Learning styles, nature and nurture

Look back in this blog to the spring of 2009 and you’ll find a couple of posts about learning styles.  One of them is among the  most frequently read posts on this blog, perhaps because it name-checks Frank Coffield who has put together some robust criticisms of learning styles.  I have always stated that I don’t want to engage in a debate about the exact psychological reasoning behing differences in learning styles and strategies, because that could entail revisiting the entire nature-versus-nurture debate which has interested scientists for decades.  However I will allow myself some observations.  The work of Anthony Grasha in the US has been very influential, discussing both teaching and learning styles, and does revolve around asking students about their own preferred styles – to this extent it tends towards seeing learning styles as nature.  Honey and Mumford, whose inventory of learning styles is used in management development, set out a starting point that ‘we all learn in different ways’ – again an argument that this is about recognising differences in nature.  Incidentally Coffield, despite his scepticism about learning styles, notes that Honey and Mumford’s questionnaire has value as a reflective tool in some settings.  Arguably Howard Gardner’s approach suggests that different intelligences are a matter of nature; as mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve seen Gardner’s ideas communicated to primary school children, and if they are used to make children aware of differences and diversity of abilities, something valuable is being done even if it doesn’t lead to measurable outcomes.

By comparison, from the 1990s in higher education in the UK the work of Paul Ramsden and Diana Laurillard had an impact: both have written hugely influential books on teaching and learning in universities.  Ramsden drew attention to the importance of deep learning – proper understanding of a subject – rather than surface learning characterised by memorising a few repeatable facts.  Both of these authors are conscious of different learning strategies that can take place within a university.  But their perspective is one of promoting nurture, by encouraging students to adopt learning strategies that encourage deep learning.

Now something similar is observable in management development as well.  Eugene Sadler Smith from the University of Surrey, who incidentally has an interest in learning styles, has written The Intutive Mind which discusses the different rational and intutive aspects of a manager’s work.  On my reading this is also about nurture – the stance presented very early on in the book is that all managers have an intuitive component in their abilities, and the challenge for them is to use this effectively.

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