Much has been written about how people learn. The very mention
of Learning Styles is guaranteed to catch the eye and the
interest of HR professionals. In part this can be attributed
to the excellent work of Peter Honey and Alan Mumford in 1982
which is still highly relevant today. I would like to explore
two main themes in this article: firstly, that there are 'more'
learning styles than Honey and Mumford's original four
of Activist, Pragmatist, Theorist and Reflector, and secondly,
that thinking facilitates the learning: the thinking comes
first. Although this is recognised by psychologists, I believe
that this fact has been gone largely unrecognised by the field
It seems rather obvious to say that the ways in which we
prefer to think profoundly affect the ways in which we will
prefer to learn. If this is the case, why do HR managers continue
to send delegates on Learning to Learn workshops, rather than
on Learning to Think workshops which explore the different
ways in which we think and how these thinking preferences
influence the ways by which we can learn most effectively?
First, let me tell you a story. Many years ago when I was
at college studying saddlery, our tutor gave us a piece of
work to stitch which would eventually fit somewhere on the
saddle we were each making as part of our course. Our tutor
was very detail conscious and wore heavy, thick, horn-rimmed
glasses. He would bend down very closely over his work and
focus intently on each small task. Unfortunately, at no point
in the course did he ever show us where each piece of work
would fit on the saddle. There are approximately 40 individual
leather pieces which make up a horse's saddle and consequently,
on some of the pieces where quality and appearance really
mattered, I hadn't done as good a job as I could, or
should, have done. Had I been aware then that I learn by seeing
the big picture before I can focus on the relevant detail,
I would have had the confidence to ask to be shown rather
than told whereabouts on the saddle each piece would fit.
Because the saddle did not match my own personal standards,
I didn't finish making it and consequently 'failed'
the course. Although my years of study at college were by
no means wasted, as learning experiences go, the above example
is not in my top 10 of most successful outcomes. Had I, or
more particularly my tutor, known something of how thinking
styles affect learning and teaching styles, I could have had
a very different experience in my years at college.
So, just as the ways in which people think will affect the
ways in which they learn, styles of thinking also has implications
for the ways in which trainers prefer to train or teach other
people. Where a trainer's preferred thinking styles match
those of their delegates, learning is likely to happen relatively
quickly and easily. Where there is a mismatch, i.e. the thinking
and potentially the learning styles of their audience differ
from their own, both trainer and delegates are much more likely
to experience frustration, anxiety, stress and even disappointment
with the learning process.
Learning more about your own thinking preferences and styles
of thinking can profoundly affect the way you approach tasks
and solve problems at work, and will also influence your relationships
with friends and colleagues. You will be able to present information
to others in ways that will make it easier for them to understand,
thereby accelerating the communication process and reducing
potential misunderstandings and conflicts.
Let me give you a real example of what I mean by this; Julia
and David are both experienced trainers working as internal
consultants within a large blue chip organisation. David specialises
in technical training and Julia focuses more on the softer,
more people oriented skills training. They are frequently
required to co-train with each other which necessitates the
careful design and structuring of the programme to ensure
a cohesive and seamless delivery. David is a meticulous, detail
conscious, sequential thinker who likes to plan every minute
of his training session. He always thinks about what could
potentially go wrong and makes contingency plans accordingly.
He very much dislikes deviating from his plan and prefers
delegates to stick to his agenda. Julia by contrast feels
that training sessions should be flexible. Although she usually
has an agenda, her outcomes are general and broad rather than
specific. She has a very positive approach and is confident
that she can handle any questions which the delegates might
ask her, in fact she relishes the opportunity to 'go off at
a tangent' and explore the learning opportunities inherent
within the session. Unfortunately, the following 'problems'
are experienced in the dynamics between the two of them: David
wants Julia to plan her session exactly and not deviate from
it which she refuses to do. Julia accuses David of being inflexible,
he retorts that she is unstructured, disorganised and unreasonable.
Neither of them enjoy having to 'share' time with each other
within a training programme and some delegates have complained
about the rather chilly relationship between them. After mapping
their Thinking Styles using 2-way profiling, each was better
able to understand that it was the cognitive dynamics; the
different ways in which they thought, that was influencing
the ways they approached their training role. By understanding
the relative benefits of each person's thinking and training
style they were better able to accept and moreover, respect,
each other's approach as adding value to the training and
learning dynamic within their organisation.
From the case study above,
identify the strengths and weaknesses of both David
and Julia's particular cognitive styles for their
roles as internal trainers. Remember that David
is sequential and ordered who pays attention to
detail and thinks through potential problems whereas
Julia is less structured, flexible, positive and
Of course we all know people who are more difficult to work
with than others, and what makes one colleague 'difficult'
for us to work with may be precisely what makes them 'easy'
for someone else! And as trainers I expect that we have all
experienced delegates who we would describe as 'difficult
to train'. They may ask difficult questions, disagree
with us or our suggestions, provide contradictory examples
or refuse to conform. This 'mismatching' behaviour
is driven by their cognitive processing and may even have
been unconsciously triggered by the trainer's own language
or behaviour. For example, 'difficult people' really
dislike being told what to do as their option for personal
choice is removed by direct instructions, so telling them
what they 'should or must' do is always a mistake!
