Find your best way of learning

As human beings we have so much in common, but we should not let that distract us from the fact that we are also very different from one another in various ways. One of those ways in which people differ is in terms of how best we learn. What works well for you may not work for me, while what works for me may likewise not work for you.

This is partly because there are different types of intelligence – practical intelligence, mathematical intelligence, artistic intelligence and so on. Someone who is very capable in one type of activity may struggle in another type of activity because of the different types of intelligence involved.

But, there are other factors involved too, not least our experiences of education and learning to date. These can be positive or negative or, indeed, a mixture of the two. For example, the way I was taught physics at school put me off the subject in a major way, and it is only in later life (via developing an interest in astronomy) that I have come to enjoy physics and to find it fascinating. In addition, as an educator I have come across countless people who struggled at school, but who have really taken to adult learning because of the different teaching styles and expectations involved.

There are also different modes of learning to take into consideration. For example, many people – myself included – learn best from reading, while others may get relatively little out of reading. They may get more out of watching a video or webinar, for example. Others may find it most helpful to be engaged in discussion so that they can weigh up their view against other people’s. For yet others, trial and error may be the richest seam of learning for them to mine. Of course, much will depend on the context and subject matter – trial and error learning is probably not the wisest approach to becoming a bomb disposal expert.

What is particularly important about the idea of different modes of learning is that many people can lose confidence by trying a mode that does not suit them. For example, I have come across a great number of people who have struggled to understand a written text (and have therefore falsely concluded that they are not very bright), but who have shown some really intelligent insights when discussing the issues covered in that text – the discussion helped them identify and develop the key points in ways that had not worked for them simply by reading the text. Similarly, I have had numerous examples of feedback about my own writings where people have told me that my use of examples had brought the issues to life for them and to really understand what was involved. So, it is very important that we do not assume (or allow others to assume) that struggling with one aspect of learning is a sign of a lack of intelligence or capability. That is a very unfair and disempowering assumption to make.

What also matters is who is in charge of the learning, who is in the driving seat. Most formal approaches to learning (school, college, university and so on) are based on the traditional model of decisions about what to learn and how to learn it being made by people other than the learner – by teachers, tutors, trainers and so on. What I have found from my extensive experience over more than thirty years of helping people learn is that self-directed learning is what works best – where you take charge of your own learning by deciding for yourself (with guidance and support from others as appropriate) for what you are going to learn and how you are going to learn it. In that way, you can work out what your best way of learning is and focus all your efforts there for best results.