When I tell people that I am a musician and that I lead educational programs like Creativity Labs, they get curious. “Is creativity something that can be learned?” they ask. “If so, how?” This prompted me to learn more about learning. Here’s what I discovered about learning styles, and how we approach teaching at Creativity Labs.
Popular Learning Style Models
- Visual/Aural/Kinesthetic Model
This VAK model by Dunn & Dunn was my first exposure to learning styles, and the only one I’ve heard people talk much about. The theory is that visual learners like to see something (like diagrams and text), auditory learners learn by hearing something (like lectures and discussion), and kinesthetic learners prefer to touch, feel, and move (through interactive experience like games and labs). Perhaps due to the model’s simplicity, or its age, this model is widely used among educators.
- Perceptual Styles Model
This model, as currently advocated by the Institute for Learning Styles Research, expands the VAK model into 7 perceptual styles.
- Print: learn through printed or written words
- Aural: learn through listening
- Haptic: learn through touch
- Interactive: learn through verbalization
- Kinesthetic: learn through whole body movement
- Olfactory: learn through smell and taste
- Visual: learn through pictures and graphs
This expanded model makes some sense. But including “olfactory” smells a bit fishy. How much can we learn through smell and taste, compared with the other modalities? Certainly it can save your life to smell poison before you ingest it, but you could also save yourself by reading the warning label.
Also, if a person has an olfactory learning style, would that limit how well they can learn some things? Apparently I’m not the only one to have this thought: Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum (The Onion, funny as always).
- Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle and 4 Learning Styles Model
David Kolb’s model, published in 1984, is based on the theory that new experiences lead to new concepts. His model has two levels: a four-stage learning cycle and four different learning styles.
- 4-Stage Cycle of Experiential Learning
Kolb believed that effective learning only occurs when a learner is able to execute all 4 stages of this cycle.
- Have a concrete experience.
- Make reflections and observations about that experience.
- Form abstract concepts (analysis and conclusion).
- Experiment with the hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences.
- 4 Learning Styles
These learning styles are based on how you process (watching vs. doing) and how you perceive (thinking vs. feeling).
- Converger: thinks and does
- Diverger: feels and watches
- Assimilator: thinks and watches
- Accommodator: feels and does
Seeing “thinking” and “feeling” as components of learning styles reminds me of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. They are clearly aspects of personality, so perhaps it makes sense that they affect how we learn as well.
Overlapping the 4-stage cycle with the 4 learning styles reveals some interesting questions:
- Is a divergent learner better suited to the beginning of the learning process than the middle or end?
- If so, what could the divergent learner do to complete the learning cycle through the stages he or she finds more difficult?
- And which team would perform better: one with all the learning style bases covered, or one with all members who prefer the same learning style?
- 4-Stage Cycle of Experiential Learning
- Mind Styles Model
This modified version of Kolb’s model was developed by Anthony F. Gregorc, also in 1984. Gregorc identifies 4 preferred learning styles, based on how people process and organize information.
Which one do you learn through? How do you order information? Concrete Experiences Abstract Constructs Sequentially Concrete Sequential Abstract Sequential Randomly Concrete Random Abstract Random
- Concrete learners process information through direct experience, such as doing, acting, sensing, and feeling.
- Abstract learners absorb information through analysis, observation, and deductive thinking.
- Sequential learners organize information linearly and logically.
- Random learners spontaneously group information in chunks and then work intuitively, without a particular order.
This model seems simple and useful, especially for leaders to understand how their team members process information. For example, knowing that someone needs incubation time before responding can help you interpret behavior as “necessarily processing” instead of “slow” or “lazy”. (This has helped me when leading the creative team at Accent Interactive.)
- Felder–Silverman Model: 4-Dimensions of Cognitive Processing
This theory by Richard Felder and Linda Silverman from the 1990s assesses how people learn based on these 4 dimensions:
- Active vs. Reflective
Active learners understand information best by doing something to apply it. Reflective learners want to quietly think about it first.
