Content dictates delivery | learning styles do notBy Casper Tucker January 21, 2020
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.
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 militaryand 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 suggeststhat 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. Despite this, the validity of VARK remains pervasive in some literature, including the Ryan Review (2016).
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, 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. 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 researchsuggests 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.
The truth is, even if the VARK model was accurate, which research shows it is at least questionable, 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.