I’ve never been a great fan of the term learning style. Very few people do anything with much style and there is nothing particularly stylish about choosing to experience something rather than read about it. If you prefer to learn by reading, then that might be because the skills or knowledge you seek are best imbibed that way. Clearly you cannot learn how to play the guitar without plucking at strings, nor can you successfully jitterbug without getting onto your feet. So it seems to me that saying that you choose practical, or experiential, or conceptual learning means that you have a preference for practical, or experiential, or conceptual skills. That doesn’t get us very far.
When I was doing the MBA, we occasionally had participants on specific modules who applied that module’s discipline for a living – they were marketers, or accountants, or whatever. Sometimes they would take issue with what was being presented. Indeed, I remember once taking great pleasure in (so I thought) tearing apart a branding case study. It’s important to keep one’s critical faculties alive and ready. But I can’t help feel that as our communities become more and more polarised that we need to keep alive the idea of education and learning as the chance to turn those critical faculties inwards.
Learning gives us the chance to open our minds, question our core beliefs and principles, and to listen to different voices, experiences and points of view. To take another MBA model, Lewin encourages us to unfreeze-change-freeze. To truly learn, we need to consider the possibility that we were previously wrong.
I mention this because ‘learning’ often crops us in business or political circles. We want to learn what went well in this or that project. The Labour Party want, for example, to learn why it lost the last election. But learning in this context is often a bogus activity, or at least is no more than analysis. And the problem here is that analysis uses our existing lenses. To take the Labour Party example, Ken Livingstone (on the left of the party) will draw different conclusions than Liz Kendall (on the right of the party).
Last week, President Obama called for a slightly enhanced level of gun control in the US. For many of his opponents, this is evidence that he wants to take their guns. Previous evidence suggests that the modest call from the President will actually lead to an increase in gun sales as paranoid owners stock up in advance of a gun cull that will never come. Similarly, you can read heaps of online articles underneath which plenty of commentators will not bother to engage with the subject, the writer, or each other.
Children are the best learners, but they trust all the data around them. They aren’t yet able to discern good data from bad. Much of what they learn is the ability to judge what is important and what is not. But it is incumbent on us adults to take a child-like stance from time to time and think what if I am wrong? Is there new evidence that undermines my position? Is there something here that challenges my existing thinking? If I watch Fox, do I also read Slate? If I read the Daily Mail, will I also check in at The Guardian?
For in fact there are only two actual styles to learning: one that discards new evidence not to our liking, and one that seeks to synthesise it with what we already know. Closed-loop or open-minded. That’s your learning style choice.