Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Learning and knowledge, a never-ending challenge

February 17, 2011 4 comments

I’ve been thinking about ‘knowledge’ a bit recently. My interest in this topic was piqued by someone posing the question ‘how do students decide what is and isn’t relevant for them to know?’

For example, in the social sciences and humanities, while there will be a ‘core’ of material that we expect students to have some mastery of, there’s also a mass of material that might be more or less interesting or relevant, depending on students’ own interests, backgrounds, self-identities, ambitions, aspirations, and so on. In a lecture or seminar situation, incidental stuff may also affect learning – the personality of the lecturer, the use of particular diagrams, Powerpoint vs whiteboard, other students, etc. In a distance learning situation incidental stuff will also be important and probably less controllable – the demands of family, work, everyday routines such as commuting and supermarket shopping and cooking, and so forth.

And for me, there are the more philosophical questions to address here as well – what is ‘knowledge’? can we distinguish ‘knowledge’ from ‘opinion’ or ‘judgement’? how is it possible to make choices about what might or might not be ‘relevant’ knowledge (and to what) in advance of actually knowing the stuff?

I can’t offer good, definitive answers in a short(ish) blog. But here are some thoughts.

Two kinds of knowledge?

First, there’s a very interesting piece in the Huffington Post, by Stephen Downes: ‘Two Kinds of Knowledge‘ (Nov 18, 2010). Headline details: if you want people to follow rules, focus on ‘repetition of the symbols and codes that constitute explicit knowledge’; but if you want people to learn, it’s necessary to have them understand a wider range of concepts, skills, procedures, and things that underlie, generate, or enable people to use the knowledge they acquire. Think of it in the context of, say, learning another language. It’s not just a case of getting students to learn phrases by rote, it’s a case of getting them to a point where they can hold a conversation.

In doing this, teachers basically produce artefacts. Exhibits. They might be tables, diagrams, charts, bullet point lists, photos. In medical school, maybe things like bodies for dissection. In architecture or surveying or building, bits of buildings. I used to know someone who taught surveying: in one of his classes he brought in a load of bricks of different styles and periods to pass around and explain their different properties.

The world, however, is more full of artefacts than any classroom can be. And people will respond to artefacts, in or out of the classroom or lecture theatre, with differing levels of interest depending on a huge range of factors. Downes argues that as teachers we need to be aware of this and be aware that students are learning from everything around them, not just the things we exhibit. How we do that, exactly, remains an open question.

More kinds of knowledge?

You’ll note that Downes relies on a simple distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge. This can be a useful distinction but it’s hardly an absolute one.

‘Explicit’ means shareable in some form – words, equations, formulae, manuals, recipes or whatever. It also tends to mean that things ‘mean what they say’ and ‘what you see is what you get’. You may need some prior specialist knowledge to decode the information (being able to read French to read a manual in French, for example, or understanding that an arrangement of black and white squares is a QR code and having the means to read it). ‘Tacit’ knowledge is not so easiy visible or capable of being articulated. It may be a personal insight, the intuitive ‘how to’ knowledge of a musician or a craftsman, the ‘coding’ of a particular world-view in a painting, or even how one can walk into a bar and read the mood of the people there.

We all rely on some level of tacit knowledge, in pretty much any situation. Often the business of learning a skill set, as in an apprenticeship or an internship, involves not just learning the explicit material but being exposed to situations where one can ‘absorb’ relevant tacit knowledge in a relatively unstructured way through a series of informal social interactions.

By way of an example, many years ago I was interviewing some police officers in a police station canteen when news came over the TV in the corner of the room about a police operation that had resulted in an apparently innocent man being shot. The details were sketchy, but their reactions to this headline and their speedy construction of a scenario of what ‘must have happened’, relying on their own tacit knowledge of police procedures and ‘working culture’, revealed more relevant material about the (very different) topic I was actually researching than any of my interview questions did.

