This week I’m attending the annual conference of the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) in Washington, DC, the “world’s largest professional association dedicated to the training and development field.” There must be thousands of people attending from all over the world and hundreds of educational sessions on training technology, meeting facilitation, staff management, career development, learning measurement, science of learning, and leadership development. As someone who specializes in interpretation and education at museums and historic sites, it puts my work in a global perspective and I quickly realized that while business spends more than $160 billion (yes, billion) annually on workforce learning to maximize their return on investment, non-profit organizations do very little in this area. Thankfully, many of our professional associations provide this essential service.
Although I won’t be able to share everything I learn at the conference this week, I’ll try to share some highlights. Yesterday Ruth Clark, author of Evidence-Based Training Methods, discussed some of the misconceptions around learning styles, a framework that many museum educators use to develop programs. The assumption is that each person has a particular learning style, that is, one learns best by reading, another by listening, and a third through a hands-on activity. Instead, her research shows that people don’t have learning styles and that they can learn effectively from any method (e.g., instructor, book, or video). People may have learning preferences, this is, they may prefer to learn a certain way (e.g., read a book, follow a demonstration). Although media are not equivalent (a book vs a classroom discussion each have advantages and limitations), what causes learning is not the media but the use of the media. As we all have experienced, a house tour can be great or horrible depending on how it’s given. So, perhaps it’s time we put aside “learning styles” and just be sure we include a blend of media in our educational practices to engage visitors as much as possible.