PME Resources

Content dictates delivery | learning styles do not

By Casper Tucker January 20, 2020


Introduction

Training and education are misunderstood topics. This is often due to misinterpretations of human behaviour, psychology or a myriad of other fields deemed necessary for successful training. As an organisation, we abide by some training materials and methods because a system does not appear to be broken. However, in an environment of constant change it does not hurt to revisit the validity of systems that seem so obvious to us we do not question them.

Learning Styles

A common topic within many conventional Army ‘train the trainer’ sessions is to suggest training may be more effective when presented in accordance with how learners identify themselves according to the VARK model. VARK stands for Visual, Aural, Read/Write, and Kinaesthetic. Perhaps you have self-identified somewhere on the VARK spectrum, eg: as someone who is more ‘visual’. You may also be familiar with the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test, still used in the US military[1]and in Australia in some training programs.

I question the use of these tools within the Army for those who might have witnessed them, particularly proponents of a VARK analysis for training purposes. The motivation in questioning the validity of VARK or MBTI is to find the best balance in the tension that exists between achieving the best outcome for the learner and the best outcome for the organisation.

However, research suggests[2]that we should ignore learning styles such as those identified in the VARK model, and that we should question consideration of the results of VARK questionnaires. Ignoring an individual’s self-perceived learning style may get better results than considering it during delivery[3]. Despite this, the validity of VARK remains pervasive in some literature, including the Ryan Review (2016)[4].

Some consider the tools that we use to diagnose a learner’s ‘style’ as the issue, although research suggests that this is not the case. This is despite anecdotal evidence of successful implementation. Any effectiveness in doing a VARK analysis appears to be due more to coincidence, rather than scientific evidence. Perhaps, by paying attention to trainees as individuals, a VARK analysis induces a type of Hawthorne Effect[5], making participants more comfortable in the training process by engaging them. However, Army instructors are already capable and well tested at engaging trainees without the need for using the VARK model.

Many organisations champion the VARK model, peaking in use during the 1990s, along with the MBTI test. The MBTI also has questionable validity (at least in the way it is commonly applied), yet it also still pervades. It may be a fun workshop; however, it is not conclusively helpful[6]. Perhaps its main advantage is as a team-building tool. However, doing an MBTI test or VARK analysis lends itself to risking trust in its results. For instance, using the results of VARK or an MBTI test to predict future workplace or learner behaviour could lead astray both trainers and learners. In fact, some research[7]suggests that the MBTI test may significantly rely on the Barnum Forer effect, the mechanism by which people are inclined to believe in astrology. While VARK purports to have greater validity, its application may be equally erroneous.

Concentrating on content

Given the evidence that questions the use of VARK style learning theory models, we should rethink its application within Army. Trainers have to accommodate diversity in any group of individuals, so a VARK analysis would not assist them in the instance everyone’s learning style is different. Therefore, content should dictate which medium is the best – not the learner. When a learner can dictate the medium through which they believe they best absorb the information (which complicates practice and increases expense), research suggests this is ineffective if done using the VARK model. Regardless of the reason why this is the case, content should dictate the style or medium of training delivery.

Very little subject matter lends itself to being able to be taught equally effectively in different methods (Visual, Audial, Reading, and Kinaesthetic). It would be nearly impossible for each method to be just as effective for learners while being equally costly for an organisation as another to deliver. In reality, if a style that is second best in effectiveness is used for delivery, this only happens for overwhelming benefits over costs. Army instructors know when a diagram is necessary (V), when a whiteboard is useful (R), when a “hands-on” approach is required as per the doctrine (K) and which format particular training material fits. They also know that topic content within any training overwhelmingly dictate the ‘style’ of delivery.

Conclusion

The truth is, even if the VARK model was accurate, which research shows it is at least questionable[8], the presentation of content should always be defined by the content, with considerations of the true cost of optimising training in a particular format. Deep down, the Australian Army already know this. 

Endnotes

Portrait

Biography

Casper Tucker

Casper Tucker is an Instructional Designer creating blended learning solutions in ADELE for Army Aviation.



Comments

This article raises important questions that, at the end of the day, provokes educators to identify whether they are Behaviourists or Humanists.

