by Lars-Erik Wiberg
Vice President, The Uses Trust Ltd.

Do we all learn equally well by the same means? Of course not! We are different from one another in ways that include learning preferences. The question is: How are we different in the ways we prefer to learn? It now appears that WISTŪ Profiles can help us to predict with reasonable confidence how we learn most effectively. Interestingly enough, race and gender play no role; the Profiles remain race- and gender-neutral in regard to their interpretation.

It is also interesting to realize that, while the average education actively emphasizes skills in reading, it underemphasizes those in listening and utterly neglects to teach observation to any meaningful extent. The three main avenues to learning, for any of us, are: listening; observing; and reading. Sadly, as a society, we are seeking literacy objectives that would never provide what we expect from them even if our educational programs were delivering maximum benefit and were generally considered to be ship-shape.

The three major methods for learning are through our ears and eyes and are of primary importance in the civilized world. Of equal importance to even our recent ancestors, and vital for our remote forebears, were the remaining senses of touch, taste and smell. However, they do not occupy the same crucial roles in our society as as do hearing and seeing and are not treated here although it must be acknowledged that they continue to play an unquestionable, if now more subtle, role.

This structure for learning that is revealed by WIST is in no way a pot-shot at reading, nor is it intended to downgrade the value of literacy. That would be stupid; we need our literacy to function day to day. Nevertheless, day-to-day functioning - getting from A to B, understanding instructions and directions, reading the papers, deriving enjoyment, and even becoming inspired now and then - is far removed in its relatively shallow depth of cognition from the comprehensive assimilation of material needed for role, skill, or subject mastery, in other words, learning. For example, simply being informed does not imply absorption of a body of knowledge any more than the ability to play a scale implies virtuosity on a musical instrument.

Consequently, reading is most definitely not alone in the universe of ways to learn. If we reflect on this condition, we soon realize that, through history, much significant learning was achieved among various apprentices and masters, none of whom was literate. Society did not require, nor even expect, widespread literacy, and learning proceeded based on effective listening and observing, accompanied then as now by practice, practice, and more practice. So it is not at all peculiar that there are many among us right now who prefer to learn by hearing and observing because this is the way they learn most effectively. They prefer to learn with a minimum of reading if they can! Indeed, there are some who are so adept at learning through listening that they consciously avoid learning through reading. Many sufferers of dyslexia become well-educated and fulfill positions of considerable responsibility despite the roadblocks that this mysterious affliction places in the path of their reading skills.

Reflect further and ask how it is that we learn to read in the first place. The process starts with hearing, and then it continues through our observation of the letters before we read them and sound them out. Then we observe words as they are read - over and over and over - until finally we have made in our minds enough sense of these arbitrary groups of abstract symbols to be able to read them on our own. The words you are reading now make sense to you, but only because you have seen them so often and heard them in so many different contexts for so long.

Now what does WIST tell us? How can we predict the means that will be most effective for learning when provided to this person versus that one? First, we must catalog four different decision making patterns or practices. From these you will be able to understand how each will logically favor a different preference among learning methods.

Decision Maker Number One - - "Conceptualizer" Refer to WIST Basic Profiles A & B.

We could also call this decision maker a theorist. Such imaginative and intellectual individuals like to develop principles which will act as reliable and repeatable underpinning for their conclusions. They are good synthetic thinkers in that they can spot relationships among what might appear to the rest of us as unrelated phenomena. And they go to considerable effort to establish sound relationships among these data and events. Such persons are most comfortable in the forefront of discovery where outcomes are unpredictable and the going is strewn with ambiguities that must be sifted out. They like to think in the abstract and experiment with possibilities; they are natural strategists, and they are often pioneers and founders, not only of new ways to look at the world, but also of unprecedented markets and enterprises.

Decision Maker Number Two - - "Organizer" Refer to WIST Basic Profiles B & C.

