In the past month I’ve experimented more with different kinds of teaching formats and curriculum. I also attended the 140 conference on Education where K-12 learning styles were discussed in the context of social media. I’m increasingly convinced that there’s a disconnect between theories of learning and the realities of modern media consumption beyond a K-12 level.

We in the US are living in a time of unprecedented access to information and at the same time that information is changing rapidly. Skills to prepare one for this new techno-savvy future were not entirely evident in the later part of the 20th century. In the 1990s much was theorized about our new media future and projected upon. So much of what I’ve been taught about how adults learn center around hands on training activities.

I quite enjoy doing classes in this format when I have the opportunity and I’m presented with an engaged audience. Far too often, however, I find that it’s more of a challenge to get adults to follow along with what you’re doing and get them to do the work in a hands on fashion. I can’t say that I blame them. I tuned out from hands on learning activities when I left grade school. What always captivated me in classes in college was a gripping lecture punctuated with solid examples.

I know lectures aren’t for everyone and I’ve slept through my fair share, but how can we look at the success of TED or talks from the Royal Society and honestly say that lectures are outmoded or don’t work? With the explosion of online content providers like Big Think serving up content in short video chunks, in addition to bite-sized articles and essays delivered to our phones and Kindles, it seems to me that far more of us are not learning by hands on but instead by collecting bits and pieces of information and deep-diving on the topics later.

This has always been my approach to the classes I offer. I cringed for months when my web concepts classes Website Bootcamp and Website in a Box were (and often still are) labelled ‘HTML’ classes. Anyone who’s serious about learning HTML knows that you don’t need to pay money for a 3 hour class to learn it. That information is freely available online. What I offer in my classes is a base level of HTML and CSS that are core to what I’ve had to use repeatedly in my past work experience. It’s just as important to me what I’m not teaching as to what I am teaching. I also bring in concepts like SEO that students are inevitably curious about, but that often don’t get touched in HTML basics classes. We’ve segmented the topics to such an extent that to realize their connection takes years of working experience.

Right now there’s an explosion of online training and extracurricular learning especially in the tech world. Yet we’re still using terms like “hands on” and “hard skills” rather than thinking of the student, our audience and customers. A good physical trainer knows that being healthy is a lifestyle. Even though we have specialists in the nutritionist, the family doctor, the personal trainer at the gym, etc each plays an important role for the individual looking to loose weight or adapt to a healthy life. Likewise our mental health relies on understanding that how students learn is different. Not everyone will respond to an online video. Neither will everyone seek out a book on a subject to learn the topic. But many still will in both cases as well. There’s not a right way and a wrong way to learning except in what’s measured by how the student perceives his or her knowledge on the subject. Let them room and they’ll learn in their own way.