- Sensing vs. Intuitive
Sensing learners like learning facts and solving problems using well-established methods. Intuitive learners like experimenting, innovating, and discovering possibilities.
- Visual vs. Verbal
Visual learners remember best what they see (pictures, diagrams, demonstrations). Verbal learners get more out of words (written and spoken explanations).
- Sequential vs. Global
Sequential learners process according to logic and linear steps. Global learners absorb material in large chunks and then make the connections.
- Active vs. Reflective
Current Research on Learning Styles
In most of the literature I’ve read on this subject, the authors encourage teachers to assess student preferences and tailor the lessons accordingly. At first blush this makes a lot of sense. After all, who doesn’t want to be learner-centered?
But I see several problems with this approach.
First, how do you customize for multiple students with different preferences? The more students you have, the more likely you are teaching to all the different preferences in the same room. How are you to decide which students will be targeted? Or does a school offer a separate section of each course for each learning style? (Imagine deciding among British Literature 101/Visual, British Literature 101/Auditory, and British Literature 101/Kinesthetic.)
Further, what do you do if the material isn’t conducive to a particular learning style? When I was teaching Aural Music Theory, most of the instruction was auditory. It’s hard to imagine mastering the subject any other way. It didn’t make sense to deliver a lesson in a style that doesn’t fit the content, just to accommodate the preferred learning styles of the students.
Finally, research in recent years has shown that the effectiveness of teaching based on preferred learning styles is debatable.
- According to this Vanderbilt report, there is no evidence that matching the teaching style to the students’ learning styles improves learning.
- An article in the Psychological Science in the Public Interest also says there is no evidence “for validating the educational applications of learning styles into general education practice.”
- In 2013, Kirschner & van Merrinboer concluded that it’s an “educational legend” that good instruction requires diagnosing the learning style of each individual and aligning instruction accordingly.
- In 2010 experts in Australia concluded that “research conducted over the last 40 years has failed to show that individual attributes can be used to guide effective teaching practice.”
Education in China
Some schools in China have started experimenting with creative ways of teaching that combine different modalities. For instance, chemistry gets combined with PE class. In a game of tag, students wear signs like “nitrate,” “sulfate,” and “phosphate.” They have to chase the classmates they need to start a chemical reaction. This method of teaching has improved student scores from being at the bottom of the district to becoming top ranked.
How Should We Then Teach?
So what are educators and business leaders supposed to do now?
Here are key concepts that researchers currently promote:
- Use the modality that is best suited to the content, not to the students.
For example, when you’re teaching poetry, then use reading and auditory activities. When you’re teaching something physical, use experiential learning that involves movement.
- Teach material through multiple modalities.
Different modalities activate different parts of the brain. When students encounter new information multiple times and through various senses, they are more likely to understand and retain it.
How Do You “Teach” Creativity?
We teach creativity in a program called Creativity Labs. For businesses and organizations, we guide the participants through a series of experiential workshops designed to help teams be more creative and productive together. We also provide a version of Creativity Labs for students and young professionals (see Creativity Camp).
The curriculum teaches a wide variety of skills, and we strive to engage the participants in the mode that best fits the lesson at hand. For example, when teaching about feedback we do a lot of role-play and group exercises, but when we teach about flow we use a graph and tell stories.
We also introduce multiple modalities to help participants deepen their learning and integrate new skills into their work. For example, one of our exercises for the “Explorer” role is to capture images that illustrate an abstract concept (visual imagination). Then participants share their discoveries (verbal) in small groups and process the learning in a journal (writing).
As a young student I was told that creativity was an innate talent that some people have and some people don’t. As a professional it’s a joy to prove that wrong by helping people of a wide variety of abilities get more creative and productive. The secret is teaching in a way that honors creativity itself—balancing unity and diversity, employing all the senses, and stimulating the imagination. When that is done, I get to sit back, admire the creativity, and imagine how much better the world will be with another person reaching his or her potential.