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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Call me "Mister Difficult"

As part of a course for ministerial training called "Learning Theologically Together", I was directed to investigate my personal preferred "learning style"  by answering a battery of questionnaires by different learning theorists. The results were surprising.

This is not going to end well...
 According to the Honey and Mumford questionnaire, which categorizes learners as either Activist, Reflective, Theorist, or Pragmatist, I have no strong preferences for any learning style, with only a slight, borderline preference for Activism, so slight as to hardly matter.

The NC State University learning style assessment, on the other hand, rates learners along four axes--Active/Reflective, Sensory/Intuitive, Visual/Verbal, and Sequential/Global. This contradicts any hope that I'm actually an Activist learner, as I'm right in the middle between active and reflective on this scale. Likewise, I'm right in the middle of Visual/Verbal and of Sequential/Global.

There is one sharp spike, however: I'm right at the end of the Sensory/Intuitive, suggesting a very high preference for Intuition. Yes, intuition.

What can all this mean? Am I a perfectly balanced learner with the added bonus of the magical powers of intuition? Am I hopelessly self-contradictory? An utter people-pleaser who never expresses a preference? Or am I just lousy at answering such questionnaires with any degree of personal insight?

One thing I think Learning Style analysis does suggest is that human beings can be complex. And that there may be dangers at relying to heavily on such invented categories. First, knowing what your learning style is may lead to a kind of deterministic view that says, in essence, "I can only learn in this way, so if I don't learn it's because the course was not geared to my style." Thus, the individual learners agency to learn new ways to learn can be subtly undermined.

Yes, Virginia, there is a sanity clause...

Second, we may forget that fine, comprehensive, engaged learning was going on long before theorists undertook systematic studies of how people learn. Shakespeare, for example, never got past grammar school, but learned a thing or two about writing poems and plays that have had academics busy for centuries. How did he manage? Was he Activist? Global? Reflective? On thing was for sure--he was highly motivated by fame and money. And probably women.

Which leads me to conclude that your learning style, while interesting and useful to a point, may not matter at all, as long as you want to learn badly enough. If that desire is keen enough, people always find a way to learn.

I'm reminded of a key scene in the excellent TV series The Wire, shot in and about my hometown of Baltimore. A young African-American boy asks for help from an older brother with his math homework. Both of them are in the drug trade. The older brother points out that's it's a simple addition problem that's the same as keeping "the count"--the number of vials of crack, and the total of money they hold. These numbers, obviously, have to equal out. He asks his younger brother why is it he can't do a math problem, but he can keep the count right.

The younger brother says, "You get the count wrong, they f*** you up." Meaning, he gets beaten up by the drug bosses.

Do you feel motivated, punk?

Now, I'm not suggesting that corporal punishment be used to motivate people to learn. Merely that if a learner finds the motivation, the learning will follow. For theology students, motivation should not be hard to find.

Bottom line: you gotta want it.

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