Yes, content is king but what do we do if the learner does not 'get it'?

You're a Behaviourist if you agree with this: "If a student does not understand the lesson... they're an idiot".

You're a Humanist if you agree with this: "If a student does not understand the lesson... change the lesson".

How a learner learns is important for educators to consider. The content may be awesome and delivered well but whose to judge if it has achieved 'learning'? Do we just let assessment outcomes tell the story? The 'data dump' so celebrated by many students at all levels in Defence suggests not!

Whether it's F2F learning, blended or purely DT, we must consider the 'learning style', 'personality style' and/or 'communication style' of the learner as they navigate their E&T journey in synch with educational outcomes holistically. 

The harsh reality for Defence is that a humanist, personalised learning approach is going to have to be adopted going forward as 21st century learners joining the Army, Navy and Air Force will demand it. Do we really think that Digital Natives empowered to source their own knowledge will sit through a hour of 'death by powerpoint' delivered by instructors teaching to the test? Does the ADF want that?

Einstein summed it up best when he posited "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life thinking it's stupid!"

Hi Mark,

Thank you for taking the time comment, I am glad I have stirred u some discussion :)

I like the mention of behaviourism and humanism, both need to be considered, good trainers naturally differentiate the best recommendations to approach each.

In answer to your first question - what if the learner doesn't get it? Well, my point here is that yes content is king, but also that the best way for the human brain to absorb information is in-fact dictated by the content (as well as the limits of cognitive architecture that evolution has bound us to, but that's a whole other thing). Specifically; a VARK analysis is fraught with difficulty in both accuracy in it's results (it uses self reporting and the questions are flawed), it's methodology (finding content that can be taught equally well in all four VARK categories as a baseline for comparison is nearly impossible) and finally it's practicality (if I have a classroom full of 'audio' learners, which is probabilistically nearly zero in a class of 20, that fact is not going to help me teach them rock-climbing, rock-climbing has to be taught as 'kinaesthetic'). But if we just think about the content and what is effective for that content; all these problems go away. VARK can still be used, but only as a general tool to classify mediums retrospectively, just not as a planning tool in considering learners.

I think VARK could easily be replaced with something really useful for 'train the trainer' sessions; like Cognitive Load Theory. Thing is; Even if VARK was real and accurate, the reality is each class would have learners from all four categories anyway, that's another reason it's not that practical.

I think you hit the nail on the head in saying 'how a learner learns' is the most important factor, I agree with that.

In terms of evaluating learning, it is indeed fraught with difficulty. The evaluations need to go far beyond the assessment side of things. CAMPUS detects evidence of clicking, but not evidence of learning. However at the same time; we need to temper that reality with trust in adult learners' integrity, and in ourselves to make content that is engaging/impactful. We can use a customised version of a Kirkpatrick-type-model to evaluate how learners have done. But the devil is in the detail; the questions that we ask our learners (and instructors!) need to be considered in context, because we all know if an instructor happens to be a comedian the feedback forms will come back with a whole lot of 'strongly agree' on them, when it might be the case that information retention is not great on that course (although I would argue humour is helpful).

Regarding chalk and talk - it's important that it is still used, it's useful in so many circumstances, just needs to be combined with other factors to give everyone a better chance and catch the learners on the fringes etc, you can learn a hell of a lot more out of something if it is explained in just the right way, and sometimes a 3D model or well designed animation can cover off a 20 minute verbal explanation in 10 seconds.

I do love that quote, I don't think Einstein said it technically (not sure?) but I get where you are coming from. I haven't proof read this but hopefully it makes sense!

Thanks for your comment :)

I do not think the behavourist / humanist argument is relevant here.
It would be if all training was theoretical but the keywords are 'Content Dictates'.
If the content will benefit from different learning styles then adopt them.
If the content is analysed and the delivery method is determined to be most effective in a single learning style, do not spend resources on the minority.
Digital Natives that have spent unfathomable hours sourcing their own knowledge will still be found lacking when it comes to complex physical tasks that will be taught quickly and efficiently through kinaesthetic learning.
I see no future reality where a humanist, personalised learning approach is going to have to be adopted for all training, and that's key 'all training'.
The delivery of content should always be defined by the content.

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