Different people learn in different ways. One of the best ways to accommodate the myriad of learning styles is through a user network, in which participants create and consume content.
All students learn differently from each other. Aptitudes and intelligence strengths differ, as do preferred learning styles and paces. This means that to ensure each student realizes his or her full potential, we need to customize learning opportunities to address each student’s needs.
It’s no different when we become adults.
Companies have long acknowledged that employees differ from each other in meaningful ways. Just witness the widespread use of the Myers-Briggs test in many organizations and its impact on how people manage.
As modern companies increasingly acknowledge that employees learn differently, it significantly impacts how they teach and train.
Most of us intuitively know that we all learn differently, through different methods, with different styles and at different paces. Academic research increasingly supports this contention, as well. This research has bubbled up under a variety of rubrics, and while there is considerable certainty that people learn differently from each other, considerable uncertainty persists about what those differences are.
One of the more well-known theories about how people learn has arisen from Harvard University Professor Howard Gardner’s research. He suggests we each have “multiple intelligences.” According to
Gardner, there are eight different intelligences. Most people excel in two or three of them and are weaker in the others.
For example, some people have strong “linguistic” and “logical-mathematical” intelligence, whereas others are weak in those two areas but have strong “bodily-kinesthetic,” “musical” and “intrapersonal” intelligence. The other three intelligences in Gardner’s schematic are “spatial,” “interpersonal” and “naturalist.”
There are many competing theories to Gardner’s. Some people, for example, prefer to think of cognitive differences as differences in aptitudes, not intelligences. The Ball Foundation has done significant work exploring people’s aptitudes and what it means for their learning. It has developed the Ball Aptitude Battery to help individuals understand their learning differences and, given those differences, help them think through what careers suit them best.
Corporations increasingly are incorporating this new knowledge of learning differences into their day-to-day business operations. Wynn Resorts is one such company. Buying into the idea that employees learn differently from each other, Wynn Resorts uses a number of methods to determine its employees’ cognitive differences. For example, in partnership with Gallup Consulting, it uses the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment to help its employees understand their strengths and preferred learning styles.
How do these intelligences or aptitudes relate to teaching and learning? When an educational approach is well-aligned with one’s stronger intelligence, understanding can come more easily and with greater enthusiasm. Gardner and others have researched ways to teach various content materials in line with each of these intelligences.
In addition, a variety of other factors create an even wider range of potential differences among learners. For example, within each type of intelligence or aptitude, people have different learning styles. Some learn better through visual means. Others need to talk it through, write it down, play it out and so on. Finally, people also learn at different paces: fast, medium, slow and everything in between.
Understanding these differences is crucial to ensuring learning opportunities are meaningful and productive. As Wynn Resorts Vice President for Human Resources Stephanie Rosol said, “When you understand how you absorb information, you can lobby for it as you move into future rotations. If you were doing this with kindergartners, they can’t lobby for their learning styles. As adults we can, but we are not adept at identifying those strengths.”
But if the facts are so straightforward and customization is so important, why don’t we customize the way we teach and train?
Research reveals that we do try, but because our best attempts to customize are typically constrained within the traditional classroom setting — with one teacher for many students — we encounter insurmountable problems. For example, just as most students are wired to learn best in two or three discrete ways, teachers are similarly wired to excel in two or three intelligences.
Like all of us, teachers therefore tend to teach in ways compatible with their strengths to the exclusion of those who are wired differently. In schools, Gardner and others have worked to train classroom teachers to teach to multiple intelligences, but inevitably each teacher caters to a preferred type of intelligence, and some students will tune in while others will tune out.
To some extent, corporations are able to escape the problems of the one-teacher-to-many-students model by employing tutors, coaches or mentors to work one-on-one with employees. In this environment, instructors are able to tailor the way they teach for an employee’s preferred learning method and style. Even better, employees are able to lobby more easily for receiving the material in the way that works best for them.
And in the future, customization of corporate learning will only get easier. Research shows there are emerging ways to customize teaching and training in the corporate environment through the use of computer-based learning. In particular, the creation of a user network, in which employees create content and others consume it, has the potential to revolutionize learning. As we explain below, corporations are potentially far more likely places for this to take root than public schools.