These decision makers are practical and realistic intellectuals who might also be designated, producers. It is their desire to develop and preserve structure and to achieve closure. They hate ambiguity as much as they prize efficiency. They have a gift for bringing order to the conduct of affairs so that matters may proceed according to established rules and practices. Among their intellectual strengths are the mastery of, and a knack for handling, data - often lots of it - and for generating information. They are most comfortable in established organizations where objectives are concrete and results can be projected with reasonable accuracy. They are especially watchful and not at all tolerant of surprises. These decision makers are excellent tacticians who will meet change with a facility for flexible response that has an unmistakeable basis in common sense.

Decision Maker Number Three - - "Developer" Refer to WIST Basic Profiles E & F.

These decision makers differ from One and Two in a profoundly significant way in that their practicality and realism are related to the way they feel about problems to a greater extent than to the way they think about them. They navigate far more by their beliefs regarding what is good or bad than by their knowledge of what is true or false. This kind of sense can produce strong social awareness, including an interest in developing the potential in others, and a consequent facility with team-building. With such a person-centered focus, it is no wonder, therefore, that decisions are made with due consideration for what others have done in similar or related circumstances. Experience is valued highly, and you will see such decision makers paying special attention to precedent and tradition. By nature they are neither strategists nor tacticians, both of which emphasize intellectual analysis, but they value strategy and tactics and obtain them through both trusted associates and their own practical experience which involves their feeling for what is right in a given situation. It is noteworthy that what is right can be a matter of unshakable personal conviction. They are most comfortable in established fields - as you might expect, those having precedents and traditions - of the kind that involve orthodox cultural pursuits or institutions and congenial social contact.

Decision Maker Number Four - - "Inspirer" Refer to WIST Basic Profiles G & H.

This decision maker has all the depth of feeling that Three has, but it is now combined with imagination; it is a visionary and intuitive kind of feeling. Such individuals are guided from within with the result that their decisions are intensely personal. Idiosyncrasies which may appear peculiar to us are quite ordinary to them. They are quirky in singular ways. It is not at all possible, with the same precision as for the previous three, to explain how these individuals make decisions. Their orientation depends upon impulse and inspiration either of which is subject to wide variability. They seem to have internal guidance systems, something like programs that are unique for each of them and provide automatic pilots which engage whenever decisions must be made. It is fascinating to observe how such a decision maker puts judgment into action with no apparent recourse to logical analysis or, for that matter, any perceivable attention to the specifics of the situation. Decisions flow just like water from a tap. The terms, strategy, and tactics have no special status to Fours. If ever they are found in large organizations of whatever kind (and this is rather uncommon), they invariably have unique roles requiring personal contributions along with whatever leadership might be required. Their situations should allow for independent action and the freedom to say pretty much what they want without the threat of reprimand.

How These Decision Makers Learn Best

It is important to keep in mind that, just because one person may prefer one approach, use of other approaches is by no means foreclosed. Often a prevailing culture, including family influence, can induce individuals to emphasize learning preferences not natural to them. So the condition persists that we do not all prefer to learn in the same way, but that we can all learn in each way albeit with varying effectiveness. So how do the various decision makers differ; and then why?

Decision Maker Number One prefers reading over observation over listening and comprises about ten percent of the general population. Number Two prefers observation over reading over listening and makes up about 30 percent of us. Decision Maker Three prefers listening over observation over reading and is the most populous at forty percent. Number Four is, as you might expect, unpredictable in that either listening or reading may be preferred over observation, and whichever the preference, it is likely to be pronounced. They number roughly twenty percent of the population. (Note: The bulk of my work in this regard has been done inside the U.S.)

In examining the following reasons why different decision makers prefer to learn as they do, please keep in mind that "adjacent" ways of reaching decisions can interact to some extent. That is, One can have characteristics of Two or Four, but not both; Two, of One or Three, etc. Although these combinations are quite logical, they tend to muddy the interpretive waters to some extent. Nevertheless, they reflect the variability among individuals that certainly squares with life, and in no way do they diminish the overarching importance of each of the three methods of learning.

