A team is a collection of individuals. This fact is important to remember because how each individual consumes and synthesizes information is as varied as the number of team members. However there is a finite set of learning styles to take into account. Learning styles not only impact how individuals absorb and remember information, but how they share information with others. While there are several models of learning styles, I have found the seven learning styles to be useful with multicultural IT teams. Here is my interpretation of the seven learning styles:
Visual – The Diagramer absorbs information from pictures. This is the person that builds diagrams or draws pictures to understand a concept. Adherents of mind maps tend to fall into this category. Walk around your department and look at how the whiteboards are being used. In a meeting the person that jumps up and starts drawing when they begin to explain a concept is generally a visual learner.
Aural – The Musician needs to hear the information they are processing. Pitch, pace and rhythm tend to important components in how this type of learner processes information. When the aural learner talks about concepts, they often combine sound references into the descriptions. For example, when attorney Johnny Cochran famously intoned “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit” he was evoking aural techniques that helped make the point sticky.
Verbal – The Talker needs to talk though the content they are trying to absorb. In many cases the dialog can occur internally. For example, I tend to game plan certain meeting scenarios beforehand by running sample conversations through my mind so I can anticipate how they will sound.
Physical – The Builder builds models as a means of understanding of a concept. Experimentation is a form of physical learning you often find in an IT department. Physical learners build something that is tangible so they can develop knowledge. If the learners we were discussing were rocket scientists they might build model rockets rather than drawing pictures of rockets. If we talking about programmers we would expect them to create executable code rather than models or diagrams. True prototypes (throwaway proof of concepts) are means of hands-on learning. Physical learners in non-physical situations will use tactile words to describe concepts. I recently talked to a database modeler that described the model symmetry of the model he was working on.
Logical – The lawyer builds knowledge by assembling facts and assertions into logical arguments that can be evaluated. The process that the Lawyer follows tends to build very solid bases of knowledge that are hard to challenge and disrupt. Logical learners, because they tend to move from point to point, find it more difficult to make large jumps that do not follow from point to point. To paraphrase Socrates: All programmers are human, Joe is a programmer, therefore Joe is human.
Social – The Grouper prefers learning in group settings. The critical component for the social learner is other people. The interaction with others is an important part of processing. Interaction in groups includes verbal and non-verbal communication and emotional support. Do you remember the person when you were at University that always organized the group study sessions? They probably fell into this category.
Solitary – The Introvert learns best by themselves. This is the type of person that takes the book home over the weekend and just figures it out.
Learning styles are not mutually exclusive. Each person usually has a predominate style and one or more secondary styles. I tend to the visual, but often augment pictures with physical experiments (whether writing code or brewing beer). The individuals that make up a team will have a mixture of learning styles. Each person’s learning style influences not only how they acquire knowledge, but also how they store and retrieve knowledge. For example, music or sounds are a tool for aural learners to gather information and then retrieve it. Many of us have used mnemonics to memorize facts. When I was young I learned to play the piano. When I was learning to read music, my teacher taught me the mnemonic “every good boy does fine.” These are the notes on the treble cleft. Teams need to work together to accommodate and validate different learning styles. When team members are not aware of how others on the team learn they can often talk past one anther, which could reduce knowledge-transfer effectiveness.