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Helping Others to Learn About Complexity:

Learning Styles

The seed-sowing metaphor for learning suggests that the condition of the soil - the characteristics of the learner - is critically important. Learning is an emerging property of the CAS of our organizations. People are not machines into which we can load a new program and get new behaviors, nor are they soldiers who will blindly follow the orders we give them. People learn and adapt in different ways, at different speeds, for their own reasons, with unique results. In other words, people have a "style" when it comes to learning. Understanding the learning styles of our colleagues can help us create more effective environments for learning.

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The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in one very popular way to understand differences in style. Figure 4 provides an overview of this approach, which traces its roots back to the 1920s and the work of psychologist Carl Jung. Many people know their Myers-Briggs "type," and there are good instruments for determining types for the members of any learning community you might assemble. (Your human resources department can probably help you locate a good MBTI questionnaire.)

The preferred learning environments for introverts and extroverts, the first dimension of the MBTI, should be pretty obvious. Strong introverts will prefer inwardly directed thinking activities, while strong extroverts will love the opportunity to "think out loud" and "bounce ideas off others." The point is that regardless of your own personal preferences as the convener of the learning group, if you want others to learn about complexity you should work to create balanced learning environments that appeal to both introverts and extroverts.

Bates and Keirsey (1978) take the remaining three MBTI dimensions and distill them down into four "temperaments" that can provide some additional useful insight as we construct learning environments. Figure 5 summarizes the typical leadership, working, and learning styles for these four temperaments.

Our purpose in introducing these types here is not to pigeon-hole people. Rather, our purpose is to give you insight into the diversity of approaches that you should consider when creating a learning environment. Our purpose is to encourage diversity, not stereotyping.

To use MBTI to help create a good learning environment, you need first to know or estimate the types of the people in your learning community. If the group is small and will meet regularly, do this through explicit, open discussion. If people are unfamiliar with their MBTI type, use one of the many instruments available and spend some time in reflective discussion about the results. Ask individuals to talk about what makes a good learning experience for them and compare this to their type. The key points are to honor the diversity of styles, work together as a group to plan learning experiences that offer something for every style within the group, and encourage everyone to speak up if their learning needs are not being met.

Figure 5: Descriptions of the Four MBTI Temperaments

The SJ Sensing/Judging

  • Leadership style: Traditionalist, stabilizer, consolidator
  • Work style: Works from a sense of responsibility, loyalty, industry
  • Learning style: Learns in a step-by-step way for current and future use
  • Contributes: Timely output

The SP Sensing/Perceiving

  • Leadership style: Troubleshooter, negotiator, firefighter
  • Work style: Works via action with cleverness and timeliness
  • Learning style: Learns through active involvement to meet current needs
  • Contributes: Expeditious handling of out-of-ordinary and unexpected

The NF Intuition/Feeling

  • Leadership style: Catalyst, spokesperson, energizer
  • Work style: Works by interacting with people about values and inspirations
  • Learning style: Learns for self awareness in personal and imaginative ways
  • Contributes: Something personal or a special vision of possibilities

The NT Intuition/Thinking

  • Leadership style: Visionary, architect of systems, builder
  • Work style: Works on ideas with ingenuity and logic
  • Learning style: Learns by impersonal/analytical process for personal mastery
  • Contributes: Strategies and analyses

Another style framework, one focused specifically on learning, is the straightforwardly-named Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ). The LSQ is based on the work of educational psychologist David Kolb (circa 1970). Copies of the LSQ questionnaire, and an interpretation handbook, can be obtained from The HRD Quarterly, managed by Organizational Design and Development, Inc., 800-633-4533, order code 1205.

Figure 6 provides a brief description of the four learning styles: Activist, Reflector, Theorist, and Pragmatist. We all exhibit each of these types to some degree, but most people will have a tendency towards one or two predominant types in a given learning situation. You can either get copies of the LSQ instrument and complete it as a group, or simply have a good discussion, using figure 6 as a guide, to talk about how different group members approach learning about CAS. Many people report that their learning style depends somewhat on the topic they are learning about. So, it is important that you have the topic of CAS in mind as you assess learning styles according to the LSQ.

Figure 6: The Four Dimensions of the Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ)

Activists involve themselves fully and without bias in new experiences. They enjoy the here and now. They are open-minded, not skeptical, and this tends to make them enthusiastic about anything new. Their philosophy is: "I'll try anything once." They tend to thrive on the challenge of new experiences but are bored with implementation and longer term considerations.

Reflectors like to stand back to ponder experiences and observe them from different perspectives. They collect data, both first hand and from others, and prefer to think about it thoroughly, postponing definitive conclusions as long as possible. Their philosophy is to be cautious. They are thoughtful people. They enjoy observing other people in action. They listen to others and get the drift of the discussion before making their own points.

Theorists adapt and integrate observations into complex, but logically sound theories. They think problems through in a vertical, logical, step-by-step way. They tend to be perfectionists who will not rest until things are tidy and fit into a rational scheme. They like to analyze and synthesize. Questions they frequently ask are: "Does it make sense?" "How does this fit with that?" "What are the basic assumptions here?" They tend to be detached, analytical, and dedicated to rational objectivity, rather than anything subjective or ambiguous.

Pragmatists are interested in trying out ideas, theories, and techniques to see if they work in practice. They like to get on with things and act quickly and confidently on ideas that attract them. They are essentially practical, down-to-earth people who like making practical decisions and solving problems. Their philosophy is: "There is always a better way, and if it works, it is good."

Adapted from Honey, P and Mumford, A (1989) Learning Styles Questionnaire: Participants Guide. Available from Organization Design and Development, Inc. Order Code: 1205, tel: 800-633-4533.

