Friday, April 01, 2011

Learning Styles

It's good, every so often, to step back over material you've worked with before—a better word to use here than "learned" is "practiced"—to review and remember skills and concepts, to realize anew its relevance to your life and its patterns, to refresh memory and approach.

I spent part of today re-reading Dawna Markova's essential book on learning styles, The Art of the Possible. Re-reading material I first studied close to twenty years ago, I was reminded of my own learning style, well-known if not much thought about lately. The Art of the Possible is one of those rich, life-changing books, deceptively simple yet astonishingly deep.

The past few days and weeks of thinking my life and illness over on very existential levels has led me to go back over some of my own beliefs, experiences, and ideas, and reframe them freshly. In the process, I've had to (somewhat grudgingly) admit that I might be wrong about myself, where a value I hold is not congruent with how I actually am as a whole person.

The core of Dawna Markova's teaching is that there are several learning styles that people have, based on three primary learning channels: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. A remarkable amount of misunderstanding and miscommunication occurs when people don't realize they're trying to connect across opposing learning styles, each demanding the other change styles to what makes sense to them.

If my heart could do my thinking, would my brain begin to feel?
—Van Morrison

People develop different sensory modalities either by temperament or training. . . . Different students remember and integrate information with different sensory modalities.
—Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture

Before working with architects, I had been intimately involved with psychiatrists and psychoanalytic schools as well as diplomats. Both are highly verbal and depend for their livelihood and their status on their adeptness with spoken words. They can take words, and translate them into ideas and even emotions. One has to use words well if one wants to communicate with either group. Having become habituated to words after working with these two professions, my first contact with architects came as a shock. It was like working with an entirely new tribe about which I knew nothing. I learned that one had to reach this group through their eyes with pictures, not words.
—Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture

Talk therapy doesn't work for everybody. There are kinesthetic and auditory and visual modes available from different kinds of therapies. I personally found the physical acting-out of old traumas to be effective; I felt them in my body, and then they could be released. Just sitting on a couch and talking to a silent person taking notes would drive me up the frakking wall. I'd end up getting up and pacing around the room, because I integrate better when moving.

There are three layers, if you will, to the mind that are relevant to learning styles: There is the foreground, or organizing mind (represented by the triangle), the innermost, creative mind (represented by the circle), the part in between that is the sorting mind (represented by the square). Another analogy that was given to me, which I still like, is the organizing mind is like the front porch of a house—the interface with the outer world, which has the most direct contact with others; the sorting mind is like the living room of the house—the place where life is reviewed and worked out, the place where family discussions happen and guests are brought into; and the creative mind is like the private bedroom at the back of the house, where the public doesn't go, and where we are at our most private and intimate.

Everyone's mind uses a habitual, preferred symbolic language for conscious thought. If you think about a memorable experience, what comes first to your memory. Is it the sensation of tingling in your lips, and maybe the electric shock that runs all the way down your body to the base of your spine? Is it the image of the person, the details of their eyes and face, as you moved close together? Do you remember what song was playing on the radio, and the sounds of birds outside your window on a summer's evening? Which of these come most readily to mind, most naturally, first before all other aspects of memory, will give you a clue as to your "front porch" mode.

A kinesthetic person primarily learns new skills by direct involvement, "hands on" experience and practice. Learning is indelibly associated with setting: the place you learned the skill will always come into your memory when you use the skill.

A visual person learns best by seeing someone demonstrate the skill, i.e. being shown how to do it. They watch carefully, memorizing the demonstration, then repeat it for themselves as practice.

An auditory person learns new skills best by listening, by hearing instruction, lectures and group discussions. You can tell an auditory person in mind-numbing detail how to do something, and she'll remember it as words of instruction, and be able to repeat them.

By contrast, the part of your mind that is your innermost sanctuary, your unconscious mind, will have a different learning style. Your unconscious mind remembers everything, like a library computer; it's the seabed of your deep ocean, where all your experiences float down, are changed into something rich and strange, and re-emerge as dreams, archetypal visions, connecting associative memories. The foreground mind sorts and categorizes, the inner mind makes connections and linkages. This mode may not seem present in ordinary life, not active or awake, although it is very much alive. It's the heartwood of the tree, the source of inspiration and intuition.

Kinesthetic people make connections by touching or moving, even dancing. Visual people so the same be experiencing something visually powerful on the screens of their visualizing inner self. Auditory people frequently make associations and connections when listening to music, especially instrumental music. (Vocal music, because it includes the verbal channel, can block auditory people from their intuition, because it pulls them towards the front of the house.)

Similarly, when a kinesthetic person can be entranced or be vulnerable to movement. Visual people can be entranced by a painting or other strong visual image. Auditory people can be entranced by words. The double-edged sword that the inner-auditory person has to deal with is that they might go completely inarticulate when entranced, or they might "dump" words all over the room, in unconscious logorrhea.

The sorting part of the mind, the square or the living room, is a part of the mind that very often gets ignored by our binary, linear-thinking culture. Most people tend to think in terms of polarized either/or. This is actually a product of our culture and socialization, the way we are taught to think in school—which is a rational, visual-dominant way of learning. People like myself with their visual channel on the front porch usually get much better grades in the classroom than do kinesthetics, who need to move to learn but who are enough stifled and told to sit still in their chairs, shutting them down entirely. Our culture is so visual-dominant that we don't even think about the fact that the Internet is a primarily visual medium, as are most of our entertainment and news media.

The middle, sorting part of the mind can be thought of as the subconscious, where the input from the outer world is sorted and where our intuition and wisdom are distilled before being expressed. It is also the perceptual channel. It's a two-way room in the mind: it goes both inward and outward, like the traffic flow through a house's kitchen. As a domain it is both public and private, receptive and active. It is not either/or territory, but both/and territory.

A person who is kinesthetic in their middle rooms sorts life experience by feeling, action, or movement. When they're scared about something, they feel paralyzed, and for them worry is a physical feeling in the guts. To get unstuck, they must get up and move around, to clear their head.

A visual person sorts experiences visually, and must often close their eyes to get in touch with their feelings. When terrified, they go blank, and when worried they can be overwhelmed by millions of images all flashing through the mind so quickly that none of them stick. To get unstuck, a visual person will probably need to focus on an outer image, like looking at nature, rather than looking at their own inner movies.

An auditory person will typically sort their life's experiences by needing silence to go within, and needing sounds and words to go outwards into the world. When scared they might literally be scared speechless, and when worried they tend to go in circles with an endless inner argument. Listening to music can often get them unstuck.

We remember wholeness so readily, because we don't have very far to look for it. it is always within us, usually as a vague feeling or memory left over from when we were children. But it is a deeply familiar memory, one you recognize immediately as soon as you feel it again, like coming home after being away a long time. When you are immersed in doing without being centered, it feels like being away from home. And when you re-connect with being, even for a few moments, you know it immediately. You feel like you are at home no matter you are and what problems you face.
—Jon Kabbat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living

My own learning style pattern is VKA: visual on the front porch, kinesthetic in the middle, and aural in my innermost self. When I first learned this way of thinking about learning styles, a lot of things suddenly made sense to me. Right now, as I go through a process of simultaneously battling a physical illness and working to write a new piece of music, some of these channels have become very obvious to me all over again.

I learn by seeing it, feeling it, hearing it—see, do, say. I express myself most easily, in order, by showing, doing, then talking about it. When I make art, like papier-maché, it is visual-tactile for in the making; when I show my art to others, I always first show them a photo, and talk about it second. Often enough, I'll just show a set of photos—a sequence or grouping connected in my own mind to each other—and not talk about it at all. I'm actually good at verbal explanations. I am very good at "translating" between modes, and helping other people understand each other better. I'm very good with words, they come so easily to me in fact that I don't always trust them. The irish gift of gab can too easily become devalued into the gift of glib. I value words highly, like a bard does, or a skald from the ancient sagas; but I also know who easily words can be used to lie, to conceal, to obfuscate. I know well the nature of the bard's gift as a two-edged sword, which can turn on the user and cut his hand as well.

I share many traits in common with other VKAs: If someone asks me for directions, I turn and point with my hands, then describe how to get there using visual landmarks. I make very good eye contact with people during conversations, and tend to always look at who is speaking. I can watch movement and learn very easily how to do it—I learned this when I studied martial arts for ten years: I almost always got the technique right away, just by watching it a few times. I love being out in nature, physical activity—in my case hiking and dance rather than team sports—and travel. When I look at visual art I am, like many VKAs, always just as aware of the feeling aspect of the art as I am of its visual composition.

