Your OWL – Optimum Way of Learning

This is the first post about the first tool in the first toolkit. The Journey begins!

Your OWL – Optimum Way of Learning

What is it?

Your OWL is representative of the way that you connect with the external world.

One of the subjects I really enjoyed at school was geography. I found learning about the natural world and human society really interesting. A big factor was my luck of having some really great teachers that knew how to command the respect of a mischievous little boy! In the run up to my GCSE exams it was getting close to the time to start hardcore revision and study. One of my teachers, a chap called Mr Howard, told us a little story…

We each have an OWL sat on our shoulder that helps us throughout our lives. Your OWL represents your Optimum Way of Learning. Everyone’s OWL is different. We each need to learn about our own OWL so it can help us along the way.

This story really struck a chord with me and it is something I have kept close to my heart ever since. To me now, my OWL is much more than just an Optimum Way of Learning, it is my Optimum Way of Living. One unlocks the other.

We need to learn how we learn, so we can learn how to live.

How does it work?

Your owl is part of you. You can think of the face representing your optimum way of learning, and its body representing your optimum way of living. Both concepts are connected and together become your OWL. Your OWL will develop though the practice of learning and reflection.

Owls are wise and yours will grow as you learn about yourself.

I am going to share some information with you around the theories of how we learn, and how our personality traits influence the ways we learn best. You may have come across some of this information before, or it may all be new to you; either way, I have tried to present short summaries of different perspectives for you to consider.

Be it a refresher or something new, hopefully the information will help you to kick start your process of developing deeper self-awareness.

Scan this post and pick out the parts that sounds interesting; take your time to digest it all and see how it applies to you; or use it as inspiration to go off and do your own research. The choice is yours. As always.

Your Optimum Way of Learning

There is a theory of how we learn developed by swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980). It centres around a concept of cognitive equilibrium. The principle behind this is that each individual has an internal schemata or framework for how they understand the world.

When presented with new information, this creates a disequilibrium between the perceived external world and the individual’s internal schemata. This state of disequilibrium is dissatisfying to the individual so they will seek to re-establish the equilibrium. This could be done be either ignoring the new information or by accepting it in to the schemata. There are two approaches for this process of acceptance:

  • Assimilation – The individual modifies the information so it fits their schemata
  • Accommodation – The individual modifies their schemata to incorporate the new information

Cognitive development is achieved through the process of accommodation, as it is accommodation which builds and enriches our internal framework for understanding the world.

From a simplistic perspective, accommodation is made up of two stages, receiving new information and processing new information. Our preference for how we like to initiate the processing of information, will determine how we like to receive information. You could call the way we like to receive new information our preferred learning style.

Cognitive psychology is the study of how the mind processes information and learns. Is an area that is still evolving, and as such there are quite a few different models and theories which can be considered.

There are inherent similarities between the models. I have summarised a selection of different theories and models to give you insight in to how you actually learn and process information. This is a topic that not a lot of people, other than those working in academia or education, actually spend time to reflect upon and consider.

Armed with this knowledge and insight you will be able to start to better understand your own process of learning so you can take ownership of your learning experience.

It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong with this; the information I am about to outline is just a collection of different perspectives and opinions. If you find that is helps shed some light on your preferred learning style, then great. You have simply been able to highlight what works for you. One style is no better, or worse than any other.

To give you some context for the definition of learning styles, we will first have a look at two models for how we learn and build knowledge.

How Humans Learn

Bloom’s Taxonomy – Benjamin Bloom – 1956

Bloom’s taxonomy has long been established as a standard for teaching, learning, and assessment. It describes a seven-stage process (seven cognitive dimensions) for how we learning new information and concepts:

It is a template for the definition of learning journeys (the stages involved in learning) that teachers across the world use to structure their approach in the classroom.

In 2001 a group of a group of cognitive psychologists, curriculum theorists, and assessment specialists published a revision to the taxonomy. The revision outlined knowledge dimensions that expand on how knowledge builds up in complexity and is solidified within each cognitive dimension of the taxonomy as learners iterate though multiple cycles of learning.

