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Modalities of Learning
J. Morgan Thomas
(theoretical piece)
Last Update: 24 August 2008

Abstract: Presents a model for learning and methods of teaching based on the basic underlying personality structure of different learners. Outlines the reasons we learn, ways of learning, and impediments to the learning process. Suggestions are made as to the most effective parameters to stress in the learning process in the age of instant knowledge access.

Importance of knowing how we learn
Modalities of learning
Types of learners
Why the reasons we learn are significant
The reasons we learn
Ways of learning
The impediments to learning
Learning for the 21st century

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Importance of knowing how we learn

We cannot grow without learning. There are a number of capabilities which are innate - suckling, crying, time triggered capabilities like learning to talk, to walk, to recognize familiar features like faces and sounds. There are others which, if we are to progress, we must actively learn. We do this either by reassembling pieces known to us and producing a new synthesis which allows us to navigate our environment more easily, or we learn it by direct infusion from the environment or others.

Each of us learns differently and at different speeds, but we learn. The knowledge as to how someone learns best is a key to facilitating that learning process within each one of us. We approach the reasons for learning from different angles and with different desires. Some of the reasons are not of interest to some, are not available to others based on their personality structure, internal blocks, or the way in which they interface with the environment, while others will take one or two reasons to their extremes.

Even the reasons for not learning are different for each individual. It is knowing the reasons for learning and the impediments to learning that guide us, both for our own advancement and for helping those attempting to help us.

When we place one set of parameters for learning on each individual, we often stigmatize or thwart the progression of some while piling praise and additional tools for learning on others.

We often place value judgments on our learners based on our own parameters thereby crippling those who do not fit.

It is important to take into account the reasons that each individual learns, and the connection it has to his personality and the motivation for learning.

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Modalities of learning

There is no single style of learning which fits all. We all learn in a slightly different way. And we fail when we attempt to find the one or two modalities to success in teaching.

Basic dimensions or basic ways of acting
Any entity, whether it is an individual or a group, operates on basically four dimensions respective to its environment.

a. Externalized or Internalized - relating actively to surrounding environment or basically to internal triggers
b. Innovative or Non-Innovative/traditional approach to problem solving
c. Goal directed or Maintenance of current level
d. Generally supported or Not Supported by surrounding environment

These are seen as separate dimensions which when combined produce 16 basic ways of relating to the environment including basic ways of learning. Each type brings a unique perspective to a problem or to the learning arena.

As an example, an externalized - non-innovative - supportive - goal oriented individual not only sees the world differently but also solves real world problems differently than an internalized - innovative - supportive - goal oriented individual.

In the end analysis, there are as many types of response and learning modes as the sum of all possible combinations of the four basic parameters.

Taking two basic types of the 16, we have the following: Learn by actively engaging and interaction with the environment in an innovative way towards some greater goal with the support of the surrounding environment.

This is opposed to the complete opposite on all dimensions:

Learn by rearranging internal perceptions cut off from the environment in a non-innovative or standardized way towards immediate gratification of goals without the support of, or possibly the recipient of negative feedback from, the surrounding environment.

All of the other possible combinations of the four basic parameters create their own learning types.

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Note: The following chart is an intuitive assignment of reasons for learning, ways to learn, and best way to teach based on the underlying structure of the paradigm.

It is important to remember that each type is crucial to the maintenance and advancement of society as each type reflects a part of the total social whole in its operation. If one part were taken out, the whole society would suffer. Teaching to the strengths and capacity of each type is crucial.

