Musings on research, international development and other stuff


Capacity building rule 3: do stuff to facilitate learning

This rule may sounds so obvious that it is not even worth stating. But it is amazing how many projects which are labeled as capacity building don’t seem to contain any plans to actually support the building of capacity, i.e. learning.

One common mistake is to think that giving funding to an organisation in the south is ‘capacity building’, as if the money will somehow lead to learning through a process of osmosis. There are plenty more ‘capacity building’ schemes which contain activities supposedly to support learning which are so badly designed and implemented that they are very unlikely to achieve their aims. I have sat through a fair number of ‘capacity building’ workshops that were so deathly boring that the only thing I have learnt is how to pass the time until the next tea break.

The sad thing is that there is actually a lot of good knowledge on how people learn and those who run capacity building could benefit massively from understanding it. I am not talking about the pseudoscientific stuff like the practice of teaching according to learning styles – but the more serious study of pedagogy that has demonstrated what practices really support learning – and which ones should be discarded and at an organisational level, there is lots of good learning on how to support organisational development. It is extremely arrogant of us to assume that just because we know about a given topic that we know how to support others to learn about it.

The point is that you don’t need to start from scratch when designing capacity building – get speaking to people who know and go to some courses in pedagogy/training skills/organisational development and your capacity building programme will be dramatically improved.

Go to rule 4 here… or start with the first post in the series here.



Learning styles – and other made-up stuff

Some years ago, when I worked in a university, I underwent training in teaching and learning to improve my lecturing skills. I have to say that I learnt a huge amount from this – and indeed went on to teach pedagogy to others – but the one thing that I found difficult to swallow was the emphasis that our teacher put on learning styles. She explained to us that everyone has a different ‘learning style’ – some were visual learners, some kinaesthetic learners and some auditory – and that to ensure that all students learnt well, we had to encourage learning in all different ways during our lectures. Now, at the time, I was teaching on an MSc course on Immunology. I had to give, for example, a 1 hour lecture on the molecular structure of a sub-microscopic protein that is found on the surface of one of the cells in the immune system. And while I did fantasise about trying to teach immunology through the medium of interpretive dance, in reality, it was pretty difficult to imagine how my students were going to learn the massive amount of detailed information they needed to pass their exams, by ‘experiencing’ it…

Teaching through interpretive dance (btw, this picture is REALLY funny if you’re an immunologist – honest)

Similarly the idea that my students would learn best by debating an issue just didn’t seem to make sense for a topic that required you to learn so much before you could possibly make credible arguments…

(OK, I promise, no more immunology jokes after this)

So, you can imagine my relief when years later I discovered that the whole concept of learning styles is pretty much nonsense! The visual/auditory/kinaesthetic model (or indeed the Honey and Mumford or any of the other popular models of learning styles) are not really backed up by any evidence. The different ‘styles’ are not reliable or valid constructs – so someone who is assessed as being one style one day can quite easily be assessed as another the next day. And, most importantly, teaching someone according to their ‘learning style’ makes no difference to how well they learn.

In fact, the truth is that how we learn something is far more related to what the topic is than who we are. To demonstrate this, try out the polls below.

As you can hopefully see, while there is some variation in how we prefer to learn a certain thing (for example, some prefer to learn history by reading, others by listening), the biggest relationship is with WHAT we are learning. So, practically nobody learns to drive by reading about it – just like practically nobody learns molecular immunology by dancing it!

Interestingly, many people continue to believe in learning styles because it makes intuitive sense to people; they like the idea that people have different learning styles and that is more important than the evidence. To quote Chris Mooney (with a hat-tip to this blog) “It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts”.

The funny thing about all this is that despite the dodgy science, I do agree with the overall conclusion of many learning styles advocates – that you need to make your teaching and training interesting and varied. Far too much teaching and training is boring – and it should not be! So I am a massive advocate of interactive, stimulating, exciting and even, sometimes, chaotic teaching/training sessions. I wholeheartedly approve of discussions, activities, drawing, role-playing, quizzes and yes, even (where it adds value) interpretive dance. I just don’t think we need to make up a silly non-scientific theory to justify it!

You’ll be pleased to hear that I am not the only one talking about this topic so if you are interested, please do check out these other blogs as well: