Learning Types and Learning Styles
Chapter 1 : Learning types and learning styles
The rationale against the school system
The rationale for the school system
A possible solution
A reformulation of the argument
Personality and learning (^)
The study of personality as it emerges from the works of many psychologists (G. Lindzey ed., 1970; B. Semenoff ed., 1970; L. J. Bischof, 1970) is primarily based on the highlighting of differences (e.g. types: Jung 1928, Spranger 1928; traits: Allport 1937, 1962; character structures: Horney 1937).
In sharp contrast to this depiction of human personality variety, a series of opposing theories have been elaborated in the area of learning studies (Bower G. H. & Hilgard E.R., 1981) that seem all aimed at giving a unique fully comprehensive explanation of human learning valid for every type of person in every type of situation.
In its extreme formulations, learning appears to be either the product of something induced from the outside (conditioned learning in its various range of positions, i.e. classical: Pavlov; reinforced: Hull; operant: Skinner) or something originated from the inside of a human being (insightful learning: Kohler; Koffka; Wertheimer; Lewin).
As remarked by O'Connell (1973) referring to conditioned learning (but the sphere could be extended) "S-R learning theorists are often criticised for their narrow and limited view of learning and their inability to take into consideration the specificity of each individual."
Because of this neglect of the individual, one of the most widely used textbook on learning theory (Bower and Hilgard) in his 1975 edition does not contain any mention of individual learning strategies, included only starting from the 1981 edition (pp. 423-425).
Nevertheless, already in 1956 in USA, Bruner, Goodnow and Austin in their classical "A study of thinking", had introduced the concept of strategy referring to the mental processing behaviour of individuals engaged in problem solving.
Through the administration of tests to a group of subjects, they discovered that individuals use different strategies ("successive scanning" or "conservative focusing" as defined by H. Gardner, 1987) to reach the solution of the same problem.
In England, one of the first to stress a relationship between differences in personality and varieties in thinking/learning approaches, has been dr. L. Hudson. In his study on the psychology of the English schoolboy (L. Hudson, 1966) he pointed out the existence of two learning personalities (the "converger" and the "diverger") that manifest themselves in two different learning styles.
The findings of Dr. Hudson and other psychologists (Witkin, Kagan) on differences in learning approaches, were reviewed in a unit prepared by A. Cashdan and V. Lee for the Open University "Educational Studies Course" under the title "Learning styles and strategies" (1971).
The expression "learning style" (and the one affine "cognitive style" employed in another Open University Unit, "Personality and Learning", block 5, 1976) seems not to have been in use before the '70s.
So, it seems that only starting from that period, the variety of learning approaches in relation to differences in personality has been recognized by a large part of the scientific community of educationalists and psychologists.
This appears to be the result of a progressive shift in the same scientific community from a behaviourist to a cognitivist approach to learning.
As remarked by Tessmer and Jonassen (1988) "since the late '50s a gradual revolution in educational psychology has occurred"; "the mechanistic behaviourist model of human learning, with its view of learning as a simple, reflexive and quantifiable activity, was replaced by an active and organicistic model. In this view, learners have organized knowledge bases and actively participate in the construction of their reality."
Besides "learning styles", another concept has emerged, that of "learning types" (R. Gagné, 1965).
For learning types, Gagné refers to the content of learning and the intellectual skills involved in mastering it. He differentiates eight types of learning (from signal learning to problem solving) arranged in a hierarchical order, being the lower level prerequisite to proceeding to higher levels. Gagné stresses the fact that each type of learning is associated with characteristic strategies of instruction (A. J. Romiszowski, 1981).
Taking all this into consideration, what seems to have emerged in recent times is the acknowledgement of the existence of different life situations seen, from an educational point of view, as different types of learning to whom different styles of learning are connected, in accordance to the specific personality of the learner. In all this construct, variety seems the stressed feature for learning to take place.
The school system (^)
Starting specifically from the second half of the XXth century, a very large amount of learning time, in most countries of the world, has been given to particular institutions called 'schools', in order to be administered and dispensed. From what has previously emerged, one should expect variety (of learning styles, of learning types) to be the dominant feature of a school.
But, having the school system assimilated many aspects of the mechanical industrial world (A. Toffler, 1970), his main traditional characteristics were, in origin, and still are, in large part:
- massification of learning processes
- standardization of learning contents
- fragmentation of learning topics.
This system has undergone many changes in recent times, with a few radical experiments (e.g. Summerhill) and some new approaches (student centred, independent learning), variously accepted or more often rejected (R. Meighan, 1980). But the main traditional structure still survives throughout the various school levels with his unsatisfactory aspects, as pointed out by many social and educational analysts (Gross, 1972; Goodman, 1973; Postman and Weingartner, 1971; Reimer, 1971; Illich, 1971, 1974; Buckman, 1973; Lister, 1974).