Type of Learner Reason for Learning Way to Learn Best Way to Teach
1. Externalized Innovative Goal-Oriented Supported To create a better world for everyone, realize future goals in new ways set either by self or society, to reach the top Interaction with environment and others Involve in interactive games emphasizing long term lessons to be learned
2. Externalized Innovative Goal-Oriented Non-Supported To reach goals against the outside pressure, to attain the maximum possible within the restraints, to find new ways to overcome barriers Try everything until find what works Optimize ways of achieving fast results of trials, ways of sharpening what needed to achieve goals, leave alone
3. Externalized Innovative Maintenance-Oriented Supported To create synchronization with the environment, to maintain status and be a part of that environment using own ideas on how best to achieve this. Interaction with environment and others Involve in interaction emphasizing immediate gains and losses
4. Externalized Innovative Maintenance-Oriented Non-Supported To hold on to gains and keep everything negative at bay. Figures things out for self, learning in order to maintain status, or to improve to self styled maintenance level To try new approaches to support level of life attained, to reduce possible threats to status, to maintain professional status Emphasize new methods of learning and support innovative attempts in learning for grades. Freedom from disciplinary measures
5. Externalized Non-Innovative Goal-Oriented Supported To create a better environment, fulfill societal dreams through tested means accompanied with the support of others Rote learning and help from friends Set clear goals, best practices, consultation availability
6. Externalized Non-Innovative Goal-Oriented Non-Supported To obtain goals set by the immediate social structure, to gain an edge, to overcome barriers which exist, to learn how others have succeeded, prove that goals can be obtained, to be accepted Emulation, utilizing success toward goal achievement, setting up patterns, following script or demands Making steps to achievement clear, using role models to learning achievement, identify personal goals with subjects taught
7. Externalized Non-Innovative Maintenance-Oriented Supported To fulfill the requirements socially set, to maintain safeguards against reduction of status, to continue to enjoy the fruits life has to offer, and obtain further support Learn on the fly, get help from friends, have others help or do work Active involvement in group learning sessions, provide active feedback for material learned, identify learning as a goal crucial to continued success in social setting
8. Externalized Non-Innovative Maintenance-Oriented Non-Supported Learns in order to manipulate the environment, to maintain current status and cope with changes, reduce negative feedback. To keep up with surroundings, to be current, to buttress self against failure, to accumulate things and knowledge to stay afloat, to provide a safety net which will be shared under right conditions Learn from interaction with environment, through assessing feedback Active involvement in material learned, particularly in allowing individual progress
9. Internalized Innovative Goal-Oriented Supported To make things better or to develop new ideas, to obtain envisioned goals both societal and toward personal fulfillment, to create something new normally without too much of an externalized plan When goal is clear, learns best when left to own devices Provision of tools to help find own way to what must learn, minimal support, rote is out the window. Needs to know why. Handles criticism, correction by incorporation.
10. Internalized Innovative Goal-Oriented Non-Supported Create a personal world which conforms to own set of ideals and ways of maneuvering in counter distinction to outside world and its demands although these may merge at various points, to improve self, to carve out own niche in which feels comfortable Finds own way of learning. Seeks new ways of acquiring the knowledge needed to attain goals. Does not generally ask for help Provide challenges and emphasize the possibility of alternative paths to reach a goal.
11. Internalized Innovative Maintenance-Oriented Supported To create an optimum internal balance through creative means, incorporating input from the outside to attain stability while keeping external changes from effecting status Try new ideas using self reaction as guide. Limited acceptance of external goals and limits only to maintain status Allow different methods of learning depending on proclivities, make sure that supports are provided in help as in rewards. Basically outline what is required and leave alone except for provision of access, and detailed evaluation of work.
12. Internalized Innovative Maintenance-Oriented Non-Supported To satisfy curiosity, for something to occupy the self. Maintenance of security levels achieved and reduce threats to status, new methods to achieve what perceives as important Self motivated and different intuitive methods of learning depending on subject matter. Normally does not learn well when directed. One-on-one, clear goal with emphasis on different ways to attain, identification and demarcaation of progress
13. Internalized Non-Innovative Goal-Oriented Supported To obtain self designated goals or goals selected by others, strive for personal excellence, fulfill expectations coming from the environment Learns through example. Borrows and utilizes fully any support from surroundings Providing clear directions and help to achieve a stated goal
14. Internalized Non-Innovative Goal-Oriented Non-Supported To fulfill ideas for self advancement or that of close others, reduce the amount of drag from the environment, learns what will get to goal. Normally follows the tried and true Concentrates on what worked for others. Searches for clearest route with few sidetracks Understand which particular goals motivate and providing clear examples of how certain techniques helped others
15. Internalized Non-Innovative Maintenance-Oriented Supported To fulfill internal and personal life chances, to create a fulfilling life for self and those close, to maintain base for continuing in occupation, profession. Not particularly interesting in learning anything new unless supported. Rarely asks for help but accepts when offered. Learns best when position / status threatened Support and a well laid out agenda emphasizing the negatives to not learning
16. Internalized Non-Innovative Maintenance-Oriented Non-Supported Must learn in order to stay afloat. Little joy and mostly sticks to minimums through the use of the tried and true, to keep status acquired and place safeguards to possible loss Clearly delineated path without outside input Set low goal levels in series, expectations must be clearly stated, does not respond well to criticism, and takes offers of help as negative.
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Why the reasons we learn are significant

The reasons we learn are basically the same for everyone although the emphasis is different for each individual. What makes the difference is the motivation. We have all seen the changes in motivation, speed and scope of learning when the environment is changed and reacts differently toward an individual. Avenues which were blocked before are suddenly opened or closed, making the environment and the reaction of others paramount to the individual's desire to learn.

All of the other factors are meaningless as tools to learning if the motivation is not present.

There are a number of different styles of learning. In most cases, we learn in a number of different ways. However, if we take the extreme learning types and make the assumption that there are individuals who learn basically in one of these ways and not in others, then we begin to see the problems presented by the attempt to teach many individuals in only one or two of the basis learning modes. We find that we have not touched a certain portion of the population which is just as capable of learning but has not been approached from the direction in which learning is maximized for them.

Unfortunately, many of our IQ tests are predicated on the basis of a small number of teaching styles which have unfairly prioritized certain learning types.