Is there knowledge that is neither explicit nor tacit? There’s certainly plenty of knowledge that’s only ‘explicit’ if you’ve had several years of the relevant training. There’s some permeability of the boundary – a lot of psychology and some sociology is about exploring how people construct, negotiate, interpret and use tacit knowledge, and those explorations are about creating an explicit, formal or formulaic knowledge of ‘tacit knowledge’ in particular situations.

That said, there may be some advantages in recognising the broad distinction and also the complexity of real life  – where one might have layers of knowledge, such as explicit sociological knowledge of the tacit knowledge that actors in a particular situation use in order to manipulate what is conventionally described as the explicit knowledge applied in that situation. This might be true when looking at psychological/sociological analyses of scientific research, medical decision-making, or the strategies of prosecution and defence in a court case. I’m thinking here – certainly in sociology – of the kinds of areas investigated in symbolic interaction and ethnomethdology.

So in summary, the idea of explicit vs tacit knowledge itself requires some tacit knowledge for one to be able to use it properly… but then recursive and self-referential properties do tend to be normal and natural when we start looking at this stuff seriously. Conclusion, for teachers and learners? Just be aware that whatever you’re teaching or learning will have this recursive element to it. You can never say everything you want to say in so many words. It’s the stuff that’s left unsaid that may be the most interesting, and/or the most problematic.

I could go on and describe three or four other categorisations of knowledge, but there’s not a lot of point because they have the same rather ambivalent and vague characteristics.

Three types of knowledge?

There’s another categorisation of knowledge that I’ve found useful, and maybe it’s a good one to end with. It’s simple, slightly humorous, but with a very real and important point to it.

The three fundamental catagories of information are: (1) the shit you know, (2) the shit you know you don’t know, and (3) the shit you don’t know you don’t know. In any given situation you can assume you know about 5% of what’s potentially relevant. The stuff you know you don’t know, and think it would be a good idea to get a handle on, is probably 10% of what’s relevant. And that means about 85% of what’s potentially relevant to a situation is stuff you don’t even know exists. (Are those percentages accurate? I don’t know. Do they look about right to you? Treat them as symbolic rather than real!)

The only way to handle this situation is to (1) be open about the fact that you’re never going to know as much as you should (2) work diligently to get a handle on the stuff you know you don’t yet know, and (3) remain open, all eyes and ears, all communication channels open, to see if you can detect the stuff you never even dreamed could be important – then at least you’re going to have a list of more stuff you’ll need to find out about. It will be an ever growing list. A life’s work, or more. But maybe that’s what learning is.


Effective study techniques

December 5, 2010 2 comments

Acronyms for effective learning

This post is about effective learning. How can you learn stuff more effectively?

I’ve never been keen on acronyms and jargon-based abbreviations. Maybe I just don’t remember them very well. Maybe a lot of them just wrap up the latest management technique in some flash nonense word. But here are some acronyms I do remember, because they’re about how to learn effectively.

Effective learning is learning that involves, and supports, critical thinking: questioning evidence, assessing its strength, comparing and contrasting arguments to identify strengths and weaknesses, etc. The methods below are intended to help you think critically. If you’re read my previous post about learning styles, bear in mind that the strategies below will work with all learning styles and most kinds of material.

The strategies were developed for studying written material but should work with anything – if you’re looking at a DVD or PowerPoint presentation, remember DVDs usually have chapters in the menu (and if not, use the fast-forward button) while PowerPoint enables you to scroll through, scroll back, look at all the pages on one screen, etc. to get a sense of the material as a whole.