Their cognitive approach is consistent with George Bernard
Shaw's 'unreasonable man' principle: "The
reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable
man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore
all progress depends on the unreasonable man".
These 'difficult' people actually need to disagree with you
before they can progress on to agreement. They may disagree
with you internally without saying a word, or challenge you
out loud which has the potential to disrupt the group. In
order to be able to learn effectively, these people need to
'deconstruct' what they are learning, mentally taking it apart
and then 'reconstructing' it, putting it back together in
a way that makes sense to them. As a trainer, consultant or
manager, give time to do this and allow them to ask those
'difficult' questions which assist them in their processing.
Rather than thinking of them as a 'threat', think of these
difficult people as your allies who will assist you by ensuring
that everybody understands your training messages.
Identify a time when you experienced
a 'difficult' delegate. What was it specifically
that made them hard for you to deal with? Did they
challenge you as a person or were they challenging
the task or the process? Was it their behaviour
that you found difficult or the questions that they
asked? If a similar situation were to arise again,
how could you respond differently so that the situation
or the person would become ‘easier’ for you to deal
These cognitive processes and behaviours form part of a thinking
and learning style called 'mismatching'. Trainers
need to 'allow' and encourage this particular style
rather than trying to control it in any way. In fact, if you
have ever tried, you will know that it is extremely difficult
to 'control' someone with a preference for mismatching
thinking. Moreover, I would suggest that trying to control
a 'mismatching' delegate is very unhelpful for the
delegate themselves because this can actually adversely affect
their learning. What can happen is that the delegate becomes
'stuck' in a disagreement loop from which they are
unable to move forward. This means that they will tend to
'switch off' and become unable to integrate their
learning: not a very helpful outcome for the delegate, the
trainer or the organisation.
Some trainers, consultants and managers actively like to
be challenged and asked 'difficult' questions. For
them, this approach matches their own thinking and learning
style and forms part of what they would consider to be the
creative dynamic of a relationship. Problems only arise when
the mismatching processing style of some delegates (or the
trainer themselves), is at odds with the thinking style of
the other people in the room. This is because people with
a 'matching' thinking style can feel profoundly
uncomfortable with the process of challenge and disagreement,
finding it oppositional and confrontational, even aggressive.
Consequently, they may agree or acquiesce externally to the
more dominant or forceful people in the group, whilst internally
becoming stuck in their own 'agreement loop' with
their own perspective from which they will not be moved. Just
as an unresolved mismatching thinking style can lead to a
delegate being unable to integrate their learning, a similar
process can happen with a matching cognitive style if a delegate
does not feel entirely comfortable.
If all of this sounds very complicated to you, (and my experience
suggests that the cognitive and social dynamics of groups
and teams are inherently complex), Thinking Styles ® and
Learning Styles are two instruments which have been specifically
designed to assist HR professionals in understanding the behaviours
and motivations of others in a learning environment. Also
of value to the trainers' toolbox is an understanding
of 'Accelerated Learning'. This makes use of a number
of tools and techniques designed to speed up teaching and
learning processes, making lessons more memorable and embed
learning so that retention and retrieval are more easily achieved.
One of these techniques is 'multi-sensory learning',
whereby the trainer uses training materials and props which
engage as many of the sensory input channels as possible.
These are also known as the Sensory Representational Systems
and you will sometimes see them shortened to 'VAK'
to denote visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (experiential)
learning. Some trainers will also evoke the gustatory and
olfactory senses of taste and smell if it is appropriate.
These sensory channels can be sub-divided into internal and
external inputs. If someone has a preference for a particular
sensory focus it is likely that they will actively use both
the internal and external input channels, but this is not
always the case. Visual internal thinking and learning involves
visualisation and the generation of internal images. Visual
external thinking involves looking at visual stimuli and often
generating it for yourself because you physically need to
see it. For example, you may use powerpoint presentations,
or flip charts with pictures, models or sketches drawn onto
them. Auditory internal thinking is our 'internal dialogue';
the self-talk which we usually keep to ourselves. Auditory
external learning involves our hearing; listening and talking
issues through. Kineasthetic internal thinking and learning
involves our emotions and feelings. Kinaesthetic external
is the 'hands on' channel; experiential learning and the use
of physical movement, exercise or touch to assist our thinking.