The rationale against the school system
Stated in a concise way, based on what has emerged up to now, the critical argument relies on the following reasoning:
- - given the existence of different life situations and personalities that manifest themselves as learning experiences (learning types) and learning strategies (learning styles);
- this means that there is a need for individualization/personalization of learning processes (whatever this means in actual terms) if a (more) effective learning (defined in terms of skills acquisition that manifest themselves in performances and results) is to be achieved;
- but, being the present mass school system, around the world, generally organized according to a massification/standardization/fragmentation pattern, it derives that no (sufficient) place can be reserved to learning types and learning styles;
- from this, it follows that a less effective learning process takes place and this means that human resources are wasted, in a certain measure.
This wastage of human resources could be considered a problem.
The rationale for the school system
From a different perspective, this reasoning could be rejected point by point.
It could be argued:
- - that the mass schooling system has given access to education to a huge number of people (massification as democratization);
- that the only way to perform this educational gigantic task has been to standardize the provision of educational services (standardization as organization);
- that, in order to standardize them, it has been necessary to decompose knowledge into bits and to administer it in such a manageable way (fragmentation as simplification);
- that the mass school system provides, at the same time, the homogenization and the specialization that society requires;
- that there is no wastage of resources being the lack of effective learning the result of lack in personal learning abilities.
According to this position, the statement that the mass school system wastes human resources, is not only rejected but turned upside down. The school appears to make the best possible use of resources given the restraints imposed by economic and technological factors and by the natural learning capabilities of the individual.
The problem stated (^)
This position seems to hold insofar as:
- - certain values are supported;
- a certain technology is present.
If a different set of value are expressed and new technological devices (that foster those values) appear, the same situation seen as not problematic, could be viewed as leading to the emergence of a problem.
This means that for a situation to be identified as a problem there should be:
- - a specific set of values that point to it;
- a specific set of problem solving devices that solve it.
From this it follows that a problem concerning the waste of human resources in the present system of mass school learning, could be deemed to exist only if:
- - a certain set of values is postulated that, based on the variety of types and styles of human learning as recognized by the scientific community, stresses the exigency for this variety to emerge;
- a certain set of technological tools is available to translate those values into reality, at least potentially, not being the existence of technological devices, condition 'per se' sufficient for their use.
The first points involves aspects (values) that cannot be dealt in terms of true/false, so no evidence can be given in support of it (i.e. in support of the preferability for this variety to emerge).
The second point involves facts whose occurrence can be practically assessed (i.e. posing and answering the question if a certain set of technological devices exist that can support a variety of learning styles, assist a variety of learning types and promote a recomposition in the process of learning topics).
A possible solution
As it will examined in the following chapter (Chapter 2 : Information and information technology) a series of tools have emerged or have become economically available that could alter the way learning experiences (within or without a school system) are approached, processed, mastered.
These tools could facilitate:
- individualized learning : each individual is activated in the learning process interacting with a learning tool;
- personalized learning : the interaction follows certain paths and is conducted at a pace chosen by the learner;
- integrated learning : the path is open to the crossing of boundaries and to the interconnection of topics kept insofar distinct.
This means that the previous school's pattern of massification/standardization/fragmentation could be replaced by a new pattern based on individualization/personalization/integration of learning experiences.
A reformulation of the argument
Assumed the existence of these learning tools (to be reviewed and assessed in general terms) and postulated the option towards the preferability for a variety of integrated learning experiences (styles, types) to emerge as being conducive to a more effective learning, the argument can be re-formulated in the following way, leading to the highlighting of what can be now defined, the problem:
- - the present mass school system (broadly defined) causes
- a certain wastage of human resources because
- less than effective learning processes take place because
- learning styles, learning types and integrated learning are neglected
- being massification/standardization/fragmentation the dominant feature because
- this is what a certain set of uphold values recommend
- and a certain set of employed tools allow.
A possible contribution to the solution of this unsatisfactory state felt as a problem (the waste of human resources) could lie in:
- - the transformation of schools in the form of resources centres where
- learners could use learning tools that facilitate individualization/personalization/integration of learning experiences because
- learning styles, learning types and integrated learning are taken into consideration, and this should mean that
- a more effective (to be defined) learning process could take place, that means that
- the waste of human resources could be reduced and this means that
- the problem could, in a certain measure, be solved (i.e. the situation could be improved).
In order to show the validity of this argument, a synthesis of relevant material will be presented that will be arranged in the following way:
Chapter 2 : Information and information technology
Chapter 3 : Knowledge and knowledge engineering
Chapter 4 : Skills and tasks
Chapter 5 : Learning and communication guidelines
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-  Alvin Toffler, Future Shock, The Bodley Head, London, 1970
-  Asher Cashdan & Victor Lee, Learning Styles. Personality Growth and Learning, Units 1 and 2, The Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1971
-  Everett Reimer, School is Dead, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1971
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-  Ian Lister (editor), Deschooling : A Reader, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1974
-  Ivan Illich, After Deschooling, What?, Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, London, 1974