Figure 7 provides thoughts about constructing learning environments that appeal to the four LSQ types. As before, the point of this chart is not to stereotype, but to encourage diversity in learning approaches. In other words, do not assume that the way you learned about complexity (be it through reading, through discussion in groups, by understanding the science, or by hearing how other people applied it) is necessarily the way everyone else should learn about complexity.

Figure 7: Constructing Learning Environments for the Four LSQ Types


Learn best from activities where they are:

  • engaged in new experiences, problems, and opportunities from which to learn.
  • engrossed in short, here-and-now activities like a role play or game.
  • seeing excitement, drama, and challenge; things change; there are many activities.
  • getting some limelight and visibility (they chair the meeting, give a presentation).
  • thrown into the deep end with a task that they think is difficult.
  • involved with others, bouncing ideas around and problem solving in teams.

Learn least, and may react against, activities where they are:

  • involved in a passive role like reading, watching, or listening to lectures.
  • asked to stand back and not get involved.
  • required to assimilate, analyze, and interpret lots of "messy" data.
  • asked to engage in solitary work.
  • offered statements they see as too theoretical.
  • asked to repeat essentially the same activity over and over.
  • asked to do a thorough job, dot all i's and cross all t's.

Key questions for them as learners:

  • Will I learn about something really new to me?
  • Will there be a wide variety of activities or will I have to just sit a listen?
  • Will it be OK to get involved, let my hair down, make mistakes?
  • Will I encounter some tough problems and challenges?
  • Will there be other like-minded people with whom to mix?


Learn best from activities where they are:

  • allowed and encouraged to watch, think, chew over activities.
  • able to stand back from events and observe a group at work or watch a video.
  • allowed time to think before acting; assimilate before commenting.
  • carrying out painstaking research and investigation.
  • provided an environment where they can exchange views with others without danger.
  • can reach a decision on their own without pressure and tight deadlines.

Learn least, and may react against, activities where they are:

  • forced into the limelight (to chair the meeting, role play in front of others).
  • involved in activities that require action without planning.
  • given cut and dried instructions on how things should be done.
  • worried by time pressures or rushed from one activity to another.

Key questions for them as learners:

  • Will I be given adequate time to consider, assimilate, and prepare?
  • Will there be opportunities for me to assemble information for myself?
  • Will there be opportunity to listen to many points of view so I can decide for myself?
  • Will I be under pressure to decide on something too quickly or to extemporize?


Learn best from activities where they are:

  • offered part of a system, model, concept or theory and challenged to find the rest.
  • given time to explore methodically the associations among ideas and concepts.
  • given time to question and probe (a Q&A session, or looking for inconsistencies).
  • intellectually stretched.
  • listening to or reading about ideas that are presented in a rational, elegant way.
  • offered interesting ideas and concepts; immediate relevance is less important.

Learn least, and may react against, activities where they are:

  • pushed into doing something without context or apparent purpose.
  • asked to participate in activities that emphasize emotion or feelings.
  • given a hodgepodge of techniques with shallow explanations as in an overview course.
  • doubtful that the subject matter is methodologically sound.
  • out-of-tune with other participants (with Activists or people of low intellectual caliber).

Key questions for them as learners:

  • Will there be plenty of opportunity to question?
  • Do the objectives of the activity indicate a clear structure and purpose?
  • Will I encounter complex ideas that will stretch me intellectually?
  • Is the subject matter "respectable;" sound and valid?
  • Will I be with people of similar intellectual caliber as myself?


Learn best from activities where they are:

  • seeing obvious links between subject matter and problems on the job.
  • shown techniques with obvious practical advantages (helps them get something done).
  • given the chance to try something out with feedback from a credible expert.
  • exposed to a role model they can emulate (through a case study, video, peer, etc.)
  • given immediate opportunities to implement what they have learned.
  • directed to concentrate on practical matters (such as drawing up a list of next steps).

Learn least, and may react against, activities where they are:

  • involved in learning that they do not see as immediately relevant.
  • interacting with people they feel are distant from reality; "ivory-tower" people.
  • not given opportunity to practice, nor clear guidelines on how to proceed.
  • faced with political, managerial, or personal obstacles that prevent action.

Key questions for them as learners:

  • Will there be plenty of opportunity to practice and experiment?
  • Will there be lots of practical tips and techniques?
  • Will we be addressing real problems and making real action plans?
  • Will I be exposed to experts who know how to do it themselves?

Adapted from Honey, P and Mumford, A (1989) Learning Styles Questionnaire: Leaders' Guide. Available from Organization Design and Development, Inc. Order Code 1205, tel: 800-633-4533.

Use figure 7 for reflection both before and after learning activities.
Key questions for reflection are:

  • Have we provided something for everyone in the group?
  • What will (did) individual members like most and least about the learning experience? Have we interleaved these items such that no one has to go through too long a time of discomfort before they are engaged in some activity that appeals to them?
  • Are the individual likes and dislikes expressed after the activity consistent with the learning style preferences of the group members?
  • Are we developing more "style flexibility;" are we each taking personal steps to become more comfortable in learning in new ways and are we each honoring the preferred ways of others in the group?

There are many other learning style frameworks and each provides insight into the individuality of adults when it comes to learning something new. Regardless of the framework you choose, the key points to keep in mind are:

  • In a CAS, emergent learning comes through things like information flow, diversity, connectedness, generative relations, and so on; not through the direction of a central, knowledgeable individual.
  • Do not think that the way you learned about complexity is necessarily the best way for everyone else to learn about it.
  • People are unique individuals; frameworks often help us understand this uniqueness, but when frameworks become labels and stereotypes, they do harm.

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Copyright 2001, Paul E. Plsek & Associates,
Permission to copy for educational purposes only.
All other rights reserved.