Introduction to the Concept of Learning, Learning Styles and Strategies
“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” (Aristotle, 1999); this quote reflects the importance of taking action when it comes to learning. When exposed to the world in our daily lives, we go through different experiences that we incorporate into our minds and, consequently, into our lives. Having said this, such meaningful experiences lead us to learn and to develop as human beings in order to connect with the world that surrounds us. At the same time, our learning experiences depend on important aspects of a person such as background, circumstances, and objectives.
Figure 1: Illustration that represents the process of learning from the world
Throughout history, the emergence of different ways to analyze the learning experience has enriched and merged fields such as psychology, philosophy, and education. In other words, different points of view about learning have arisen to contribute to the building of particular theories about this phenomenon. When talking about learning, it is important to highlight that it is a process; this is, however, still a very simplistic statement, since the concept of learning includes more than a mere series of steps. One of the theories that gained relevance in this subject is one introduced by Robert Gagné, a psychologist who specialized in education. His theory of learning with its styles and strategies was built with a view to understand how human beings perceive, receive, and store information. Douglas Brown is a professor emeritus of English as a Second Language and a linguist who carried out research and wrote books about learning languages. In his work, Brown states, "While we all exhibit inherently human traits of learning, every individual approaches a problem or learns a set of facts or organizes a combination of feelings from a unique perspective” (2000). Whereas style refers to preferences within the individual, strategies are specific methods used in dealing with the world, and such would be shaped according to the learning style of the individual. Hence, individuals would approach tasks, situations, or problems with the most suitable methods (strategy) according to their preferences (style). This process takes place in an infinite variety of ways in learners because humans have their own unique learning styles and series of strategies to interact with the world.
Figure 2: Representation of the areas of the brain
As aforementioned, the process of learning differs according to the cognitive variation of the individuals and their backgrounds. In simple terms, people learn in different ways. Some learn best through reading texts and articles (cognitive), and others, instead, recall information better when they hear it (auditory). Such variety is reflected in the development of teaching methods and approaches used with these learners’ differences. In the context of learning a language, for example, the American English Teaching Forum (2016) proposed a model called “Multi-Level Classes”. According to the designers of this lesson plan, "having students from multiple levels in the same course[...] makes planning for and meeting the needs of individual students quite difficult” (AE, 2016). For this reason, the AE (American English U.S. Department of State) has come up with the idea of different learning stations where various types of activities are carried out by students. These learning stations focus on particular learning preferences. The lesson might show stations where students are expected to read books or other formats of texts while other sectors play recordings of dialogues for listening.
Like Brown, Peter Skehan is a writer and a professor who carried out research on language learning. He defines learning style as "a general predisposition, voluntary or not, toward processing information in a particular way” (Skehan, 1991). Having said this, individuals have unique ways of incorporating and storing information within their minds. This concept entails a variety of learning styles, which were drafted and defined by several academics in the last decades. There seem to be no boundaries regarding the number of styles, but the most relevant ones are related to the learning surroundings and the sides of the brain. Firstly, a student’s influence is likely to depend on the context they are given. For this reason, there is a difference between field dependent and field independent learners. While certain students are able to perceive an item in a picture full of distractions (field dependence), others observe the whole image and overlook the details (field independence). In their book about learning styles, Ronald and Serbrenia Sims (2006) offer the next definition:
On the one hand, field dependent learners depend on cues and structure from their environment and then make the learning process contingent on their experience in that environment. Field dependent learners tend to have short attention spans, are easily distracted and prefer casual learning environments.
Secondly, learning experiences can also depend on the dominance of a particular brain hemisphere. Left-brain-functioning students tend to be analytical and methodical, while right-brain-functioning learners show a creative and artistic side:
The left hemisphere is associated with logical, analytical thought, with mathematical and linear processing of information. The right hemisphere perceives and remembers visual, tactile, and auditory images; it is more efficient in processing holistic, integrative and emotional information.
These learning styles have their strengths and weaknesses as well as a particular way of approaching content. Humans may have a special inclination towards a particular style but, despite the categorization of styles, different contexts also invoke a response to different styles in a person. Whereas learning styles are general characteristics that establish differences among individuals, strategies are specific methods to deal with a wide scope of different situations. We can discover the world according to our learning style. However, we approach a particular situation or problem by using a specific strategy. In terms of learning a language, there are two types: learning and communication strategies. On the one hand, learning strategies refer to input and help the learner decode and interpret the message they receive. On the other hand, communication strategies are related to output, or, in other words, the production of a message. Both types have different techniques and strategies that can be suitable depending on the context and respective learning style of the learner.
Historically, different methods and approaches have emerged throughout the decades, and contributions to science and education have helped us understand the scope of differences among human beings in terms of learning. Thus, language teachers started to approach content differently, providing students with a more effective, enriching, and meaningful learning experience. Nowadays, students have more chances to become aware of their learning preferences as well as the most suitable strategies in class or in the outside world. For this reason, there are different teaching methods and approaches that focus on particular learning tendencies. This can be illustrated by the Audiolingual Method. Despite being one of the first teaching methods, it consists of activities for students with preferences related to listening to sounds, dialogues and monologues in order to learn a language. Apart from teaching methods, there are strategies that might be useful for students such as charts, journals and graphics. More research and development in learning theory paved the way for contributions to benefit teachers and students.
To conclude, learning entails a process which cannot be reduced to a series of stages because we interact with the world in many different ways due to our unique characteristics. In this way, people have different experiences and incorporate what they learn into their minds through their own learning styles. Awareness of this cognitive phenomenon is advantageous for experts in different fields, as their contributions give space for developing the theory of learning. Gagné's view on learning was the result of the work of previous thinkers and it not only benefited teachers but also students. Modern methods and approaches are carried out in schools and in the long run, brand-new ones will originate and take place in class as well. When it comes to learning a language, awareness is of paramount importance in order to use the proper strategies to accomplish success in class and communicate with the outside world. Fortunately, there are plenty of styles and strategies to learn, and their discovery is the key to learning.
American English. (2016). Multi-Level Classes Part One: Differentiating Instruction with Learning Stations. Retrieved from https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/multi-level_tc_-_part_1.pdf
Aristotle. (1999). Nicomachean Ethics. Batoche Books.
Brown, H. D. (2000). Principles of Language Learning and Teaching. Longman.
Sims, R., & Sims, S. (2006). The Field Dependence/Field Independence Learning Styles. In Learning Styles and Learning: A key to a meeting the Accountability Demands in Education (page. 239). New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
Skehan, P. (1989). Individual Differences in Second Language Learning. London: Edward Arnold.
Figure 1: Illustration that represents the process of learning from the world. [Digital Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/samanthaharrington/2016/11/29/how-to-learn-from-people-around-you-even-if-they-have-different-views/?sh=7dbe2d244e01
Figure 2: Representation of the areas of the brain. [Digital Illustration]. Retrieved from: http://nittygriddy.com/2011/07/19/powerful-life-lessons-14-things-i-want-you-to-learn-from-me-or-at-least-consider/ Figure 3: Example of Multi-Level Class chart plan. Medium.com. [Digital Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/teacher-voice/station-rotation-lab-rotation-blended-learning-models-a7813ad6fed8 Figure 4: Example of pictures from the point of view of field-dependent and field-independent learners. Keele.ac.uk. [Drawing]. Retrieved from: http://www.keele.ac.uk/depts/aa/landt/lt/docs/LearningStyles.htm Figure 5: Artwork representing the brain hemispheres. Protocoloimep.com. [Digital Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.protocoloimep.com/articulos/neuromarketing-el-cerebro-y-las-emociones/