Is it far-fetched to think that employees not trained in teaching could effectively create usable content for learning? One of the most exciting findings in education is that people often learn better when they teach than when they listen to a teacher.
Consider the following anecdote. “Dan” studied accounting at a junior college in the western United States. Through intense effort he graduated with mediocre grades and somehow got himself admitted, on probation, to a nearby four-year university where he planned to finish the final two years of upper-division courses required to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting. Despite working hard, after his first semester at the university, Dan had logged a grade-point average of 1.5. His academic adviser called him into his office and asked, “What does your father do for a living?”
“He’s a rancher,” Dan replied.
“I think you should go home and work with your father,” the adviser said. “You’re just not cut out for university work. I’ve seen a lot of students just like you, and you’ll be a lot happier if you do something you’re good at.”
Dan replied that he wasn’t dumb. He wanted to pursue a career in business. “You just watch me,” he countered the adviser. “I’m going to do well, and I’m going to graduate!”
Dan redoubled his efforts. By working 80 hours each week at his accounting homework, he graduated and remarkably got himself admitted to the university’s master’s in accountancy program, again on probation. Through extraordinary effort and willpower, Dan earned his master’s degree.
A few weeks after he graduated, an accountancy instructor at the junior college Dan had attended became ill unexpectedly. While they were exploring whether there was anyone else in that small community qualified to step in to teach his courses, one of the faculty said someone told him Dan had earned his master’s degree. “Maybe he’d come home and teach for us, at least for a year, until we can find someone else,” he said.
With no other options, the faculty agreed, and Dan accepted the offer.
Dan said that as he began to teach accounting, “All of a sudden, I understood it! I had grunted through all those years as a student by sheer guts and willpower, memorizing all the rules. But I never understood why we had to do all of those things. As soon as I had to prepare for class and teach it, I understood it!”
There is a language to explain what happened to Dan. His brain was wired to learn in a way that didn’t match the standard approach by which accounting was taught. While many of Dan’s fellow students digested the rules and the reasons quite naturally, Dan struggled because his brain just didn’t work that way. But when he had to teach the same material, the only way he could do it was to format the rules of accounting in a way that was consistent with his intelligence type. When Dan had to teach the material, he was finally able to learn it well.
Many people have had an experience similar to Dan’s: People learn material much better when they teach it than when they’re sitting passively in a classroom listening to someone explain it. That’s why technologically enabling employees to create learning content holds so much promise.
To visualize how this might work, think beyond the creation of blogs and wikis to an even richer use of Web 2.0 technologies. Platforms that enable nonprogrammers to build remarkably sophisticated software for specific purposes are becoming increasingly common in software markets. These platforms can enable nonprofessionals to create software modules that help different types of learners master topics that they would have otherwise struggled to learn.
Human resource coaches could create them to demonstrate a certain concept in an alternative way to a particular employee for whom the training manual just wasn’t clicking. Managers could assemble a module to help explain how to do a task to an employee in their division in a different way from how they explained it in a group meeting. And even employees could use them, as they seek to explain a process they are using in a unique way to certain members of their working group or adjacent groups that are struggling to understand it.
Note that these sound like tools for tutors. That’s the point. These tools allow employees to design modules that can target individual learners and allow access to them asynchronously for the training they need. Over time, a corporation will build up a library of modules and tools to explain different concepts in different ways. And as the content is used over time, users will rate it, just as they rate books on Amazon and movies on Netflix, so that others can find the tools that match the way they learn best. Employees also will be able stitch the modules together to form new training courses for different types of learners.
Harnessing the power of Web 2.0 tools to allow employees to create meaningful learning content to teach, train and learn has great potential. Going beyond blogs and wikis, which are largely limited to verbal-linguistic learners, and using the power of a collective group’s varied learning styles offers even more promise.
Doing so through a user network can break through the fundamental challenges to allowing employees to learn in the way they are best wired to learn, which could transform corporations into robust learning organizations with exciting implications for productivity in the future.
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