Learning styles are a myth… and why it matters to nonprofits

There’s so much magic at the intersection of adult learning and nonprofits. We can unlock our teams’ full potential when we look at how to reduce the information dump, tap into how spaced communications increase memory, or thinking about how our cognitive biases get in the way of making good decisions.

(Got some free time? Explore the Cognitive Bias Codex. Imagine if our boards identified one bias they have and how they might address it. 🤯)

I shared adult learning tips for nonprofits in my free webinar on Five Ways to Help People Be More Effective. If you missed it, you can watch the recording. Short on time? It’s only 29.5 minutes at 2x speed!

What isn’t helpful, however, are learning styles. When teaching about adult learning, I usually tiptoe to the topic and warn people that some may get mad at me. I’ll come right out and say it here: learning styles have been determined to be a myth. You aren’t a visual learner. Your partner isn’t an auditory learner despite listening to podcasts. Children of a certain race aren’t naturally kinesthetic learners, something I was once told by an Executive Director whose organization worked closely with these kids. People may have preferences, but there is no evidence that you actually learn better that way. (Citations at the end.)
The good news is that we all learn better when we mix learning methods together. (We talk about that on the webinar.) Think of it as a learning method cocktail—just the right level of auditory, visual, and kinesthetic learning blended together to produce something that is more than its parts.
Why do I bring this up? Why burst the bubble of something that has become as part of people’s identity as their equally-mythical Myers-Briggs letters?

  • The learning style myth wastes resources. One leader was producing the same material in multiple formats to appease these various kinds of learners. Mediocre trainings waste time by teaching to perceived learning styles. And then there are the children of that school whose leader was ill-informed about how young people learn.  When we don’t leverage evidence-based learning and behavior change tools, we aren’t making the most of our limited time and money.
  • It gives people false knowledge about learning. While we are putting our learning eggs in that basket, we aren’t exploring other evidence-based baskets to find practices that are helpful. One example is “dual coding” research which teaches us how to balance written, visual, and auditory input to move information into memory. It’s often called “double-barreled learning” because of its powerful impact. A quick lesson in dual coding can turn hum-drum presentations into something people won’t forget. (The lesson is on the webinar starting around minute 15.) And that’s just one example! 
  • It gets in the way of more helpful knowledge-related differences between people. I think about this quote from learning expert Patti Shank, PhD: “What we remember and can use… depends more on what we already know about the topic than what we see and hear. That’s because what we already know gives meaning to what we see and hear.” It’s not learning styles. It is prior knowledge that matters most. 

So what kinds of prior knowledge might we consider? Let’s start with these four kinds of knowledge:

Explicit knowledge

Knowledge that is easily expressed, organized, or verbalized.
Examples: All of the printed materials that contain information, instructions, etc. Consider your handbooks, orientation tools, or other guides. We tend to focus on this kind of knowledge in the nonprofit space. We can fall into the trap that these lessons and materials contain ALL the knowledge there is. 

Tacit knowledge

Knowledge of things we aren’t readily able to articulate and aren’t always even aware we know them.
Examples: How to drive, how to read, etc. We know we know it, but we may struggle to break it down into its steps. We may assume other people also have this knowledge. I think about how an Executive Director may know fundraising, but board members know what it is but not the steps to do it.

Dispersed knowledge

Information is divided amongst many sources.
Examples: Financial markets and the dispersed information contained within the network. Many non-White groups practice dispersed knowledge, relying on the group to remember stories and information rather than any one individual or source. This is the kind of knowledge to lean into as we center equity and non-White ways of doing things. 

Inflexible knowledge

Knowledge stored in long-term memory but tied to surface structures only. Someone knows something in one context but can’t access that knowledge in a different context.
Examples: Knowledge learned in a workshop, meeting, or board room that can’t later be applied outside of that context. Knowledge learned to solve one problem that can’t be applied to an analogous problem. Think fundraising knowledge that someone can’t transfer to advocacy.

As we create inclusive spaces and help others be more effective, we can tap into the diversity of knowledges that people bring into our organizations. Building on their prior knowledge helps them learn and remember. Diverse groups make better decisions. Engaging the diverse knowledges among us makes us collectively smarter. That’s the kind of differences in people worth thinking about. 

What can you do to debunk the learning style myth and advance evidence-based practices?

  1. Learn more about the research related to learning styles if you want to know more. Start here: Research related to learning styles and 
    Video “The Biggest Myth in Education”
  2. Watch the webinar to learn about research-based practices that can help our nonprofits
  3. Choose one topic related to adult learning and learn more. Send me an email if you are curious about any specific topic. I can point you in the right direction.
  4. 🎉 Celebrate 🎉how effective our sector will be if we make the most out of every document, meeting, event, and interaction. We are powerful when we are focused and working together.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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