PQ4R summarises the steps people typically take in learning effectively. It comes from Thomas and Robinson (1972). It stands for:

  • Preview – with any learning materials, start with the highest-level headings and any text that is emphasised – e.g. bullet points or bold text. These should give you an idea of structure and key topics or concepts. They might be chapter headings, introductory material, lists of key points, executive summaries, etc. People who start this way understand the structure and organisation of what they’re reading and tend to have better recall of it later.
  • Question – the preview will (or should) raise questions in your mind. These might be technical (‘how did they define this concept?’ or ‘what is the difference between a Type 212 valve and a Type 312 valve?’), or more general (‘how do EU fishing policies affect the price of fish?’). Or maybe you’re reading something because you already have questions in your mind. A random example of a question might be this: a book on my desk has a section headed ‘Rough sleepers and the hidden homeless’. What do these terms mean? Do ‘rough sleepers’ and the ‘hidden homeless’ between them include all types of homelesness? You get the idea. In general terms, reading with questions in mind is claimed to roughly double the amount of material you will be able to recall after reading a report, book or other text. Useful questions tend to be ones that ask who, what, why, how, where.
  • Read – when you read,  look for answers to your questions. Also make notes of anything you regard as key points, concepts, phrases, quotes etc. Writing notes improves the amount of information you retain. More notes does not equal better notes – try to capture what you see as the essential details in as clear a way as possible.
  • Reflect – spend time thinking about the material. Does it relate to other knowledge you have? Transform the way you think about a topic? Can you use the information in a practical way?
  • Recite – try to put key points and arguments in your own words. Writing about what you’ve read, or discussing it with others, will make you do that.
  • Review – this is a form of self-testing. Invent questions and try to answer them. Have other people ask you questions about the topic you’ve been reading about and see if you can remember points that answer their questions.


Thomas, E. L. and Robinson, H. A. (1972) Improving Reading in Every Class: A sourcebook for teachers.  Boston: Allyn & Bacon

More info:

Susan Bovair at Mindspring


You can think of SQ3R as the forerunner to PQ4R. It was developed in 1946 by Francis Pleasant Robinson and based on earlier, 1930s, research on school students. His book, Effective Study, went through four editions of which the last was in 1970.

The difference between PQ4R and SQ3R is that while the four Rs in the former are ‘read, reflect, recite, review’, there were only three Rs in SQ3R – ‘read, recite, review’, though the ‘recite’ stage arguably covers more ground.

  • Survey (or Skim) – look at major topics and structure of the material through headings, sub-headings and any other outstanding features in the text. The same as ‘Preview’ in PQ4R.
  • Question – this is a little more content-focused than PQ4R since the questions Robinson suggests are along the lines of ‘What is chapter X about?’ and ‘What question does this chapter answer?’, though he also mentions questions that relate the material to your personal experience – e.g. ‘How can this material help me?’ Again, this stage includes the technique of turning headings and other emphasised material into questions as discussed above with PQ4R.
  • Read – reading is done only once you have acquainted yourself with the major topics and organisation of the material and identified questions (S and Q above).
  • Recite (also wRite and/or Recall) – identify answers to the questions raised in the Q step above. Again, note-taking and discussion is important to aid recall.
  • Review – self-test in relation to the questions and notes from earlier stages. Recalling key phrases and revising any that have been forgotten is highly recommended.


Robinson, F. P. (1970). Effective Study (4th edition). New York: Harper & Row.


Perhaps the easiest acronym to remember, because the letters are sequential in the alphabet, this method varies slightly from the others in that it is designed to be used as a revision aid when the material studied will be examined in a test. If the test concerns a number of large topics – which would be the case in, say, criminology where many exams address quite large and wide-ranging topics or policy issues – you may need to repeat the sequence over several times, once for each of the topic areas.