Why are the learning preferences distributed as they are in their respective hierarchies? Let's look at each decision maker in turn. To begin with, one can readily see that Decision Maker Number One is at total ease with abstract, conceptual, even theoretical thinking and will have few problems with arcane symbolism, much less letters and words. So is it highly likely that the acquisition of knowledge through the abstract activity of reading will be natural for this individual. The information so presented can be readily absorbed, however obscure it may be. It becomes just as much of a challenge for the writer to put it across as for the reader to learn it. As you might expect, Number One enjoys gaining the command of subjects, such as may be theoretical or philosophical, that lend themselves to thoughtful written presentation. The reason that observation holds second place to reading for this decision maker is that it is more down to earth and realistic than Number One's preference for the abstract, while at the same time being a visual approach to learning. Both Number One and Number Two are more visual than aural, more lookers than listeners. The common exclamation for acquired understanding, "I see!" actually tells us how these decision makers prefer to learn.

With Decision Maker Number Two, the practical intellect, we have a natural watchfulness that combines with an analytical bent to make great use of observation including the little things. They are adept observers of how others act, whether in instructive and informative actions, or in the performance of some skill, or in everyday behavior. They are highly objective realists; they learn well by being shown, and prefer to learn things that can be shown. Where reading is crucial, as in reports and memoranda, they prefer summaries that are factual and concise "On one page, please!" Charts and diagrams are fine provided that the variables are not too esoteric. Much of the writing that takes place in the world owes its brevity to the remarkably small appetite that Number Two displays for reading anything at all that isn't essential. And much business and other official travel is undertaken - often called "showing the flag" - because of Number Two's unquenchable appetite for observing, at first hand, what is going on.

Decision Maker Number Three is a listener who prefers to learn by hearing it from a reliable source, who values discussion highly, and who gravitates toward occupations that depend on talk and encourage oral explanation. Here, as might be expected from individuals who display strong social awareness, interpersonal exchanges of views are especially vital to learning. It is as if the teacher, at whatever level, must place a living imprimatur on the subject to insure its worth, and then convey it bit by bit. Number Threes are just as watchful as Twos but not from an analytical standpoint. Whereas Two's watchfulness centers around logic and analysis, Three's tends toward interpersonal issues which can never be wholly satisfied through visual means alone, separated from a social component. Given the interest, along with skilled instructors, Threes can absorb a great deal of material through observation, just as Twos can listen profitably, preferably to individuals whom they respect.

Were it not for Decision Maker Number Four, the architecture of learning would be simpler and more symmetrical. However, Fours have their eccentricities, and the only thing you can predict about them is their unpredictability. It isn't that they do not have their learning preferences; they do - all of them. They are as full of Feeling as Threes and as Imaginative as Ones. The result is that, whereas one might expect them, for that reason, to favor reading and listening about equally, the reverse is true. Their preference for one over the other is invariably pronounced. And to make matters even more confusing, they can become adept observers, albeit somewhat less frequently. In giving them learning opportunities, one must set a proper table by making sure that all the learning options are represented. Fours will then make their own idiosyncratic way.

A Curious Anomaly

Before addressing a few implications of this analysis, we should focus for a moment on what appears on the surface to be a monumental inconsistency. What about those who write for a living? Wouldn't they obviously be the ones who learned most effectively through reading. The answer is: Not necessarily! The evidence suggests strongly that journalists, non-fiction writers, reporters, and even some historians learn best through social interaction, that is to say, listening and observing. They then write for readers what they have learned only after whatever reading they must do to satisfy their professional standards. Writers of fiction, mystery, plays and poetry, as well as theologians and philosophers are unpredictable learners, whereas writers of scientific and technical material are themselves readers. Writers write so that others may read, but how they learn what they are writing about is not that straightforward.

What This Analysis Tells Us

What then to make of all this in practical terms? There are several apparent consequences. First, it is as important to teach listening and observing as it is to teach reading. It is true that reading lends itself to the communication of all manner of material in a convenient package, sometimes with great beauty. To some extent literacy is its own reward. However, it is also true that there are many more Number Two and Three Decision Makers than Ones - conservatively five times as many - and they deserve some educational emphasis on their learning preferences despite our society's need for literacy at the highest feasible level.

