Thinking Like A Learner

Woman thinking in front of a blackboard

Note: This is the first of a three part series. You can view part 2 here.

Every trainer, educator, teacher, instructor, facilitator - whatever you want to call them - that's been around for a while will clearly understand that learners are diverse and different and what works with one may be totally foreign to another. So how do learners think? And how do we adjust our teaching styles to accommodate different thinking styles? In this article we're going retro to examine a few old theories on the matter to see if they still hold water today.

So what's the big deal?

A lot of research has gone into how people think and that has direct implications for the training and education industry. The first biggest mistake any teacher can make is to assume that all learners are like them and that their approach to learning is like theirs. The second biggest mistake is to assume that all learners think alike.

Back in 1995 Elliot Masie in The Computer Training Handbook postulated that there were four basic thinking styles: reflective, conceptual, practical and creative. This was based upon research done by a variety of experts in the field. In its day this was ground-breaking stuff and computer training was starting to boom.

Basically the suggestion from this research was that people tend to think in four fundamental ways. Generally, people have a dominant or default thinking styles that they use in most situations or fall back on. However, to add complexity to this concept, most people are able to change their thinking depending upon circumstance and situation.

According to Masie the way people think will determine how well they learn and use new knowledge and skills. He felt that if people were to learn new computing and technology skills the information would need to be presented to them in a way that matched their thinking style. He felt that everyone involved in education, from trainers through to designers of interactive programs and courseware developers, not only need to be aware of these styles but also to know and recognise their own learning and thinking styles. For Masie success in training programs could only be achieved if knowledge and skills were successfully imparted and this could only happen if learning was adjusted to thinking styles.

In this and future articles we'll examine what Masie had to say about the four learning styles and how they impacted on course presentation and development. An interesting point to remember too is that trainers and teachers themselves have a dominant thinking style and this will impact upon how they teach and what they present.

So take a walk with us through a learning theory that is over 20 years old but, we feel, still holds relevance today. In his book Masie invited us as educators to see which category of thinker we fell into too.

The reflective thinker

According to Masie the reflective thinker looks at things subjectively. They relate new information to their own experiences and are constantly considering their feelings towards what they are learning and doing. They are active in the process of integrating new information and are often quite verbal in the classroom or online in chat rooms and user groups.

When reflective learners get confused or find something difficult to grasp they often shut down to give themselves time to think and reflect.

A reflective thinker constantly asks "why?" in a personalised way. "Why do I have type my username when the computer already knows it?"

Masie feels that reflective thinkers are always thinking organisationally and will talk overtly about organisational politics. "If I'm sent on a word processing course does that mean I'll have to type everything up in future?" "If I'm learning how to use Microsoft Access does that mean our company is going to close down the data processing unit?"

Masie goes on to identify the implications reflective thinking has on training. He points out that reflective thinkers:

  • Constantly and compulsively relate new information and skills to previous experience
  • Keep an eye on what is happening in a classroom and provide feedback when the instructional style changes
  • Actively participate in discussions
  • Make just as many comments as raise discussions
  • Initiate after-class discussions with the trainer
  • Dislike passive instructional methods such as video and low-participation lectures
  • Like trainers who can spin a good yarn
  • Join user groups (and probably contribute often).

If you're in a support role then Masie warns that the reflective thinker often calls support and provides long and involved stories about the job, when the problem arose and the disastrous results from the problem. He suggests that providing information about why the problem arose and to tell a story about the same problem happening to someone else is a good way to deal with the reflective thinker.

Masie also warns that reflective thinkers often initially react negatively to online or computer-based training. They crave human interaction and unless this is built into this type of training the reflective thinker will not respond positively to it. For Masie reflective thinkers need online training that has lots of case studies.

In the next article we'll look at the other three thinkers - conceptual, practical, and creative.