  • Preview – look at the selected topic; the major heads and subheads in your materials, bullet point lists, etc.
  • Question – identify the ‘key’ question areas, debates and issues within the topic. Develop questions based on these.
  • Read – read through reference materials, study guides, your notes etc. on the topic and identify what information best relates to each question you have chosen.
  • Summary – summarize the available information. Preferably this is done through developing your own summary methods. These might be bullet point lists, perhaps using a mnemonic that aids memory; for example functionalist approaches in sociology can often be reduced to GAIL – Goal setting, Adaptation, Integration, Latency). Equally importantly information can be summarised in diagrams (spider, flowchart, matrix, pyramid, Venn…). Some sources suggest saying the summaries out loud, maybe to another person. Some people find audio helpful, e.g. recording summaries for later playback.
  • Test – answer the questions from the question step above as fully as possible, perhaps in the form of a self-set mock exam that can be reviewed later. This can also help avoid diversions, irrelevant material, inadvertent changes of subject, ‘blind alleys’ etc.


This is a simple table that enables you to identify where you are and what next steps you need to take in learning. It is often useful for brainstorming in small groups, or to address specific problems. It is also useful when starting a new reading, usually at the point that you have completed the P stage of PQ4R or the S stage of SQ3R, when it becomes an aid to developing questions in the Q stage of either model. It was first developed by Donna Ogle (1986).

  • Know – what do you know? Just list keywords, tags, topic areas, questions that have been answered. This is intended to cerate some engagement with the topic and develop ideas about how the new material might be relevant to prior learning, motivations etc.
  • What (or Want) – what do you want to know? Based on the K part of the cycle, what are the next steps to tackle? This set of points is essentially an agenda for what questions to tackle next.
  • Learned – what have you learned? Complete this step to summarise what you found out from working through the questions in the W stage.

Teachers, trainers and tutors can use this model to drive how they tackle each stage of a training course or educational programme and modify their approach to address questions students want to cover.


Ogle, D.M. (1986). K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570


An abbreviation you might see in your notes – often with a question mark or exclamation mark after it – against material you haven’t understood. Following the PQ4R, SQ3R, PQRST or KWL strategies will minimise the likelihood of you writing WTF in your notes!

More info on all strategies discussed is at the Study Guides and Strategies website.

Learning styles – what works best for you?

December 3, 2010 Leave a comment
Learning style header image

What's your learning style?

I’ve noticed people coming to this blog through searches about learning styles, so I thought it would be worth writing specifically about them.

The comments below can be applied to situations as diverse as planning a new diet or slimming, learning rock climbing, starting a new job, studying for a degree or writing a novel.

How you learn best is influenced by different factors. Some are specific to the situation. If you want to learn rock climbing, the best way to do it is to climb a rockface, as part of a group, with an instructor – there isn’t really any other way. Some, however, are specific to you. These might include your personality, strengths, resources, prior skills and so on, but also your motivations and aspirations.

In addition, you’re likely to find that learning is a process and you learn different parts of a new skill, technique, job, etc. in different ways.

There are half a dozen ways to describe learning styles and I’ll mention two below. Don’t think of them as worlds apart, because they’re not. They’re just two out of several more or less similar ways to describe the same basic issues and processes. If you want to see a longer list, have a look at the Rapidbi website, or this article on Wikispaces. It’s important, though, to appreciate that what descriptions of learning styles generally do is identify two things at the same time:

  • the learning style you as a learner may be most comfortable with, and
  • the ‘learning cycle’ as a whole, which usually involves more than one style as the nature of learning changes from initial interest to figuring out specific problems and mastering different sets of skills as you work through a new topic.

Honey and Mumford

The best known description of learning styles is by Honey and Mumford. They point out that learning takes place in a cycle, but most people prefer one part of the cycle to others and work best when they’re at that point. The cycle looks like this:

Honey and Mumford learning cycle

Honey and Mumford learning cycle

No one learns exclusively in one style but depending on which part of the cycle you find easiest to handle, you may be:

  • Activist – oriented to immediate tasks, works flexibly but may not think about future consequences and may be self-centred. Probably learns best by practical experimentation and experience, e.g. as an assistant or apprentice.
  • Reflector – observes and collects information before acting, acts cautiously and keeps the ‘bigger picture’ in mind. Probably learns best through individual research.
  • Theorist – works logically, in an ordered sequence, builds information into a theoretical or rational structure. Works best on the basis of principles, models and systems. Probably learns best through structured interaction, e.g. a training course.
  • Pragmatist – deals with immediate issues, is ‘hands on’ and wants to experiment. Enjoys applying theory to practice. Probably learns best by doing the job, but with a mentor.

