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Learning styles

Lifelong learning has become a prime challenge of the "Learning organization" (Senge, 1990). The presented learning model builds on the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson's theory of early childhood development (1950). Learning is seen as progressing through the same phases starting from learning by experiencing to learning by doing. People tend to favor one of the four phases as their main learning style: some learn best through experience while others excel in doing the thing to be learned. In addition to one's principal learning style, awareness of the less favored styles can improve learning results.

Phases and styles of learning

Learning begins with direct, open-minded EXPERIENCING wherein meanings and feel to the thing to be learned are sought. This is followed by OBSERVING the thing which increases control over the learned. This is then followed by CONCEPTUALIZING where a comprehensive, contexted picture is formed. The recurring cycle of learning culminates in DOING the experienced, observed and conceptualized thing to be learned.

People favor different phases as their main learning style. Different learning situations also call for different styles. Knowing one's and less favored styles strengthens learning results. The following presents the learning phases and styles measured with the WOPI-Learning Style questionnaire.

Learning by experiencing

The first phase in learning and some learners' favored learning style is open-minded receiving and experiencing of the thing to be learned. The learner becomes sensitized, identified and without criticism, becomes involved in the new thing. The learner allows to be infuenced by the thing to be learned and the ideas and meanings springing from the learner's experience deepen understanding of the object of learning. The prototype of the experiential learner is EXPLORER who doesn't know what to find but is open to everything new and what comes up down the road.

Experiential learning is useful when the goal is to reach a feel to the thing to be learned, to its subtleties and interpretational features. Favorable learning contents include those involving people, culture, aesthetics and art, things that don't meet the eye but are mediated by experience. The learner finds new things but does not achieve full control over the learned and may even become driven by the new thing in contrast to the learner who actively observes and examines the thing to be learned.

Open receiving is not sufficient for full control over the thing to be learned. In other words, the learner must objectify the subjectively experienced thing by delimiting, comparing and positioning the thing to everything that the learner already knows. Like the explorer, the learner must bring the newly found thing under precise scrutiny.

Learning by observing

The second phase in learning and some learners' favored learning style is critical scrutiny of the experienced thing. Learning requires sufficient amount of distance taking, boundary defining scrutiny. The thing to be learned is compared and related to all that is already known and has previously been learned. The thing uncritically "tasted" in the experiencing phase must be objectified, aligned with common metrics and standards. The learner makes sense of the new things' features and thereby gain control over it. The prototype of the observing learner is the LABORATORY ENGINEER who measures and evaluates the features of what is the thing to be learned.

Observational learning is useful when one has to make sense of, shed light to the features of the thing to be learned. Favorable learning contents include those that relate to material objects, devices, materials and physical features of the learned object. In addition to direct sensory observation, observing learners tend to use literary and numerical records. The learner examines hard facts, meanings and interpretation receive less attention. Nor does the observational phase mean that a comprehensive, big picture of the learned object has been attained.

Conceptual learning

The third phase in learning and some learners' favored learning style is conceptualizing the thing to be learned. Some form of bigger picture must be attained of the openly received, experienced and critically observed thing to be learned. Conceptualization involves questions pertaining to the origin, structure, mechanics, operational principles and the context behind the object of learning. The conceptual learner's prototype is the PROFESSOR who develops a theory of the object of study.

Conceptual learning is particularly useful when learning requires a comprehensive picture and understanding the complexity of what is to be learned. There are no limitations as to favorable learning contents but learning media includes broad literary presentations and reports on the thing to be learned. Conceptualizers see the big picture in things but in contrast to critically observing learners they may skip important details. Also the experiential viewpoint receives less attention.

Learning by doing

The fourth and final phase of the learning cycle and some learners' favored style of learning is learning by doing the thing to be learned. The experienced, observed and conceptualized thing is ultimately tried out in practice. Doing marks the summary and and culmination of learning. The prototype is the APPRENTICE who learns the trade by doing it.

Doing is useful when the learning can or has to be transferred quickly to practice. The main challenge for "doer learners" relates to the narrow learning content that is, the learner misses the big picture of the thing to be learned. For example, the individual may have difficulties in understanding the changing work context brought on by technological development. Although the ever faster world needs more of learning by doing, the risk is that details (observation) and the big picture (conceptualization) remain unattended. Therefore, the learner benefits most from increased attention to conceptualization, attaining of the big picture.

Enhancing learning

All four phases and styles of learning are equally valuable and useful. Successful learning requires them all in appropriate proportions. Different learning situations obviously call for different learning styles. Experiential learning can be very useful in learning a foreign language. Similarly, learning by doing, ie., through speaking the language may be very effective. Learning to operate a forest harvester hardly needs experiential learning, instead more important is analyzing the machine's physical specifications (observing) and operating it.

People benefit from knowing their favored learning style. The important development challenge is knowing those learning styles that are used less. Knowledge and rehearsal of them can greatly boost learning results.

Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton & Co.
Senge, P.M. (1990). The Fifth discipline: The Art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.


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