The myth of the magic learning framework

ke 3. lokakuuta 2018 16.00.00

This blog has only one purpose: to convince you that there are, as yet, no shortcuts to more effective learning. If you encounter anyone that tells you differently – especially if they are selling you something – really push them to prove it. Who knows? They might have found the answer. As of this point though, no-one has.

Mike Aaja's blog has been previously published in LinkedIn 3.10.2018.

Myth after myth after myth

We may have had enough of experts these days, but most of us would not risk our own development or our company’s money on the word of someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Having said that, companies have been doing this for years. For example, think about the Myers-Briggs personality test. It has little to no scientific basis, yet is the most used test of its type in the world.

In the learning field, we’ve had to put up with a whole raft of “magic” shortcuts over the past 15-20 years. The aim of all of them has been to convince us that we can put our learners into convenient categories. I know there is already plenty of literature about this but let’s just put the final nails in the coffins of the most persuasive myths that still persist in the learning field. These are:

  1. People are either right- or left-brained
  2. People have learning styles that we should tailor to (VARK)
  3. There is a ratio of so-called informal vs. formal learning that is the “correct” one (70:20:10, where 10 is formal learning)

Right- vs. left-brained

I’ll start with the easiest one. Let’s be clear – this is 100% false and has precisely no scientific basis whatsoever. As a school teacher in the early 2000s, I was required to conduct “Brain Gym” exercises with my students to 'connect their hemispheres together'. The ridiculousness of this inspired me to go and find out about this and, surprise surprise, I discovered that it is total quackery.

I don’t want to waste column inches on this one so please check out this article from 5 years ago (nothing has changed since by the way). However, to quote the article:

‘Human society is built around categories, classifications and generalizations, and there's something seductively simple about labeling yourself and others as either a logical left-brainer or a free-spirited right brainer.’

This is an important point, because it’s really the reason why all of these myths persist. Humans love categories and pigeonholes and they are essential to our ability to comprehend the complexity of the world. The work of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman is a very good place to find out more about this.

Learning styles (Visual-Auditory-Reading-Kinaesthetic)

Now on to the VARK test. If you don’t know what this is, learners are asked to take a test that gives them a preferred learning style. The aim of this is that they then employ those learning styles to their own learning and educators are expected to structure their teaching/training to suit the mix of learners (called meshing). Again, as a teacher, I was expected to do this in the name of differentiation. In practice, this meant creating the same activities in 4 different forms and then handing them to the respective students. Now, I’m all for tailoring, so I went along with this quite happily without asking the obvious question: “Is this for real?”

It turns out that the answer is an overwhelming “no”.

Here are some good quotes and sources to back this up. The articles contain even more links that you can explore.

‘There have been systematic studies of the effectiveness of learning styles that have consistently found either no evidence or very weak evidence to support the hypothesis that matching or “meshing” material in the appropriate format to an individual’s learning style is selectively more effective for educational attainment.’ Source

‘A recent review of the scientific literature on learning styles found scant evidence to clearly support the idea that outcomes are best when instructional techniques align with individuals’ learning styles.’ Source

You might ask though: “What’s the harm?” Well, the most damning thing about learning styles is that the application of them doesn’t work. Here is a quote to back this up:

‘Husmann found that not only did students not study in ways that seemed to reflect their learning style, those who did tailor their studying to suit their style didn’t do any better on their tests.’ Source

70:20:10 is the correct ratio

This is a bit trickier to criticize because we are, in fact, quite sure that we do learn from experience, from other people and from courses and reading. The problem is the “magic” ratio, where 70% is supposed to be from experience, 20% from others and 10% from courses and reading (aka formal learning).

The science behind this is very sketchy indeed. What we can say is that the different learning channels exist, but that:

‘…rather than obsessing on the ratio, the focus should be on how formal learning is actually used, consistently and over a sustained period, back on the job.’ Source

and that:

‘…learning professionals need to keep in mind that the 70:20:10 concept is a conceptual or theoretical model based on retrospective musings by executives about what made them successful and broad summary statements of the findings. It is neither a scientific fact nor a recipe for how best to develop people.’ Source

Final thoughts

So, to finish let me leave you with this. There are no shortcuts (at least not yet) and people cannot be conveniently categorized so that they can be handled in batches.

I would love these myths to be true and I have been guilty of believing them to be so – except of course the right-brained thing :-D However, they aren’t and using them as a justification for batch handling is always going to lead to compromise.

In reality, compromise is often required and acceptable in terms of costs vs. benefits; however, learning professionals really have to work harder than simply applying a “one-size-fits-all” framework and need to be brave enough to challenge clients who want to do so.

It can be said that technology is already giving us the chance to individualize learning and development and that’s a great thing. Having said that, don’t be fooled into thinking that tech is a shortcut either. As I said, there are no shortcuts.

Kirjoittaja: Mike Aaja  Mike Aaja