I have just taken the train to Brussels and back for a course, and on the way I watched one of my favourite film franchises – Die Hard. Now that might seem a bit improbable that I like my action movies – but, hey, go figure.

Each time I watch these movies I get a kick out of the character of John McLean. He is the character who, when the baddies have shot out the glass windows, will go running across the room in bare feet without thinking for a second.

Why do I get a kick out of it? Because he reminds me of me when I am following a training – I am the one that will be asking questions, volunteering to jump up and do exercises, and generally engaging mouth before brain.

Now, in the past when I would build trainings and workshops I used to fill them to the brim with exercises – role plays, presentations by participants etc – that I liked to do when I am learning, because I believed that everyone must like to learn like me.

And then I came across the work of David Kolb, and I realized this was not the case.

David Kolb is a learning theorist and published his learning theory around two elements: the learning cycle, and different learning styles.

What his theory taught me is that not everyone likes to learn in the same way as me – so when I build a training I need to take into account the fact that the room will contain a mixture of personalities and learning preferences, and I need to cater to them all.

Regarding the learning cycle

When we learn something new, it would be bonkers to simply do something, fail, do the same thing again, and have exactly the same thing happen again.

Instead, what we will do, is that we will try something (active experiment), see what happens (concrete experience), take a step back and think about how we could change things (reflective observation), plan the next time (abstract conceptualization), and start again. In fact, we go through an entire learning cycle.

While we all move through each step of the cycle, there are parts of this process that we might feel more or less comfortable in, depending on whether we have a preference to think or to feel, and to act or reflect.

This brings us to John McLean and Miss Marple, and to the different learning styles.

Learning styles

The brainstormer: preference for concrete experience and reflective observation

I like to think of the Brainstormer as Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s famous detective. They like to learn from concrete experience and reflective observation. Miss Marple will take a look at what has happened, look for the evidence and then conclude that the murderer was Mr Plum in the Library with a candlestick.

When they learn, they love to listen to concrete examples, and work in teams for exercises. They like interactive trainings in small groups and will also enjoy spending some reflective time working on an exercise before de-briefing with the larger group. On the other hand, if you ask them a question on a new topic in front of the group, or to do a role play without any preparation, this will be their idea of hell. The worst possible thing for them in a training is to be in a situation where they end up giving the wrong answer in front of everyone else.

If you want to get these brainstormers on board during your trainings, emphasize the real-life applications of the theory, and generate a real conversation and discussion about the different opinions and perspectives in the room.

The integrator: preference for reflective observation and abstract conceptualization

I like to think of the Integrator as a character like Mr Spock from Star Trek. Now, Mr Spock is known for his logic – and this kind of learner is going to be the one who wants to read the legislation – both European and national – and then digest the circulars, the case law, and maybe a couple of articles in journals. He will absorb and digest, and then, after a while, come out with the most insightful and in-depth comments and conclusions.

Integrators will love theory and reading. They need to understand how everything fits together and will be skilled at analysing a lot of facts and figures. They tend to be less interested in the practical applications and will have a horror of having to improvise in front of the others. Help them see the bigger picture, and leave them time to reflect, and you will find it a lot easier to get them on board.

The problem solver: preference for abstract concepts and active experimentation

I like to think of the Problem solver in the context of McGywer. He is the character that when he and his team mate are trying to rescue the female spy from the baddies’ camp, will find a way to use the wing mirror from the jeep to reflect the sun light onto the crates of ammunition in the camp so that they start to explode – thereby making the baddies believe that they are under fire from an army of soldiers.

In a training, this learning preference will love rolling their sleeves up and getting into practical examples. They will love to see how the theory applies to the practice and will just want to try stuff out. They love small group work or a highly interactive small team – and will detest large plenary sessions of only abstract theory. They won’t appreciate being tied down to strict timelines and agenda, and will really not like it if you don’t give feedback on the exercises. So, help them see that connection, and if there are going to be bits in your training where you will need them to read lots of information, show them the big picture and where this will start to apply to real life.

The doer: preference for active experiment and concrete experience

And so, to John McLean, the doer – who will rush in and do stuff, and engage brain later. The doer will try anything once, and will love quizzes, and exercises, they will love to improvise and be flexible, and love trainings that are hands-on. On the other hand, ask them to read too much material for any length of time, or listen to a speaker that just reads off the slide and pushes information at the room, and they will switch off and dis-engage. Keep them interested with the practical application of what you are training on – particularly when you need them to read details. Emphasize the action plans to put the learning into practice and they will be a lot more keen during the training.

Why is this important to know about these learning styles?

It’s important to know about these learning styles – and remember there is no “right” or “wrong” style – because we all have a way we prefer to learn – we will move through each part of the cycle but be simply more or less comfortable when we are there.

And as such, when we then create a workshop, we may have a tendency to fill the training programme with exercises and examples that appeal to our natural preference. It is important now to realise that not everyone will like to learn in the same way that we do.

It is not now a question of thinking that when you walk in the door to facilitate your next workshop you need to look around the room to identify who has what preference – but it is simply the invitation to make sure that you anticipate that you might have each of these kinds of people, and so you should think about the exercises that you will include, to make sure that you are anticipating all kinds of learning preference.