Monday, 30 April 2018

Leadership & Education Myths

There are two myths that I keep running into, so I decided to do a quick post about them, not only to keep track of the meta-studies which evaluated these theories, but also to refer others to so I don't have to keep repeating myself.

Those myths are Learning Styles theory and Generational theory.

Learning styles theory (Fleming & Mills, 1992) is sometimes known as VAK or VARK, standing for whether a person prefers learning material to be delivered in a visual, audial or kinaesthetic way. The theory proposes that we are either watchers, listeners, or doers. Later versions of this theory suggested a "D" for digital interaction, completely forgetting that we would still get our learning via watching, listening,  or doing (how inconvenient).  Hmm. VAKD has a bit of a ring to it. I vakd yesterday...

So how do we find out about our learning style and what do we do with that knowledge? "Proponents of learning-style assessment contend that optimal instruction requires diagnosing individuals learning style and tailoring instruction accordingly" (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008, p. 105)... which means we do a quiz to find out. There are more than 70 quizzes, so that has been quite good business (Newton & Miah, 2017).  Then teachers have to do lots of planning to ensure that all teaching was delivered in four ways. Sooo... not difficult for educators at all, really!

This idea completely ignores whether learning is equally sticky in all delivery styles (i.e. effective or efficient). Liking does not equal good learning, regardless of whether the learner enjoys a particular delivery channel. It also pigeon-holes students, and may limit their exploration of other styles, to the student's detriment. None of the studies researching the learning styles theory has withstood the test of time and replicability to satisfactorily prove that the theory exists or has validity (Cuevas, 2015; Newton & Miah, 2017).

Generational theory is another neat little pigeon-holing theory. A generation is the thirty year gap which lies between population groups (a definition to be extended at some stage due to the slowing birth rate and the ageing of first mothers?). Generational theory is the idea that people born at a certain time will have certain characteristics, so theoreticians have helpfully clustered generations into groups which 'possess' certain attributes. What I have been noting for some time is that how 'Gen X' used to be spoken of (i.e. the 'characteristics' they displayed) over time became how 'Millennials' were spoken of... and now this seems to be how 'iGen' is spoken of. Hmm: the inexorable force of time, perhaps? The amazing ability of humankind to over-generalise and stereotype?

At present, up to five generations may conceivably be currently in the workforce. Those generations are (and yes, this is a little tongue-in-cheek):
  1. Traditionalists (1915-1944): Also called the silent generation. Should have retired long ago. Use a computer as a hammer. Entitled because they won WWII and starved in the Great Depression.
  2. Baby Boomers (1945-1964): committed, motivated, confident, diligent. Ride Harleys. Entitled, want it all, including cosmetic surgery to stay young forever.
  3. Generation X (1965-1981): want lots of benefits, cynical, autonomous and self-reliant. Except for those inconvenient children who turned up, dammit. Oh, and entitled.
  4. Generation Y/Millennials (1982-2000): roving, disloyal, flibberty-gibbets who may be 'digital natives' if their family was affluent enough (and if digital natives were really a 'thing'). Eeek: now getting married! Totally entitled.
  5. iGen (2000+): 'digital natives' (that other myth), want it all, supposedly too hip to operate machinery if it doesn't swipe... and of course, entitled.
Last year I had two students wanting to study generational theory. I showed them a study from the IBM Institute for Business Value which showed that differences were negligable between the generations, or went against current assumptions. While I managed to persuade one to use two theories as a cross-comparison, the other student stuck to Generational theory <sigh>. Earlier this year, I was reading the New Zealand Institute of Director's Boardroom magazine, and was confronted by the article asking "What do the different generations want?". At the same time, a meta-study by Rudolph, Rauvola, and Zacher (2018) crossed my desk from the Leadership Quarterly debunking generational theory. At last, I thought! We can now fold our generational tents and follow along with Super's Life Stage theory instead, which actually does have some evidence. I emailed the IOD and suggested they stop publishing on Generational theory. I have yet to hear back.

Debunking. Pushing out human ignorance one person at a time :-)


  • Cuevas, J. (2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education, 13(3), 308-333.
  • Fleming, N. D., & Mills, C. (1992). Not another in ventory, rather a catalyst for reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11, 137-143.
  • IBM Institute for Business Value (2015). Myths, exaggerations and uncomfortable truths: The real story behind Millennials in the workplace. Retrieved 12 April 2016 from
  • Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166-171.
  • Newton, P. M., & Miah, M. (2017). Evidence-Based Higher Education – Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’Important? Frontiers in Psychology, 8(444), 1-9.
  • Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.
  • Rudolph, C. W., Rauvola, R. S., & Zacher, H. (2018). Leadership and generations at work: a critical review. The Leadership Quarterly, 29(1), 44-57.

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