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I’m an Activist NOT! The myth of learning styles.....

By Kurt Lindley, Development Lead Officer, sports coach UK

Label me please, it helps...well it probably doesn’t! This blog is very much an attempt to dispel the myths of ‘learning labels’, often used as a safety blanket and a reason for not doing something new rather than a supportive tag from which to develop new learning.

Yes your athletes, well anyone who is a learner may have a preferred way of learning (or a preferred method of receiving new information), however this often leads to inappropriate labelling and limits learning. This preference is based on personal interest, ability, previous experience and background knowledge rather than some neuropsychological, hardwired, pre-determined ‘thing’ defined at birth. Research has shown that we actually learn better when presented with information in a way that takes us out of our ‘comfort zone’ away from these preferences.

In 2004 the UK Learning and Skills Research Centre commissioned an evaluation of learning styles, lead by Professor of education Frank Coffield who discovered over 75 models. His research team focused on 13 of the most popular. With over 3800 references to its name their report stated equivocally there was no conclusive evidence that these models were a desirable method on which to base learning yet over 82% of teachers in a study by Howard-Jones and colleagues believes in them for this very purpose!

Four years on little had changes in terms of perception which lead Cofflield to re-affirm that “there is no scientific justification for teaching based on learning styles”.

It is true that not all learning happens in the same way, therefore nor should all coaching. It is far better to consider which learning technique/method are best for which learning outcomes, matching coaching method to content (and vice versa). If you are looking to coach something visual in nature, use visual cues, if it is something more physical as Nike would say ‘just do it’. However reinforce these with other forms of learning.

Good coaching is good coaching and good coaches do not need to adjust their sessions to the individual but do cater for variety and do differentiate based on learner needs (not simply preferential wants), example:

Consider learning a dance, the actions can be observed visually, the movements can be described and written in a sequence for reading, but more relevant to the end outcome the participant can simply do (perform) the actions and feel the motion. All are valuable and will reinforce learning. In isolation they lack something, but collectively they help the participant ‘really learn’ and internalise all aspects of the dance.

Now if you want to receive positive reviews from your athletes it is a given that your delivery should match/cater for their preferences, interest and motivations. Whilst this may bring you smiley faces and a happy environment it may not evoke the true learning you desire. It may simply inform and entertain, and lack the all important educate!

Varity and challenge are the new spice of life and learning! It is the coaches role to expose the athletes to many different experiences and formats over time, broadening their horizon and with it their learning preference!

So for those of you who want more take a look at these:

Cedar Riener and Daniel Willingham – The Myth of Learning Styles

http://www.changemag.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/September-October%202010/the-myth-of-learning-full.html

Frank Coffield – Review of literature on learning styles

http://www.ttrb3.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2007/08/learning-styles.pdf

Howard-Jones - misconceptions among teachers

http://thinkneuroscience.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/the-myth-of-learning-styles/

Professor Daniel Willingham - Learning Styles Don't Exist

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIv9rz2NTUk