Beyond the classroom: How to juggle learning styles at work

By Sydney Radclyffe for Box News

When we come together in the workplace, we understand that we’re there for a common goal. Whether launching an app or coming up with government policy, members of a team must be able to communicate and share an understanding to make a project successful.

This would be simple if all people thought, learned, and understood things in the same way, but that’s not always the case.

Different people, individual learners

Working effectively as a group requires people to listen, adapt, communicate and, most importantly, be willing to learn and understand new information – both from one another and about the task at hand.

The fact that people absorb information in different ways, which can sometimes feel incompatible, means that miscommunication and missed information is, on some level, inevitable. But this doesn’t have to result in a dead-end.

According to behavioural scientists, these are the six styles which define learning in adulthood:

Visual

A visual learner finds it most natural to get information from diagrams: the written word, slideshows, flip chart graphics and animation.

Aural

This kind of learner prefers listening – lectures, podcasts, even songs all help them absorb information.

Print

This doesn’t only mean reading, but can also involve writing down thoughts or taking notes on something.

Tactile

This is learning by jumping in and doing – written instructions won’t be of much help.

Interactive

This learner thrives in discussions, a lively back and forth like Q&A or debate sessions.

Kinaesthetic

A kinaesthetic learner absorbs information better while moving the body, so physical training exercises and role-plays will be helpful.

Catering to a range of diverse learning styles may seem too difficult or like a massive outlay of effort, but it’s easier than you think. In a teaching environment, presenting the material in as many ways as possible – for example, giving engaging graphics with spoken explanation, then allowing people to take notes and discuss the new knowledge – will make sure that nobody falls through the cracks.

Understanding the different ways in which adults learn makes all the difference to a harmonious, productive work environment.

Learning beyond the classroom

As kids, everything we see and do is a learning experience, with new impressions constantly expanding and re-forming our worldview.

As adults, we tend to feel that we’ve seen it all; the lessons we learned early in life, deeply-held convictions, and a wealth of experience act as a barrier against organic learning. It’s counter-intuitive but, as humans, the more we learn, the less we tend to think there’s anything left to find out.

Understanding the five principles of how we need to learn in adulthood, in contrast with ‘effortless’ childhood learning, will make teaching adults in the workplace much more manageable:

Self-direction

We’ve all been through school, so it’s easy to understand why some people find it hard to engage with anything that feels like forced learning. For adults to learn effectively, the process must be self-led. This can be as simple as asking someone what they want to tackle first, rather than merely handing it down.

Opportunity for critical reflection

When a learning opportunity arises, success depends on the way we something’s framed. If a person trying to learn something new feels they’re being told off for getting something wrong, they’re likely to withdraw and lose motivation. A good teacher will make it easy for a learner to reflect on what went wrong and why.

Building on experiences to create new ones

Kids are a bit like a blank slate, but adult learners are full of existing experiences and impressions. Connecting these real-world examples to the material at hand, rather than trying to conjure up fun explanations, will ensure that learning points are relatable and ‘sticky’.

Purpose or desired outcome

A working adult will have a host of responsibilities, concerns, and other potential distractions on their plate, so a clear, agreed-upon goal is essential to the learning process. If a person feels like they’re wasting their time or doesn’t know why they’re learning in the first place, no amount of convincing will bring the message home. 

Learning to learn

The biggest hurdle will often be getting back into the mindset of inquiry – once we leave school, we get out of practice with learning. Accessing this sense of childhood curiosity can be hard, but by being sensitive to how adults learn best, a teacher can make the process fruitful and painless.

Staying flexible

Most of us are aware that we don’t all learn information in the same way, but this often results in misguided attempts to impose a rigid standard, especially in the workplace, where goals and deadlines require a reliable system. This makes people feel less engaged, motivated, and responsible for their learning.

By bringing in a variety of learning inputs and making sure we cater to the unique learning needs of adults, a harmonious, smooth-running work environment is well within reach. The important thing is recognising that collaboration and diversity don’t make us weaker – they’re our most significant source of strength.