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Individual learning styles

Lifelong learning has become a prime challenge in “Learning organizations” (Senge, 1990). The learning model presented builds on the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson’s developmental theory (1950) where learning progresses through various phases starting from receiving the thing to be learned and ending to applying the learned to practice. Everyone passes through the same phases but individuals differ in their favored learning styles.

Phases and styles of learning

Learning begins with SEEKING, curious and open-minded receiving of the thing to be learned. This is followed by critical OBSERVATION where the object of learning is gained under control through analytic examination of its features. The third phase involves MODELLING, creating a big picture of the learned object. Learning ends to APPLYING the learned to practice. The following presents the four learning phases and styles measured with the WOPI-Learning Style questionnaire.


The first phase in learning or the learner’s favored learning style is open-minded seeking of the new thing to be learned. This necessary precondition to all learning is a curious and receptive attitude toward the new thing. The learner becomes sensitized, identifies with, and becomes experientially involved in the object of learning. The learner allows the object of learning to influence him or herself and the emerging ideas and meanings enrich understanding and a general feel to the new thing. The prototype is an EXPLORER who doesn’t know what to find but is open to all new possibilities.

The seeking style of learning is useful when the goal is to capture an experiential feel and meaning of the new thing. The seeking learner uses direct experience and other experientially mediated learning materials. He or she is able to find new things but runs the risk of losing track "in foreign terrains”, in contrast to the deliberate and sharp-sighted observing learner.


The second phase in learning or the learner’s favored learning style is critical, analytical examination of the thing to be learned. Learning requires taking of distance and critically viewing the new thing for the purpose of comparing and relating it to all that has been learned previously. The freely received thing must be objectified, that is, related or translated into some common metric or standards. The learner strives to make sense of the features of the new thing and thereby gain control over it. The prototype of the observing learner is a LABORATORY ENGINEER who measures, weighs and evaluates the features of the object of learning.

Observing learning is useful when the goal is to make sense of, shed light on the facts and test its features. In addition to direct observation, the observing learner uses literary and numerical learning materials. He or she is able to disclose hard facts but the experiential or human aspects may remain unnoticed, in contrast to the seeking learner. Similarly, the big picture may be overlooked, in contrast to the modelling learner.


The third phase in learning or the learner’s favored learning style is modelling. However simple an object of learning, the openly received and critically observed thing must in some way be represented as a whole, a model, concept or “theory”. Modelling learning seeks to answer questions pertaining to the origin, context, structure or underlying "mechanics" of the object of learning. The prototype is a SCIENTIST who develops a theory or “blueprint” of the new thing.

Modelling style of learning is useful in tasks that require forming big pictures over things and understanding of complexity needed for example in planning and management. The modelling learner uses broad-based presentations and reviews over things. He or she is able to see the big picture, the forest by the trees but important details can become ignored, in contrast to the observing learner. Attention on the experiential aspects may also remain bleak, in contrast to the seeking learner.


The fourth and final phase in learning or the learner’s favored learning style is application to practice. In other words, the searched, observed and modelled object of learning must be tried out in practice. Applying summarizes the preceding phases and it is at the same time a particular learning style. Applying is important because trying something out in practice creates confidence and sense of control over the learned matter. The prototype is an APPRENTICE who learns the trade simply by doing it.

Learning by applying or by doing is useful in tasks that require quick implementation of learning to practice. But the flip side can be uncritical confidence in skill once learned. When the learner encounters situations very different from what has been previously learned, he or she can end up in a blind alley, in contrast to the modelling learner who is able to navigate the big picture. The person who learns predominantly by doing things benefits from practicing the preceding styles, seeking, observing and modelling.

Enhancing learning

All the four phases and styles of learning are equal in value and successful learning often requires using all four styles, in appropriate proportion to each learning situation. Different learning situations obviously call for different learning styles. The applying, doing style of learning is probably most beneficial in learning foreign languages. The observing style of learning is probably more effective for the student of software coding than the seeking style with its emphasis on experiential aspects.

People benefit from identifying and understanding their favored learning styles. However, the real development challenge concerns one’s less used learning styles. Their systematic rehearsal can improve learning even in a relatively short time frame.

Erikson, E.H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton & Co.
Senge, P.M. (1990). The Fifth discipline: The Art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.


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