take an MBTI assessment, I didn’t get the job (thank God) because I didn’t meet their MBTI criterion for the job.

    And I thought this particular company was enlighten on how they treated people.

    Thanks for bringing this subject up for discussion.

    • Al:

      Thanks for your comments here. I shared similar experiences with the LSI and MBTI. I also agree that you’re fortunate not to get that job based on your MBTI profile. Similarly, I usually decline opportunities that involve any form of pre-testing or detailed questionnaires as part of the early screening process.

      I think we need more dialogue on the issues surrounding learning styles, particularly to engage those practitioners who are still using it in their toolkits. The assumptions and categorizations cannot cease until we do.

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