Bill Gates and his better half, Melinda, publish an inspiring annual letter each year, and 2019’s was just released. It once again produced this reaction from me and my wife: “We need more people like this in the world.”

The 2019 annual letter was rich with insight, as usual. There was one particularly powerful “surprise” that the Gates’ revealed: Something that sub-optimizes children’s learning is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

The standalone textbook.

Bill Gates highlighted the fact that software is now changing the way students learn en masse. As he wrote in the letter (edited for brevity):

“Textbooks are a limited way to learn something. Even the best text can’t figure out which concepts you understand and which ones you need help with. It certainly can’t tell your teacher how well you grasped last night’s assigned reading.

“But now, thanks to software, the standalone textbook is becoming a thing of the past. Suppose you’re taking high school algebra. Instead of just reading a chapter on solving equations, you can look at the text online, watch a super-engaging video that shows you how it’s done, and play a game that reinforces the concepts. Then you solve a few problems online, and the software creates new quiz questions to zero in on the ideas you’re not quite getting.

“All of this is a complement to what teachers do, not a replacement. Your teacher gets a rich report showing what you read and watched, which problems you got right and wrong, and the areas where you need more help. When you come to class the next day, she’s equipped with tons of specific information/suggestions to help her make the most of her time with you.

“This type of software is no longer speculative–it has been adopted in thousands of U.S. classrooms. Zearn, i-Ready, and LearnZillion are examples of digital curricula used by students and teachers throughout the U.S. More than 3,000 schools are teaching a free digital course that I fund called Big History, which uses software to give students immediate feedback on their writing assignments.”

Melinda Gates added:

“In addition to adapting to what students know, these online tools also facilitate a new approach to teaching and learning that adapts to who these students are.

“In 2019, the typical college student is no longer the stereotypical student who lives in a dorm and graduates in four years. Almost half of today’s college students are 25 or older; well over half have a job; more than a quarter have kids of their own.

“These ‘nontraditional’ students often don’t have the time or resources to effectively navigate an inefficient, inflexible learning environment designed to meet other people’s needs. That’s a big reason why two out of every five students who enroll in higher education will either withdraw for a while or drop out altogether.

“Digital learning tools can help students meet these challenges–by making college more affordable, convenient, and effective.”

Why the Gates’ observation is important for leaders.

Mrs. Gates pinpointed the need for learning that adapts to who the students are.

It’s no different for adults, no different for your employees. As I shared in my book Make It Matter, it’s critical that you take into account different learning styles and cater to them in the training opportunities you offer.

It requires an investment in understanding each learner’s style and accommodating it, as I learned in my corporate days, but the payoff in deeper learning is tremendous. Research by adult learning expert David Kolb shows there are four different adult learning styles:

  • Divergers learn by watching and looking at things from differing perspectives. They gather information, listen to others, and use imagination to solve problems and learn. They perform better in brainstorming with others.
  • Accommodators are hands-on, relying on intuition rather than logic. They learn from concrete experience and will rely on others for knowledge instead of spending time in their own analysis. They’re likely to prefer working in groups.
  • Assimilators prefer a logical, precise approach to learning that includes explanations and logical theories. They prefer reading, reflecting, and having a chance to “think through” concepts on their own.
  • Convergers first think through a problem and then use their learning to resolve that problem. They’re more likely to experiment with new ideas, and then to apply what is learned to practical situations.

So make sure your efforts to provide training and learning for your employees doesn’t become as mismatched and outdated as the textbook. In so doing, you’ll turn the conference room into a classroom–one that everyone can be proud of.

Originally published on Inc.

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