Second, it is as imperative for teachers to have and to project genuine affection for their subjects as it is to have mastery over them. All the methodology in the educator's arsenal can not make up for a teacher's disaffection for, or lack of a thorough command of the subject. Both listeners and observers are sensitive, through ear and eye respectively, and both will benefit from presentations that both dignify the subject and display mastery. There is no way for teachers to separate their personalities and proficiencies from the subjects they are teaching. To the extent that the teachers come up short in either respect, to that extent the subjects suffer in the ears and eyes of the students. Good texts are important to learning. However, no matter how excellent the textbooks may be, teachers, not books, personify and animate subjects.

Third, we should make optimum use of audio/visual media. They combine two powerful means of passing knowledge along: listening and observation. It is imperative that this medium be given program material that employs both to their fullest advantage - no short cuts! By fullest advantage is meant that the narrated and visual portions should reinforce each other so that neither will detract from the overall material nor distract the listener/observer. For example, nothing approaching the potential value of the medium, however excellent the pictorial part, will be learned when the sound is unpleasant, as when for instance a voice has grating speech characteristics. A patronizing attitude or awkward mannerisms of the narrator are a distraction. Further, the finest personal presentation along with technically inadequate or inappropriate visuals will never produce the desired reinforcement. Everyone has seen videos with such shortcomings as the above. In sum, for the video medium to do its job, its two great variables - picture and sound - must complement each other and be in no way dissident.

Fourth, we should be making optimum use of audio media. Those who prefer to learn by listening make up the largest of the four groups we have explored. For this significant a population such media are invaluable. There are enough listeners, a large enough audience, to make it economically sensible for an organization of reasonable size to procure or produce audio media for its staff members on whatever subject matter it wishes to have them learn.

Fifth, text needs good and ample illustration because there are many for whom a picture is truly worth a thousand words. One need not be an art critic to have identified how often second-rate illustrations accompany good writing. This phenomenon is universally evident these days in, of all places, the comic strips, where the text is often quite amusing and the drawing perfectly dreadful. Failure to amplify good words with good illustrations is an instant affront to those who learn best through observation. There are many observers among us, and they deserve attention. Besides, who among us, observers or no, enjoy books or periodicals or manuals with illustrations acquired on the cheap?

Please note that nothing said heretofore should encourage anyone to think that it is possible to escape the essential ingredient of doing as it applies to learning. The hands-on aspect is indispensable. Whichever ways we best learn - irrespective of the learning methods we prefer - we have to practice the knowledge and skills that our eyes and ears are capturing for us. Strictly speaking, we probably do not learn by doing, but rather perfect what we are learning by practicing it, or what is the same, use practice to develop our learning toward increasingly better performance and results.


Now a plea! When you have acquired knowledges or skills, and have learned something new, please use it; display your work; collect the experiences that result, and learn from these. We all have more knowledge and skill than we use, to such an extent that we often forget to remember much of what we actually know and are able to do. This state of mind can become a limit to our effectiveness and productivity, to be overcome only through conscious use of what we have learned. It is this deliberate effort to create personal output that draws involuntarily on the reservoirs of knowledge and skill that we tend to forget and brings them once again out of our deeper memory back to the surface. Put authoritatively: "No man, when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place, neither under a bushel, but on a candlestick, that they which come may see the light."

How ironic that the material of this essay should be presented in writing (not that it hasn't been talked about, of course). Notwithstanding, it had to get started somehow in organized form, and its nature lends itself to text, although many readers might well have preferred a lecture/forum, a film, (or even a one-page summary). Considering the subject, my apologies.

Meanwhile, we can not only hope that curricula will ultimately contain many more courses in listening and observing, offered right along with those in reading, but can also look forward to the time when students will act and report on learning that is based as much on things heard and seen as on material read.

Copyright © 2001, Lars-Erik Wiberg