It is therefore the challenge of the teaching profession to teach the same material from the viewpoint of all of the positions, as well as test for IQ from all of these same positions.

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The Reasons We Learn
  • We learn in order to expand our universe
  • We learn in order to give ourselves additional options
  • We learn in order to give additional material for future problem solving
  • We learn in order to create a richer internal world
  • We learn in order to solve problems
  • We learn in order to pass on the past and present to the future
  • We learn in order to fulfill a need for knowing
  • We learn in order to satisfy others
  • We learn in order to maintain position
  • We learn in order to achieve status
  • We learn in order to attain oneness with others
  • We learn in order to achieve our goals
  • We learn in order to prove to ourselves that we can do it
  • We learn in order to prove to others that we are capable
  • We learn in order to avoid adverse reaction or pain
  • We learn because it is unavoidable
  • We learn as a result of action performed or experiences encountered
  • We learn in order to achieve a tangentially related goal
  • We learn in order to make doing certain things easier
Ways of Learning
  • Learning from environment as it impinges on the individual
  • Learning from interaction with the environment
  • Learning through creating or recreation of past or future scenarios
  • Learning through active involvement in produced scenarios
  • Learning from viewing action in the environment first hand
  • Learning through the experiences of others
  • Learning by reconstruction of possible sequences
  • Learning through creating the sequencing
  • Learning through association of similar events to present situation
  • Learning by negative feedback of what not to do
  • Learning from positive feedback of what is acceptable
  • Learning through active participation
  • Learning through passive participation
  • Learning through following the examples of others
  • Learning through feedback from orchestrated self created action
  • Learning from the results of internal experiences, dreams, fantasizing
  • Learning through repetition and rote memorizing or physical or mental conditioning
  • Learning through study and research of past actions
  • Learning through association of past action to present situation
  • Learning through creative manipulation of the environment to produce certain results
The Impediments to Learning
  • A teaching method which is not correlated to the individual's reasons for learning, the ways in which learning takes place for the individual, and the motivations presented during the learning process.
    More specifically:
  • Learning is stopped or slowed when learning produces negative feedback
  • Learning is stopped or slowed when we have attained that which induced it
  • Learning is stopped when the inducements to learning have been removed
  • Learning is stopped or slowed when the approach to learning does not fit our perception of the world
  • Learning is stopped or slowed when the approach to learning does not fit the way we learn
  • Learning is stopped or slowed when the subject learned appears to be illogical
  • Learning is stopped or slowed when the necessary basic knowledge needed to understand is not present
  • We do not learn when our attention is directed elsewhere
  • We do not learn when we are forced to learn
  • We do not learn when we wish we were not learning
  • We do not learn when there is constant interruption
  • We do not learn when background noise overrides or interferes
  • We do not learn when the message is garbled, unclear
  • We do not learn when there is no logical progression
  • We do not learn when we do not have the necessary background to understand
  • We do not learn when others place barriers to our advancement for any number of reasons
  • We do not learn when the material to be learned is not readily available, or is blocked by other's perceptions of the steps necessary to learn

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Learning for the 21st century

With the advent of instant information availability, it is no longer necessary to store the knowledge of centuries in our own minds. In many cases, it is enough to know how to access it when it is needed.

In that case, what is necessary to learn are the following:
  1. To understand how to access the information needed.
  2. The finding and assessment of triggers, keys to find the desired information
  3. To understand what constitutes adequate coverage of the subject.
  4. To know how to piece bits of information together to form a coherent and understandable whole.
  5. To assess quality of information sources and evaluate methods used to accumulate or verify information.
  6. Enough information to form a base for determining probable truth or falsity.
  7. To be able to identify lacks or holes in proofs, evidence needed to form conclusion
  8. To be able to develop a logical progression to the accumulation of knowledge
  9. Enough information to provide a base on which to build further knowledge
10. To be able to evaluate the truthfulness of information
11. To be able to determine the weight of evidence necessary to form conclusions
12. An understanding that there are different possible ways to solve a problem
13. The possibility of developing new results by enlarging the scope of possible approaches
14. The ability to discern what is not useful information in any area of inquiry

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As delineated above, different types of learners and personality types will react differently to the various methods. Some learners will be automatically locked out by certain types of teaching. A number of different methods will be used by any one teacher. Of importance here is the determination of which students are not being reached and critical evaluation of the methods being used.

Learning and teaching paradigm based on Cycles of Man, J. Morgan Thomas, et al. International Sociological Journal circa 1968
Related Sites
Learning Development Institute A Transdisciplinary Networked Learning Community Devoted to Excellence in the Development and Study of Learning
Learning Without Frontiers Significant Archives, Documents, Links to Learning. (last update December 1999).
Learning Styles Excellent source. Visual, Audio, and Kinesthetic/Tactile Modalities. Very good chart for students and teachers. Chart of Left/Right Mode Learning and Thinking Characteristics. Links to a number of self tests

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© copyright 2008 J. Morgan Thomas All rights reserved