I have been doing some research on learning. This because I am in the thick of a project that involves me trying to pass on my wisdom to three groups of kids. The aim of the project is not that I turn all these kids into precocious writers but that I inculcate a love of words while at the same time learning how I can be of value to the community. At least I think that's it. It's part of my course so I guess I'm supposed to be learning something, and as the course is in writing it must have something to do with that. How don't I know for sure? Because of my learning preferences.
As I was flailing around, trying to work out what it is I should be doing (trying to justify it?) I stumbled upon the work of Barbara Prashnig, and now I feel much better. She lends a tone of authority to what I've known about myself for quite some time. Ms Prashnig is an academic who has published several books on learning styles, arguing that there are multiple elements that go to make up each individual's personal best way to learn.
Some of these elements are biological, and thus remain much the same over a lifetime, and others are conditioned and therefore more flexible. There is some overlap, of course, and some of the biological elements will allow more flexibility than others in any given person. It's not simple then!
You can download a graph of both sets of elements here (click on the third one down) if you want to clarify what I'm banging on about, but this is what I think she means. Biologically based elements first. They are:
Brain dominance: there are two parts to this: how do you process information, sequentially or simultaneously, and, is your thinking style reflective or impulsive? I am definitely sequential, give me too many new things to do, or complex things to think about and I shut down. I need to get to grips with one thing at a time, once I have a handle on what ever it is I can then take on something new, but I can be pretty slow. During the initial learning phase I am very reflective, but once I have synthesized the information to the degree I need to feel comfortable with it I become quite alarmingly impulsive.
Sensory Modalities: There are four main categories to this and they all have sub categories so I'll take them one at a time.
Auditory (hearing): Do you learn by listening? I do up to a point but my need to reflect means I can quickly switch off if someone goes on talking for too long. This doesn't mean, however, that all is lost in a lecture theatre. I may have appeared to be asleep for the most part, and I certainly won't be able to answer any questions on what the lecturer was saying immediately after, but it does eventually sink in and I'll usually find myself writing something down a couple of days later, if it was of any interest for my current projects.
Auditory (external): how about talking and discussing, do you have a preference for this? The short answer for me here is no. Again, because of my need to reflect I am particularly crap at discussion, though I can and do learn by telling a willing listener what I understand so far. I don't like anyone to interrupt when I'm talking though, it throws me off and pings me back into reflection again. Not that this is a bad thing when time is of no consequence.
Auditory (internal): do you talk to yourself (inner dialogue/self talking)? I do, constantly, if something is particularly difficult to make sense of I talk out loud, at all other times I have an internal dialogue going on when I am working. This is why I can't always be polite to someone sticking their head round my door and asking me if there's anything I would like:
Husband: 'Hi baby can I get you a glass of wine/ cup of tea/something to eat?'
Me: 'What the fuck are you trying to do to me?'
I am trying to condition myself to merely say 'no thank you' but it's not easy.
Visual (words): when it comes to using your sight do you learn by reading or do you have a preference for (Visual (external)) watching and/or seeing, or, would you rather (Visual (Internal)) visualize something using your imagination? For me it depends on the thing I am trying to learn. I learnt how to wire up and hang a chandelier by watching the electrician fit one in my house and then visualizing myself doing the same. I learnt to write by reading, not by reading books on how to write but by reading well written books, without any thought of doing it myself.
Tactile (touching): some people need to touch, manipulate and handle to learn. I know people who, when they are thinking hard, fondle the labels in their clothes or squeeze rubber balls. I am not one of them, though I do like to stroke my cashmere socked foot as I read when I'm not trying to learn.
Kinesthetic (external): this one's about experiencing and/or doing. Conan likes to take things apart and put them back together again, my son is the same, I am a bit afraid of doing that but I do learn by doing. Mostly I learn by the act of writing. I even learn what I think that way. In fact, that is why I am writing this post, so I can learn what this is all about. I learnt to cook by first watching my mother, then reading cook books, and thirdly by actually cooking.
Kinesthetic (internal): do you learn by feeling/intuition? I think I do that too. Once I have grasped the fundamentals of something I continue to learn by making intuitive connections to other similar things I know. For example, I am learning how to garden by likening it to writing and cooking, and I learn quite a lot about how to write by making cooking connections intuitively. I find with some things, if I over analyse I lose them, feeling often gets better results.
That's sensory modalities over, now we move on to:
Physical Needs: this covers mobility, do you need to sit still, move around, or do you need a mixture of the two? I need to get up and move at pretty regular intervals – so I'm always making tea, and once a day I go out to my mini trampoline – but whilst I am actually trying to take something in I need to be still.
Intake: I need to be smoking, drinking or eating pretty much constantly as I work. I keep a little pot of nuts, seeds and dried fruit on my desk, but sometimes only chocolate will do.
Time of Day: Some people learn best in the morning, some in the afternoon, some in the evening. I am at my most receptive after about ten o'clock at night which is a real pain as I also have to fit into 'normal' working hours and get up early and go to classes. This is killing me at the moment because I'm trying to learn something utterly new and complex and I'm having to do it at, for me, unnatural times of day.
Environment: This covers Sound, Light, Temperature and Study Area. I need silence, others I know need loud music or the sound of chatter; I need bright light to work and low light to read; my room needs to be very warm – my husband calls it 'ridiculously hot' – and my study area needs to be neat, clean and relatively formal but with a comfy spot. I don't like cold surfaces like glass or metal, so although I really like the look of enamelled metal office furniture my desk needs to be wood.
That's it for the Biologically Based Elements, now for the Conditioned/Learned ones:
Social: Do you prefer a Study Group of one, two, or more? I am a loner and it's interesting to find that this is learned rather than biological because it means I am not naturally anti-social but I have been conditioned to work alone. I do rather like to have one other person to work alongside to bounce ideas off, but I quite like to be able to switch them off when I need to think. I am now, thanks to workshopping, learning how to work in small groups as long as those people's learning needs don't conflict too much with my own. For example, people who need to talk all the time, or who need constant reassurance, or who need everyone to agree with them, or who compete for cleverest/most talented person in the group, or need to tell you what they know, especially when it has (or seems to have) no relevance to the current subject, cause me to shut down. As for Authority I like having access to it but I don't want it hanging around looking over my shoulder. Apparently some people need to be supervised by either a teacher or a parent.
Attitudes: This encompasses Motivation, Persistence, Conformity, Responsibility, Structure/Guidance and Variety. Are you a self starter, or do you need to be externally motivated? If I didn't have someone constantly cracking the whip I would probably just vegetate, even though I love what I do I need someone or something to make me do it, and I will hate that someone or something until the thing is done when I will suddenly love them. That said, no one made me sign up for my course, so there must be an underlying self starting element in me.
As for persistence mine fluctuates quite radically. When it's in full flow and I am really working at it I am pretty systematic. When it comes to conformity I conform in the early stages of learning and then, once I feel I have the basics I branch out to play with the rules. Learning should be fun after all. I am not comfortable with taking responsibility for anything until the play stage is reached. I need to be guided by experts in the initial stages, and as for variety I need routine to make me achieve anything at all, but to be able to have a change too (for synthesis), so I actually build change time into my routine.
So there you have it: Barbara Prashnig's elements of learning. I have to say I feel quite vindicated; I am not an oddity I just don't conform to traditional teaching/learning methods. And, what is more, neither do most of us. The question now is how do we go about teaching large groups of people – children and adults – in a way that will get the best out of them?
You might be interested to know that I consumed one large mug of coffee, one mug of tea, three fags, two biscuits, three slices of cold roast beef, one apple and five chocolate mini eggs while I composed this post. Now I must get up and move around.