Why we talk about learning methodologies

In discussions with our learning community we often hear the phrases “learning styles” and “teaching methodologies” used almost interchangeably with “learning methodologies”. These are not the same, though they can sound similar. Here’s why we talk about learning methodologies and why the difference really matters.
Why we talk about learning methodologies

We might be in a bit of a bubble. Some folks call it the echo chamber, but you get the idea. Though we are surrounded by people who all have their own backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, at Learnlife we all tend to agree on some central principles about how learning works best

This means that sometimes, we need to step back and double check that what we say and do is coming across clearly to everyone. We were reminded recently that we often talk about (a) learning methodologies, but in such conversations we find that these are often confused with (b) learning styles and (c) teaching methodologies

That is a fair point. The difference between these things is really important, but might not be immediately obvious to those who hear these words on rotation. 

Does Google get a capital letter even when we use it as a verb? Well, after you google that, you can try searching for the three phrases we just mentioned. We found that (a) produced 900,000 results, (b) got 2 million and (c) sparked a heady 18 million results. 

Let’s start by chipping away at the front runner.

Learning methodologies are not learning styles

Have you ever heard of learning styles? Chances are high that you have, because 18 million Google hits is the tip of the iceberg. The idea that we all learn in different ways is seductive. Whether visually, kinaesthetically, auditorily, etc., many of us grew up hearing that we had to discover our learning styles; usually by means of a quiz that had the same construct validity as the “what type of relationship do you have” stuff in glossy magazines. Multiple choice, count the scores, et voila

Teachers for years have been trained in how to prepare lessons to suit a variety of learning styles - not diverse learning needs - but learning styles. We can then grow confident that we learn best by, say, hearing something, and of course our lecturer at university will be more than willing to read out the paper they assigned us, like a bedtime story. 

We are joking, a little. Teachers studied this stuff with the best of intentions, as always. Educators are superheroes, and the idea of learning styles and not learning methodologies is really compelling for many reasons. The thing is, since 2004, or thereabouts, we have gradually determined that there is absolutely no evidence for this theory. None. 

The OECD hung the term “neuromyth” on the whole thing, but yet myths, as legends, are hard to let go of. Anywhere between 64% and 97% of educators, depending on the country, still believe this is a thing. Discussing it with some feels like unplugging from the Matrix, and the resistance is understandable. As one recent graduate of a mainstream teacher training programme told us, “I hardly think that my university would be teaching us this if it wasn’t true”. It isn’t, but they still did, and that was in 2022. 

The brain learns best by a rich variety of input modes, and not any one thing. In fact, the more learners encounter new information in different ways, spaced out through time, the stronger the learning will be. That is, if they are interested in learning it in the first place, and feel like the environment around them is safe, inclusive and supportive. 

Teaching someone that they learn best in one way means they neglect others, and develop one approach to the extent that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is harmful, to be blunt. Learning methodologies are definitely not learning styles. 

Learning is not teaching

Teaching methodologies next, because we are deciding the order of information. You have no real say in this; no voice, no choice. We structured this article in the way we figured worked best, and we are pouring it into your mind right now, so just raise your hand if you have a question. 

Here’s the thing. Teaching methodologies are teacher-centred. What is the best way to communicate the information, to structure the order, to vary the tasks and the dynamic? Teaching methodologies can be learner-centred (ish), in that they can take into account which approaches might suit the learner best, and keep them genuinely engaged. 

That is not learner-directed learning. The whole thing is planned by the teacher, based on their own experience of what might work and what might not, and is (it is hard to really deny) based within fairly limited parameters that only give a narrow flexibility. The goal, the content, the pace and place; all have been decided, and only the fringe details are fluid. 

And what service will teaching methodologies be to learners outside the confines of formal education? Not much. How will they understand the different ways in which they can learn on their own terms, when the scaffolding of teacher and curriculum is removed and they are on their own, faced with a problem to solve? For this, they need to understand learning and the diverse learning methodologies, not teaching. 

Learning methodologies for lifelong learning

Learning methodologies are how we learn. Not how we teach, and not anything to do with some idea that we are each somehow pre-categorised into a style of learning. 

We learn through nature, self-reflection, experience, play and place. We learn through directing our passions and curiosity, through a broad range of learning resources from sites, media, games and books, to learning guides, peers, family, experts and chance conversations. So many ways, so many opportunities.

We talk about learning methodologies because learners deserve to explore the mosaic of experiences that the world offers, and know how to engage with each one in a way that helps us grow. They deserve to know this  independently of the confines of formal education.

This is the path towards a community of creative change agents who know how to stand tall in the challenges of tomorrow, and to discover who they are out with the labels and designs of others. This is why it matters.

Read about the 25 learning methodologies we use at Learnlife to create a new learning paradigm.

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