George Fell - First Aid and Outdoor Activities - Level 5 project


As an example let's take the Theorist, Activist, Reflector, Pragmatist (TARP) model of learning styles as taught on lots of paddlesport coaching courses. Since it gets used in teaching and business as well as in sports coaching, there's been lots of research done on it. It was invented by Honey and Mumford (borrowing on some earlier ideas by Kolb) around 1982.

In Peter Honey's own words it's a "description of the attitudes and behaviour which determine an individual's preferred way of learning".

But there are issues with dividing our learners into Theorists, Activists, Reflector and Pragmatist and treating them as such;

  •   There's no evidence in neuroscience that this reflects how the brain actually works.(3), (14).
  •   About 65% of people don't come out strongly as one type.(3), (7).
  •   It's not fixed - you test people a couple of weeks later and they'll often come out as something different. (3), (13).
  •   There's some evidence that matching your teaching to the learning style of your student doesn't make very much difference to the outcome. (3), (6), (10).

Now to be fair, the learning preferences were never meant to be a way of classifying people so that you could go on to teach them different ways. In the words of Peter Honey they're "are a convenient oversimplification", "a starting point for discussion on how an individual learns" and are "purely designed to stimulate people into thinking about the way they learn from experience" (7). If anything, they were designed to help managers work on improving the learning preferences that they don't currently exhibit.

Used like this, they're clearly useful, but if all they are is a starting point for discussion, then what do we gain by teaching all these different labels for people? Why don't we just teach that;

  1.   People are different.
  2.   For every person there are ways of teaching stuff that work well for them and other ways that don't work so well. So;
  3.   It's good for coaches to have lots of ways of teaching stuff.
  4.   With experience we might choose the way that best suits our learner.
  5.   With a big group it might be good to repeat the same point in several different ways.
  6.   Sometime it's more important to match the way we teach to what we're teaching, not who we're teaching it to.

Now I'm picking on Honey and Mumford, but you could equally well put Kolb's learning cycle or VAK under the microscope and find similar evidence. Once again I'm not saying they aren't useful and I'm not saying they don't work. I spend a lot of effort trying to suss out the learning needs of my clients and then trying to meet those needs. As it happens I don't think that there's enough evidence (yet) to settle this argument either way. What I am saying is that all these models are Dwarves and Giants true, but many people leave coaching courses thinking they're 2+2=4 true and that can cause problems.

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