Learning to Learn

"Once neighbour began meeting neighbour, they learned that many answers to their questions were available right there in Ozone. They didn't need experts. They just needed to start talking to each other (Adams 1975)."

Why bother?

The fact that you are reading this guide shows that you are already pretty good at learning. You have obviously learned to read. During your life you have learnt all manner of things, including expertise in a particular field which brings you to this course.

But did you ever learn how to learn? Did you need to? If not, why should you bother now? And what exactly do we mean by Learning to Learn anyway?

Traditionally, many educators have considered learning to be an individual responsibility, with students accepting the burden of acquiring knowledge and expertise . Recently, the notion of collaborative learning has been strengthened, from a number of sources. These include through communicating with other students and tutors across a network in the domain of distance learning. Digital communications networks such as the Internet (Vetter 1995; Macedonia 1994), or the use of E-mail facilities, have become the new medium in which group learning is anticipated to take place, and many large businesses have already built internal group learning systems using Internet (Andersson 1997).

In his book Helping Adults to Learn to Learn, Robert M. Smith describes it as ''...possessing or acquiring the knowledge and skill to learn effectively in whatever learning situation one encounters''.

What do we mean by learning?

You probably know exactly what is meant by learning. It is, nevertheless, still worth defining it in the present context.

Surprisingly little is known about how people actually learn, though there are a number of theories; so it is perhaps easiest to define learning ''after the event'' by asking how you know whether or not learning has, in fact, taken place.

You know that learning has taken place, when you know something which you did not know before and can show it and/or you are able to do something which you were not able to do before.

You will notice that in both cases you are required to offer proof. Thinking that you know something or can do something is not enough; you must be able to show that you know it or are able to do it.

In the same way, it is not sufficient to know the theory; you have to be able to prove that you know it by your actions. This ties in directly with Action Learning, where you are required to apply theory and concept to real situations.

The Learning Cycle

There are several schools of thought and theoretical models of how people learn. One of the most useful for adult learning has proved to be that initially developed by David Kolb. In it learning is presented as a cycle.

Peter Honey and Alan Mumford subsequently adapted Kolb's original cycle to:

and, expressed in this way, you can see very clearly how this also ties in with the sequence employed in Action Learning.

Although, hypothetically, a learner would consciously move through every stage in the cycle in every learning situation, practical experience and research show that not all learners are equally at home at all stages of the cycle. Many show marked preferences for one or more of the stages and sometimes positive dislike of one of the others. And there is no evidence to show that such preferences make them better or worse than one another.

Honey and Mumford have identified four different preferences, or ways in which people prefer to learn, each related to a different stage of the learning cycle. These preferred ''learning styles'' they call Activist, Reflector, Theorist and Pragmatist.

Some people are happiest operating in just one mode, others in two or even three. Perhaps not surprisingly, people's learning style tends to reflect their work style... or vice versa.

Preferred styles of learning


Activists involve themselves fully and without bias in new experiences. They enjoy the here and now and are happy to be dominated by immediate experiences. They are open-ended not sceptical and this tends to make them enthusiastic about anything new. Their philosophy is ''I will try anything once''. Their days are filled with activity. They tackle problems by brainstorming. As soon as the excitement from one activity has died down, they are busy looking for the next. They tend to thrive on the challenge of new experiences but are bored with implementation and longer-term consolidation. They are gregarious people, constantly involving themselves with others but, in doing so, they seek to make themselves the centre of all activities.

Activists learn best from novel experiences, from being encouraged to ''have a go'' and from being thrown into things. They enjoy relatively short ''here and now'' learning activities like business games and competitive team exercises.

Activists learn least well from passive situations like reading, watching or listening to lectures, particularly those on concept or theory. They do not enjoy solitary work, repetitive tasks, situations which require detailed preparation, or being asked to review their learning opportunities and achievements.


Reflectors like to stand back to ponder experiences and observe them from many different perspectives. They collect data, both first-hand and from others, and prefer to analyse them thoroughly and think about them from every possible angle before coming to any definite conclusions. These they postpone as long as possible. Their philosophy is to be cautious. They enjoy watching other people in action and prefer to take a back seat in meetings and discussions. They think before they speak. They tend to adopt a low profile and have a slightly distant, tolerant, unruffled air about them. When they act, it is part of a wide picture, which includes the past as well as the present and others' observations as well as their own.

