People learn many different ways. That much is something that I will go all the way out on a limb and attest to. The growth of education as a field has mostly had to do with people setting aside the chauvinism of how and what people were to learn, and discovering the diversity of ways that people can learn. After that, it becomes a little murkier. According to wikipedia, in a rare moment of citelessness and weaseling, says that "Over 80 learning style models have been proposed, each consisting of at least two different styles.", and I think that 80 would be the far lower limit of proposed learning style models. In a way similar to the way that there seems to be a limitless supply of medical doctors writing diet books, cognitive psychologists and the like seem to invent new models of learning and/or personality all the time.

Much like diets, learning and personality tests do well when they state the obvious, and become more confusing when they try to work together theory and evidence on particulars. One of the largest problems for me on learning style assessments is the false dichotomy presented by many questions. I was taking the learning style inventory for the David Kolb system, which is one of the more venerable such tests, and I was told to rank various sentences, on most to less true about how I learn. It asked me to not think too much about the order in which my preferences go. I started answering, but couldn't decide which answers were most true for me, even though I had taken the test before. So I decided to think about an actual learning experience I had undertaken recently, and thought of how and what I learned on my hike up Zigzag Mountain, a mountain just to the west of Mount Hood. By the standards of the Cascades range, it is a small mountain, around a mile high, but it is still a large, wild mountain by the standards of many areas.

I had actually stayed up all night and left to climb the mountain at 5 AM in the morning before the summer ended. The trail to the mountain starts from 1500 feet up, so by the time I had even gotten close to the top of the mountain, I had climbed a few thousand feet of switchbacks and swerving trails, and was feeling exhausted and in pain, gulping down thinner air, when I saw, right in the path, what appeared to be the feces of a mountain lion.
"Oh shit", thought I. Or something like that, but I am throwing that in now because I like the joke.
So this is the situation that I applied to some of the questions on the test. For example:

I learn by:

  • feeling: Everything I did and learn after this point is very much in line with my feelings of not getting eaten by a mountain lion. It obviously underlies all my other thoughts. And, it might seem silly at the time, but when you are alone in a forest and haven't seen another person for hours, fear of a mountain lion is a very intense thing.
  • watching: I became, at this point very vigilant, again in a way that might seem paranoid to those not alone in the woods. I watched for obvious things (a crouching mountain lion, licking its lips) and the less obvious. (Hair, feces, dense underbrush that would be good for ambush. Small things become very important to watch at a time like that.
  • thinking: I went over a short list of what I knew about mountain lions and their predation habits. For example, unlike bears, which will shy away from people if they have an advance warning, mountain lions will often stalk people for purposes of predation, or curiosity. Also unlike bears, which are best to appear non-threatening towards, it is best to appear big and noisy. Mountain lions are also primarily ambush hunters, which means thickets are the most dangerous areas. It is also best to have some sort of weapon available, even if it is just to create an illusion of size and force. (These are examples of thoughts that I was having. The fact that these might not be the state of the art in mountain lion defense is possible, but not important).
  • doing: I quickly picked up a somewhat likely looking stick, and realized that while it wouldn't make much of a real weapon against a 200 pound mass of muscles, tooth and claw, that it could be used to make myself look bigger, as well as hitting bushes and the like, which would create a confusing sound and motion that would make me seem like an unfavorable target. Having a stick to thwack things with, and measuring my own reactions and abilities to make noise, helped me figure out my situation more.

Of course, not all interpretations of Kolb's idea are quite so dichotomizing. But it is true that most times, when people are in a learning experience-and all experiences are learning experiences-that they really do depend on all of these at once, and it is very hard to separate them. Even if there is not a large predator to be avoided, but instead just a batch of cookies to be made, people's brains and minds are active in observing, doing, and analyzing simultaneously, in a way that makes separating these things into separate categories not only impossible, but also meaningless.

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