You explain something to one of your staff members and the light bulb doesn't seem to turn on – what can you do?
Anyone who is a supervisor or manager must also be a teacher. Perhaps you didn't realize your duties include "teaching." They do. Whenever you have to explain something to a staff member, you're teaching them how to do something differently – perhaps you're going over a new process, or perhaps you're helping them perform an existing task correctly or more efficiently.
All consulting involves learning about a client's situation, using specific domain knowledge to help a client improve their business, or perhaps improve themselves. Regardless, improvement requires change, and this change must be explained. Thus, all consulting requires not just learning, but teaching.
In researching different learning styles, I found two broad content areas:
- Learning Processes – While these can be referred to as a "learning style," I prefer to think of them as processes people use when learning. Much of the content in this first area is based on the work of David Kolb, an educational theorist who previously taught at the Weatherhead School of Management of Case Western Reserve University, and who founded and now leads Experience Based Learning Systems. While this approach initially focused on 4 major learning processes – Active Experimentation, Concrete Experience, Abstract Conceptualization, and Reflective Observation – it has been broadened to nine processes:
- Learning Intakes – Before you can undertake any of the learning processes listed above, you have to take in content to process. This second area is based on the work of Neil Fleming, a New Zealand educator who taught in high schools, teacher education centers, and universities. His model, referred to as VARK, consists of:
- Visual – Viewing photos, diagrams, whiteboard doodles, and the like.
- Aural – Hearing explanations
- Read/Write – Viewing and working with words.
- Kinesthetic – Experiencing what is being taught
Applying VARK in the Workplace
In VARK Strategies: The Definitive Guide to VARK, an e-book by Neil Fleming, the author shares a table summarizing data from 278,000 individuals who provided information on his website in 2018. The VARK assessment provides insights on the relative mix of the four types individuals might use in learning. Thus, an individual may have a strong preference for one of the four types, or may have strong preferences for two – or more – types, depending on the situation.
I've simplified the author's table to this:
If your "teaching" style appeals to only one of the four VARK styles, the best you can do is reach 14% of your "students" by using the Kinesthetic style. You have to use two styles to reach just over half (52%) of your students – and even three styles will only get you about two-thirds (65%) of them.
Interestingly, if you look at the relative percentages of the VARK elements across all possible combinations – Visual (21%), Aural (26%), Read/Write (24%), and Kinesthetic (29%) – there's not much difference among them:
Even using a combination of Aural and Kinesthetic – the two highest styles across all style combinations – only achieves a 55% chance of success.
Of course, certain groups of persons may tend to have the same learning styles. For example, the Accounting Department may strongly prefer the Read/Write style, while the Marketing folks might learn better from the Visual style.
A Few Examples
Here are a few examples from my practice:
- When a client had a question about our billing process, a Senior Consultant answered the question by providing a very good bullet point list of the steps we follow. When the client still didn't "get it," this consultant took a screen shot of his time sheet for a day he worked on this client and shared it with him. Thus, we needed to use both a Read/Write explanation and a Visual example to effectively communicate these concepts.
- When I try to explain a new technology-assisted process to a client with good general business knowledge, yet little knowledge about applying technology or improving processes, I will likely start with Aural and then progress to Read/Write by creating a bulleted list of steps in the proposed new process. Even so, there's about a 50-50 chance I'll need to appeal to their Visual style by creating a flowchart or similar visual element. (For a real-life example of this, take a look at Going from Doodle to Client Roadmap.)
- Even if a client has strong knowledge in both ERP systems and process improvement, a Consultant found that none of Visual, Aural, and Read/Write effectively conveyed the nature of the problem we faced. In this case, only by experiencing the frustration of seeing just how inconsistent the data actually was – that is, by Kinesthetic learning – did our client actually understand the difficulties we were having on this data conversion project. (If you want to ensure you have good data, I share 8 suggested rules to follow in Avoiding A Data Mess.)
These examples illustrate the point of the previous section – that even appealing to two or three types of learning styles may be insufficient to help someone understand the point you're trying to make.
Of course, I'm describing these concepts in ONLY a Read/Write format, so please let me know what questions you might have.
Painting a Picture
When we talk about "painting a picture" for someone, we're referring to using various means to help the person understand what you're trying to explain. Most actual paintings use a single medium – say, acrylic or watercolor. So, always keep in mind when communicating with someone you might have to paint a multi-media picture – say, acrylic, watercolor, newspaper, AND glass stones – for someone to "get it."
Todd L. Herman