On Learning Styles

While teaching a new student in a Tai Chi class recently, I noticed that he followed the movements of his hands with his eyes, especially when his hands were in a new or unusual position. While he was learning the movements we were working on, he almost HAD TO track his hands with his eyes. This is interesting and important given that the nature of Tai Chi and qigong breathing exercises is to pay attention to the internal aspects of the movements – the feeling of the movements, themselves – more than the appearance of the movements.

Natural Learning Style vs Developmental Goals of Training

What was happening for him was that his natural and preferred learning style was engaging, and that has to be recognized along the way. In the long run, in the practice of Tai Chi and qigong, the student is going to have to adjust away from looking at the positioning of the hands and move in the direction of feeling the overall position of the body, which is ultimately a key purpose of this kind of training. It’s a simple change – but not an easy one.

Others have different learning styles. Students with an auditory learning style may prefer to hear descriptions of the movements we’re doing in the class so they can process through what they hear and follow those verbal/auditory cues. Others may feel compelled to talk through the movements and describe what they’re doing. These two styles are similar, but they work in different directions. One prefers to hear what they’re supposed to do while the other is compelled to speak and express their understanding of what they’re supposed to do.

Variations

There are variations on these styles that can be based on other skills or talents a student may possess. A visual learner who has a strong background in drawing or sketching might benefit from drawing pictures of the movements or postures they’re learning. A verbal processor may benefit from writing in a journal about what is being taught. Some who feel compelled to verbally express what they’re doing need to also hear where they are accurate or inaccurate in what they have expressed; they need feedback. Another variation of the verbal processing style is that the student isn’t really interested in hearing where they’re on track or off; the point for this student is that they just need to talk while they move.

Some learn best while doing movements in coordination with others. This is a collaborative learning style. Others don’t need that as much and prefer to learn something (through whatever their learning style may be) and then work off to the side on their own without further collaboration.

There is also a kinesthetic learning style that simply prefers to move and be physically involved in learning. Not surprisingly, this style lends itself very well to learning martial arts, dance, and other sports. Any movement oriented activity is likely to land well with this individual. This learning style is an advantage at first, and it is a very natural style in a quiet practice like training in any type of kung fu, but all the learning styles can be put to good use over time.

Introversion vs Extroversion

But then there is still another aspect of how a person prefers to learn. It’s the orientation of whether the student’s preferred focus is internal or external. To put it in the language used by personality typing systems, it’s the question of whether the student is introverted or extroverted.

The introverted student is more likely to stay in his or her own mind and body while also using whichever learning style works best for him or her. The extroverted learner is likely to talk more or watch and/or interact with others more. To confuse this even further, there are some students who are what I would call social introverts, meaning that while they do prefer to focus inwardly, they also thrive on having some time to talk things through with other people. Learning styles are not always simple.

The Essential Nature of Tai Chi and Qigong

As it turns out, Tai Chi and Qigong are internal kinesthetic practices. That suggests that the introvert who is also kinesthetic in his or her learning style is most likely to go immediately into the aspects of the practice that are naturally emphasized. But all of the learning styles can be used along the way and it is very common for students to engage their preferred learning style when working with something new, but then go deeper into the internal practice as they become physically and mentally comfortable with what they’re doing. Once the movements have been memorized, it becomes easier for the visual learner, for example, to stop watching his or her own hands moving in the air. Then they can engage their physical senses to find the feeling of where they are in space. At that point, the practice is becoming more internal and less external, which is one of the main goals of the practice.

All of the learning styles are valid, especially in processing new information. The farther a student goes in this form of training, the more they are likely to develop a sense of connection with their bodies. But their original learning style is unlikely to change. The person doesn’t necessarily change. But they do develop a new ability to quickly sense where they are in space and understand what they’re doing physically.

In the long run, what matters most is the practice itself and how that triggers the evolution of the individual over time.

Phases of Training and When to Engage Different Learning Styles

All of this knowledge about learning styles suggests that there are some distinctions that need to be made in the various phases of training:

  1. Learning: absorbing NEW knowledge, movements, skills, techniques, etc. Of course, all of these phases involve “learning” but in the discussion of learning styles in the context of practicing something that inherently funnels a student into a practice mode that is different from his or her preferred learning style, it’s important to point out the differences and the right time to change methods. Consider making allowances for the student’s preferred learning style when teaching content that is new to the student.
  2. Practice: the ongoing repetition of something that has been “learned” in the past. The movements may not be new, but they have not been fully absorbed or internalized. Nor should a student ever assume the mindset or belief that they are done learning, regardless of experience level. During the practice phase, the student should attempt to emulate the internal method of focusing attention in an introverted manner and paying close attention to the kinesthetic feeling of the movements being performed. This will develop new brain wiring more effectively and help the student gain insights into the movements at the same time.
  3. Study: the student who is trying to deepen his or her understanding of a movement or combination of movements may isolate those movements and perform a large number of repetitions in order to focus on just those movements for a period of time. This might be done during a single practice session or over the course of a series of sessions to leverage the effect of that focus. The student’s preferred learning style should be employed during this phase when possible. For example, even though the practice of Tai Chi is generally carried out in silence to enable the internal focus, a collaborative learner with a preference for verbal learning would benefit from working with a partner or small group to repeat the movements while talking or take frequent breaks to discuss what is being practiced. The challenge in this idea is keeping a balance between moving and talking. It is easy for the talking to take over and the movement to take a backseat, which is not fully constructive, either. Balance is the key. It may also be very difficult for students with polar opposite learning styles to work together in this regard unless one or both of them is willing and able to flex into a different style for a period of time.
  4. Teaching: using discernment to determine which method to allow or encourage at any given time, depending on the students involved.

These concepts relating to learning styles are all being addressed in the context of studying Tai Chi and Qigong. But most of this material would transfer into other activities, as well, with the main differences being found in the essential nature of whatever the other activity might be.

What are you learning? And what’s your preferred style?