When I'm stuck for words, touch and movement free me up—in fact, this is why I've noticed that when I'm writing music, or writing a poem, I have to get up periodically and walk around. It keeps the juices flowing. I also have learned over time that I do a lot of my best thinking, and best creative work, when taking a walk, or driving for a long time on a roadtrip. The being-in-motion helps me keep the energy flowing, and both input and output are sharply focused. I can't sit and write for hours at a time; I must get up and walk through, literally walk through, the next section before I write it down. When I'm walking, or making food, that's often when lines for poems come into my head—far more often than when I'm sitting and staring at nothing. My kinesthetic channel being in the middle, I am reminding myself anew, means that it is essential for me to combine physical breaks into my creative work. This is one reason I love gardening: it really gets me going creatively.

Another VKA trait that I seem to share, which can be both good and problematic, is that we intuitively pick up and imitate others' body language. We can become kinesthetic mirrors of others, matching their rhythms and movements. This is great for developing empathy and understanding—it's why I've been called a mind-reader many times, and it's also why I can "translate" between people who can't seem to understand each other. The downside, however, is a serious one. When we pick up the kinesthetics of others, we can often lose our own. Earlier in my life, before I learned to deal with this, I sometimes felt like I was losing my mind, because I'd be walking down the street, and everyone who passed me going in the other direction, I would automatically pick up their body language, posture, and gestures. I felt like they were walking into my head, and I couldn't feel my own mind anymore. Learning to deal with this effect was one of the reasons I studied martial arts: as a way to learn shielding, to stand in my own center and not get pulled off-center by the kinesthetic of others. Ki Aikido, the martial art I gravitated towards, was particularly good at developing this consciously in students.

VKAs are very good at asking questions. We make good counseling therapists, or amateur shrinks for our circle of friends. We don't give many answers, though, but we always know the right questions to dig into whatever situation is happening. On the other hand, sometimes when we're worried, we go in circles with our questions, and feel pulled in many conflicting directions.

As a VKA, I don't easily tolerate auditory noise in my environment. I hate mall muzak, because I can't ignore it. The only music, actually, that I can treat as genuine furniture or background music is classical music—my parents were classical musicians, and I grew up with it around me all the time. Friends come over to my house and tell me how peaceful and tranquil it usually is. That's because I don't leave the radio or TV on, the way many people do, just to fill the silence, or as background noise. My house is often totally silent. I even watch TV sometimes with the sound off. I'm hypersensitive to sound when trying to fall asleep, too.

I also have a few knacks that I'm not sure all VKAs possess, but I think some at least do. I take that watching-to-learn knack to extremes. When, for example, I'm watching a new technique in martial arts class, I can visualize it in my mind in three dimensions and in motion, and rotate the point of view to any angle. I have a real knack for spatial geometry, in fact. One reason I was good in my geology classes in college was that I could visualize crystal forms in my head, and I could visualize layer of rock under the ground like x-ray diagrams. I'm also a very good drive in difficult traffic, because I can track multiple objects moving in multiple directions at different speeds by diagramming them in my mind.

And this is all more information about myself than I've said out loud for a very long time. it's good to do a self-review every so often, as I'v said before. And that's enough for now. So, as a good VKA, I'll end with a question: What's your learning style? The Art of the Possible is a great way to help you figure yourself out.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I have often joked that I lean by osmosis. It’s the best way I’ve found to describe how I acquire understanding. Some of my understanding comes, obviously, first hand which some would argue is the best way to learn things and in most cases they’re probably right. After that we have watching something live, watching an edited recording, talking to someone about their experiences, reading about their experiences, reading about what others have said they experienced. It all mounts up. I don’t think you would call me a kinesthetic person; I’m not much of a doer. I love all kinds of visual and auditory stimuli though. I have no need to close my eyes to experience feelings any more than I have a great need for silence. I don’t quite know what my learning style might be but I doubt there would be any K in the mix at all. VAV maybe?

7:01 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

No, everybody has all three channels, it's the way we're hardwired. It just depends where they fall in the mix. From your description it's possible you're a VAK, with K in the back, which is why it doesn't seem to happen much in the ordinary conscious world. Or AVK. But more likely VAK.

There are really only the six learning styles you can get by combining the variables. And of course there are some individual variations of emphasis. This is the hardwiring of preferences that shows up especially in kids; adults can through experience learn to either balance and use their basic style, or in some cases suppress it due to other psychological factors.

Experience has taught me, though, in using this material, that everybody DOES somehow seem to match one of the six styles, again, with some individual emphases here and there. It's one of the most useful paradigms I've ever run across, and has really helped a lot of people figure out that, really, they aren't dumb, they're just different.

11:16 AM  

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