Although you may be able to identify your own ‘style’ from this list, Honey and Mumford have questionnaires you can complete that will tell you with more certainty which style (or sometimes styles, plural) you are most comfortable with.

Knowing your preferred learning style helps you because it gives you self-knowledge of the kinds of situations in which you learn best and most quickly, and you can use that knowledge to get the best out of yourself. For example if you’re not confident with individual research, find someone you can discuss it with; if you learn best with hands-on experience and are on a training course, explain this to the trainers and ask if there are any activities they can build into the course to help you.

While most people prefer one style, remember that your preference may change depending on what you’re learning. For example many people find that legal issues are best dealt with in a structured ‘theorist’ way, but computer work is better if learned in a hands-on ‘activist’ way.

The 4MAT model

Honey and Mumford are popular, but there are other descriptions as well. Bernice McCarthy (the 4MAT model) proposed four learning styles that are slightly different to the Honey/Mumford ones:

  • Type 1: Innovative Learners – need to have reasons for learning that connect with the individual’s motivations and how the learning will be useful. Good methods for learning with this type include workshops, co-operative exercises, brainstorming, and anything that enables the learner to understand how new information fits in with, and can be used in conjuction. with some practical tasks they undertake.
  • Type 2: Analytic Learners – interested in deeper understanding of concepts and processes. Many different learning strategies will work, but preferably a mix of different ones – lectures, independent study, data analysis, seminar type scenarios where they can see experts discuss relevant topics etc.
  • Type 3: Common Sense Learners – interested in how to use information in a practical way. Best approaches are hands-on, learning on the job and learning to resolve issues/problems as they crop up.
  • Type 4: Dynamic Learners – independent and self-directed learning, often based on their own curiosity and instincts. Almost by definition this type of learning is individual and independent, and again a mix of different types of input will be stimulating.

Again, while people have their preferred style, all four parts together form a learning cycle that moves through:

  • Meaning – ‘why’ questions. Understanding the significance of a topic.
  • Concepts – ‘what’ questions. Finding ways to gather and analyse information.
  • Skills – ‘how’ questions. Learning practical ways to work in a situation, influence outcomes etc.
  • Adaptations – ‘what if’ questions. Refining understanding and looking e.g. at how different decisions/factors/resources can impact on a situation.

McCarthy has a good video presentation of this cycle and what the different sections involve.

You’ll note that she orders the sequence a little differently to Honey and Mumford. I’ve never regarded the difference as important, though, because people will want to jump into studying a topic for a variety of reasons: curiosity or academic interest, ‘need to know’ because they’ve just started working in the area, reflecting on being in an area and wanting to develop knowledge of the bigger picture, etc. The reason will influence which part of the cycle you’re likely to start on. Where you start is less important than completing the different stages of the cycle.

As with Honey and Mumford, the 4MAT model implies that while you may have a preferred style, you need to recognise what part of the cycle you are in and find appropriate ways of addressing it. If you’re taking a training course, discussion with the trainer should be a good way to do this. If you’re in a job, you can talk to co-workers, find out what training is available, or start investigating issues independently (online, libraries, etc.). And if you’re just curious, you can get a long way through independent study but at some point will need to connect with others who are also studying it, teaching it or working in a relevant area.

Trainers, meanwhile, should recognise it is their responsibility to take account of students’ learning styles and the type of material they are trying to convey, and use appropriate methods at each stage of the cycle.


The next blog will cover some related but rather cryptic topics – SQ3R and PQ4R.


Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (2000). The Learning Styles Helper’s Guide. Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.

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