Steve's Blog

Making Sense of Your Learning Mode

She said, "I've never been able to remember the difference between a for loop and a while loop until I used it to control the blinking of an LED with MicroPython. With the for loop it blinks, with while it didn't." I told her that maybe she should keep working with hardware projects because her best "learning mode" might be "touch". She asked what I meant, so I riffed on the subject for a minute. She was clearly delighted by the idea, enough so that she asked me to speak to a group on the subject, and that turned into a panel discussion by about half the speakers at the conference we were attending.

We didn't really talk about why she was delighted, but I am guessing that as a professional in a different field, she's confident in her ability to learn, and puzzled about why she couldn't seem to learn this one thing. Then she did learn it, and she wondered why "suddenly" she could.

I'm not an expert on this kind of thing, although it's been useful to me. So I would like to present the disclaimer that I'm not an expert, introduce the idea briefly, and provide pointers to some resources for those who are interested.

First, let me clarify that these "modes" are not just "learning modes", but more generally "communication modes". They are called sensory modes, because they correspond to the five senses. You might think that because language is spoken and written, the relevant senses are hearing and sight, but in fact all five senses are involved. Even in verbal communication you can detect these modes from expressions like "I see what you mean," "I hear you," "I grasped the idea," "I smell a rat," and even "it left a bad taste in my mouth." If you understand each of those expressions, then you can use all five sensory modes (as almost everybody can -- and even those who lack a sense can often use the expressions correctly even though they lack a sensory referent!)

Most people do use each of the five modes at least occasionally, but most have a preference for a "primary mode", which they use in verbal communication by default and under stress. I suspect that for many (but not all) people, combining verbal study (reading or lecture) with another mode improves the efficiency of learning. (According to Dr. Elgin, cited below, many educators do as well.) For example, some people find copying a text with pen and paper by hand improves retention, and others do not. I have wondered if such "mixed modes" account for the slight oddity of saying "do you see what I mean?" and (more rarely) writing "how does that sound?" And, it should be clear by now, I suspect my friend benefits a lot from touch mode. Building her project, holding the pieces and the finished work, touching it helped her understand non-physical aspects better, even though she will never touch a for loop!

I imagine a lot of people have noticed these phenomena, and for me it's not even an independent discovery. I learned about sensory modes (and several other communication modes) from a book titled The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, by Suzette Haden Elgin. This one's out of print, but there are several variants on the "Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense" theme, and I suppose all of them cover the basics. Besides such basic information, the book is very valuable for teaching a certain set of communication skills. For some the emphasis may be on the "defense" aspect. I was of the "best defense is a strong offense" persuasion, and the book helped me work on "gentle". Either way, highly recommended.

Dr. Elgin also wrote several novels, and in particular her "Native Tongue" trilogy demonstrates her ideas about the "art and power of effective communication". I found them fascinating for that aspect, though I found them heavy going for their plots. I recommend Janet Kagan's Hellspark as a very enjoyable read that provides an introduction to several aspects of language that you don't hear about in grade 6. Out of print on paper, but now available in a Kindle edition from Amazon.

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Stephen J. Turnbull