Here’s the common wisdom:
- There are three basic learning styles – visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.
- People learn best when they’re able to access and process information according to their preferred learning style.
- Speakers should, therefore, present information in a way that appeals to the preferred learning style or styles of their audience.
But what if the common wisdom is wrong?
What if there’s little or no evidence that those styles have anything to do with how people actually learn?
I’m not arguing that people don’t have preferences and highly developed skills when it comes to sensing the world. (Preferences and skills don’t always go together, by the way. You can love music, for example, and be tone deaf.)
I just don’t know of any credible evidence that supports the claim that those preferences determine much, if anything, about how people learn.
(If you want to see for yourself some of the evidence I’ve been reading, you can view this video of a cognitive psychologist’s critique from my previous post. Or you can read “Different Strokes for Different Folks?” published in The American Educator. Or you can read “The Trouble with VAK” published in the British Education Studies Association Journal.)
I started this line of inquiry for one simple reason. People cite this theory of learning styles to justify using PowerPoint. And as you might guess from the fact that I’ve published a book titled Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint (Crown, 2009), I’m not its biggest fan.
When used well (which it rarely is), PowerPoint is one way — not the only way — of helping presenters communicate information effectively. Don’t use PowerPoint simply because you want to address people’s different learning styles. Use PowerPoint only when and if it will help you explain or illustrate your ideas.
Let me give you an example. If you ask me for directions, I may draw or show you a map. (That’s visual.) I may give you spoken or written directions or both. (That’s auditory and visual.) And I may point you in certain directions. (That’s kinesthetic.) But I would do so not to appeal to the three learning styles, but to make my intention clearer. Even if you were a kinesthetic person, I would still show you a map and I would still give you verbal directions.
When I’m explaining a theory (as I’m doing now), I rely mostly on words. (That’s either visual or auditory.) I could add a picture, I suppose, like the one I’ve attached to this post. But pictures only occasionally make theoretical explanations clearer. And I have no idea how I could add a kinesthetic aspect to such an explanation.
Here’s my point. Use whatever techniques and strategies explain, illustrate, and reinforce your ideas. Come at it from as many different angles as possible. Don’t try to address the three different learning styles. Ask only how you can make your message as clear, engaging, and memorable as possible.
What do you think?
Photo courtesy of Hamed Masoumi at Flickr.