Reflectors learn best from activities where they are able to stand back, listen and observe. They like to have a chance to collect information and be given time to think about it before commenting or acting. They like to review what has happened.

Reflectors learn least well when they are rushed into things with insufficient data or without time to plan, when they are forced into the limelight by being required to role-play or chair a meeting, or when asked to take short-cuts or do a superficial job.


Theorists like to analyse and synthesise. They assimilate and convert disparate facts and observations into coherent, logical theories. Their philosophy prizes rationality and logic above all. They think problems through in a vertical, step-by-step, logical way. They tend to be perfectionists who will not rest easy until things are tidy and fit into a rational scheme. They are keen on basic assumptions, principles, theories, models and systems thinking. They tend to be detached, analytical and dedicated to rational objectivity. They feel uncomfortable with subjective judgements, ambiguity, lateral thinking and anything flippant.

Theorists learn best when they are offered a system, model, concept or theory, even when the application is not clear and the ideas may be distant from current reality. They like to work in structured situations with a clear purpose, and be allowed to explore associations and interrelationships, to question assumptions and logic and to analyse reasons and generalise. They like to be intellectually stretched.

Theorists learn least well when asked to do something without apparent purpose, when activities are unstructured and ambiguous and when emotion is emphasised. They do not learn well when faced with activities lacking depth, when data to support the subject are unavailable, and when they feel ''out of tune'' with the rest of the group.


Pragmatists are keen on trying out ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work in practice. They positively search out new ideas and take the first opportunity to experiment with applications. They are the sort of people who return from management courses bursting with new ideas which they want to try out in practice. They like to get on with things, and act quickly and confidently on ideas which attract them. They tend to be impatient with ruminating and open-ended discussions. They are essentially practical, down-to-earth people, who like making practical decisions and solving problems. They respond to problems and opportunities ''as a challenge''. Their philosophy is ''There is always a better way'' and ''If it works, it is good''.

Pragmatists learn best when there is an obvious link between the subject-meatter and their current job. They like being exposed to techniques or processes which are clearly practical, have immediate relevance and which they are likely to have the opportunity to implement.

Pragmatists learn least well where there are no immediate benefits or rewards from the activity and the learning events or their organisers seem distant from reality.

As a learner, you should know your areas of strength and weakness, you are in a much better position to choose learning experiences and opportunities which suit you, or to develop your weaker styles in order to be able to extend the range of experiences from which you are able to learn.

Other Factors influencing learning

Matching your learning style(s) to the available learning opportunities or alternatively seeking out learning opportunities which complement your learning style(s) is by no means the only way to successful learning.

Many other factors influence people's ability to learn. Two categories which are worth mentioning here, if only in outline, are individual blockages to learning and the skills required for effective learning to take place.

Blockages to learning

Individuals sometimes find that their ability to learn is blocked for one or more reasons. The following list is based on the work of Temporal and Boydel. It includes some factors which we have already considered. The rest speak for themselves.



Not seeing that there is a problem



The way things are here...



Fear or insecurity



Unwillingness to take risks



Previous learning experience



Limited learning style, Poor learning skills



Poor communication skills



Lack of opportunities



Place, time



Boss / colleague unsupportive environment

Skills involved in effective learning behaviour

Alan Mumford has devised the following list of skills which he believes to be involved in learning effectively:

The ability to establish effectiveness criteria for yourself.
The ability to measure your effectiveness.
The ability to identify your own learning needs.
The ability to plan personal learning.
The ability to take advantage of learning opportunities.
The ability to manage your own learning processes.
The ability to listen to others.
The capacity to accept help.
The ability to face unwelcome information.
The ability to take risks and tolerate anxiety.
The ability to analyse what other successful performers do.
The ability to know yourself.
The ability to share information with others.
The ability to review what has been learnt.


Adams, F. (1975) Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander, Winston-Salem, NC: John F Blair, Publisher.

Anderrson, T. (1997) 'Using WWW within a world wide company to create a Learning Organisation', Available at: http://tecfa.unige.ch/edu-ws94/contrib/andersson.html [1997, August 27].