This is the reason that some people are described as 'kinaesthetic
learners'; they need to touch, feel or experience something
in order to learn it and commit it to memory. However, be
aware that the term 'kinaesthetic learning' only describes
part of the kinaesthetic thinking dimension, and is what Aristotle
was describing when he said that "What we have to learn
to do, we learn by doing". Perhaps what he more accurately
meant to say was, "What I have to learn, I learn by doing",
rather than generalising his own personal preference across
mankind in general! I make this point because there will be
many of you who may disagree with Aristotle's statement and
who would say to me that you only need to see something done
or have it explained to you to be able to learn how to do
Think of the types of exercises
that you tend to include in your training. Which
sensory input channels of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic
do they engage? Do they engage both the internal
and external representational systems? If you don't
already use exercises which engage all of the systems,
which other exercises or tools can you design into
your training so that all of the sensory thinking
and learning preferences are equally engaged?
Interestingly, using the sensory modalities as learning channels
seems to have become generally accepted as 'mainstream'
training practice. For example, Larry Renolds also wrote about
them briefly in his 'Learning to Learn' article
in the May 2001 issue of Training Journal.
Some of you may have heard of 'whole brain learning'.
This concept was popularised by certain areas of NLP (neuro
linguistic programming) in the 1990's and is generally
perceived to be the combined use of the left and right brain
hemispheres, where left brain thinking involves logical and
sequential thought and right brain thinking involves pattern
recognition and creativity. In fact, cognitive neuro-imaging
technology shows that both sides of the brain are involved
in the majority of daily activities, thinking and problem
solving. For me, whole brain thinking and whole brain learning
involves much more than right and left brained thinking described
above. For me, it is the conscious application, whenever and
wherever appropriate, of any or all of the many different
styles of thinking that have hitherto been identified. These
may be applied in sequence, using the same principle as Edward
De Bono's 'Six Thinking Hats', or, more often,
they will be randomly applied with no supporting structure.
And naturally, problems can arise when each person in the
room, thinking that their particular processing style is 'right,
correct or better' than other people's, tries to
impose their thinking and learning style on to the rest of
Some types of thinking, such as Aristotelian deductive reasoning
and logical thinking processes have been around for thousands,
of years. Others, such as 'mismatching' thinking
have only recently been categorised and labelled. I would
conservatively estimate that the number of different styles
or types of thinking which could be independently identified
and measured by psychometric methods could number fifty or
so in total. Thinking Styles measures twenty-six of them,
which are sub-divided into Sensory, People and Task focused
dimensions. This is a functional working categorisation and
although there are other cognitive styles which have been
identified, such as people's time orientation, not all
of them are currently measured by psychometric methods.
It is a mistake to think that some of the learning or thinking
preferences are 'better' than any of the others.
It is possible that certain styles may be more appropriate
than others in certain circumstances. However, it is also
possible that the same (or a similar) outcome can be achieved
through the use of a different cognitive processing style.
For example, even though peoples' strategies for solving
cross-word puzzles may vary, their outcome of completing the
puzzle may be achieved equally as well. To become an excellent
trainer, consultant or manager, it is not a question of 'cherry-picking'
one cognitive or learning style and ignoring the others, but
rather of developing the flexibility of thinking to apply
and use the most appropriate strategy for whichever tasks
or skills you want to focus on.
There are a variety of ways in which HR professionals can
develop their knowledge in the area of how styles of thinking
affects learning styles, such as books, workshops and information
on the internet. For example, Peter Honey has a free Trainer
Styles questionnaire on his web site that you can complete
on-line and the Thinking Styles web site offers some free
cognitive flexibility exercises which you can use to begin
developing flexibility within your own thinking skills. However,
it is not enough simply to become knowledge and information
junkies; the best trainers and HR professionals are constantly
exploring ways that they can practice the application of new
knowledge to develop their skills. As Peter Honey says, "Trainers
who are best equipped to help diverse learners: know their
own style and how this spills over into their training style,
are alert to the styles of their participants and adjust their
style to cater for a range of different style preferences".
Long live lifelong learning!
|Key Learning Points
||Thinking facilitates the
learning: the thinking comes first.
||There are more 'styles'
of learning than Honey and Mumford's original four
of Activist, Pragmatist, Theorist and Reflector.
||The ways in which we prefer
to think profoundly affect the ways in which we
prefer to learn.
||The sensory channels of
visual, auditory and kinaesthetic can be sub-divided
into internal and external inputs.
||Avoid telling someone with
a 'mismatching' preference what they 'must' or 'should'
do - they are likely to either challenge you, ignore
you, or do the opposite!
||Whole brain thinking and
whole brain learning is the conscious application,
whenever and wherever appropriate, of any or all
of the many different styles of thinking that have
hitherto been identified.
||None of the thinking or
learning preferences are 'better' than any of the
others, although some styles may be more appropriate
than others in certain circumstances.
|The key to becoming an excellent
trainer, consultant or manager, is to develop the
flexibility of thinking to be able to apply and
use the most appropriate style for the task at hand.