  • Factual – The basic elements a student must know to be acquainted with a discipline or solve problems in it.
  • Conceptual – The interrelationships among the basic elements within a larger structure that enable them to function together.
  • Procedural – How to do something, methods of inquiry, and criteria for using skills, algorithms, techniques, and methods.
  • Metacognitive – Knowledge of cognition in general (how to teach others) as well as awareness and knowledge of one’s own cognition

The combination of the cognitive dimensions (stages of learning) and the progression through the knowledge dimensions (building complexity and understanding) means that to truly become an expert in a subject, you need to progress through 28 stages of learning! Wow.

Spend a moment to consider something that you have recently learned. How did these stages work for you? Now being aware of the order of learning progression, do you think you could have better shaped your learning experience?

Bloom’s taxonomy is extremely comprehensive and is widely accepted across the academic world. This does not mean that there are no other accepted perspectives on this subject though. If we take the ultimate goal of learning as to understand and remember, this opens up our perspective to another model.

Experiential Learning Cycle – David Kolb – 1984

In a twist on Blooms Taxonomy, Kolb outlined a four-stage iterative learning cycle where one stage underpins and feeds in to the next but the learner can enter the cycle at any stage. The key to this model is that regardless of where the learner enters the cycle, they must complete a full iteration to solidify their learning.

Here is a summary of the stages, I am sure you will see the similarities with Blooms Taxonomy:

  1. Concrete experience – Doing something
  2. Reflective observation of the new experience – Thinking about what has happened
  3. Abstract conceptualization – Drawing conclusions and accommodating the information
  4. Active experimentation – Applying new idea in practice and testing what happens

The four stages outlined are very similar to the first four stages of Blooms taxonomy. The key difference is that the model allows for entry in to the learning cycle at any stage. This flexibility of initiation creates space for the definition of different models for how we prefer to enter the learning cycle; or you could say for how we prefer to receive and engage with information.

Our preferred learning style.

Leading us nicely on to a summary of four models relating to that very subject…

How You Prefer to Learn

Learning Style Inventory – David Kolb – 1984

The four stages of learning within Kolb’s experiential learning cycle actually highlight two different continuums which can be used to describe our preferred learning style.

  • Processing Continuum: doing vs watching – our approach to gathering information
  • Perception Continuum: feeling vs thinking – our response or, how we process information

This can be seen on the diagram below:

The theory proposes that we each make a binary choice between the options on the continuums meaning that the entry points in to the learning cycle are represented by the arrows in the diagram above. Kolb proposes four learning styles:

  • Diverging = feeling and watching
  • Assimilating = thinking and watching
  • Converging = thinking and doing
  • Accommodating = feeling and doing

Kolb’s framework is a beautiful fusion of both how we learn and how we prefer to learn. His theory created space for the definition of learning styles and it is what was used as the foundation for another theory which expanded and refined the definition of his learning styles. It is a theory that is still widely used across the education world today and we will take a much more detailed look at it next.

Learning Styles – Honey and Mumford – 1986

Honey and Mumford took Kolb’s theory and redefined the learning styles in to something much more widely applicable and accepted. The new categories they outlined are as follows:

  • Reflector = Diverging
  • Theorist = Assimilating
  • Pragmatist = Converging
  • Activist = Accommodating

There are numerous tests that you can find online to find out which one of these learning styles you have. Here is a summary of the categories and what characteristics a learner with that style will have:


Activists are people who learn by doing. They like to involve themselves in new experiences, and will ‘try anything once’. They tend to act first and consider the consequences afterwards.

Activists learn best when:

  • involved in new experiences, problems and opportunities;
  • thrown in at the deep end;
  • working with others in problem solving, games, role-playing exercises;
  • able to lead a group.

Activists learn least when:

  • listening to lectures or reading long explanations;
  • reading, writing and thinking on their own;
    • analysing and interpreting lots of data;
    • following precise instructions.


Reflectors learn by observing and thinking about what happened. They like to consider all the possible angles and implications before coming to a considered opinion. They spend time listening and observing, and tend to be cautious and thoughtful.

Reflectors learn best when:

  • able to stand back and observe first;
  • given time to think and investigate before commenting or acting;
  • given an opportunity to review what has happened;

Reflectors learn least when:

  • forced to take a lead in a group;
  • doing things without preparation;
  • rushed by deadlines.


Theorists like to understand the theory behind the actions. They need models, concepts and facts in order to learn. They like to analyse and synthesise, and feel uncomfortable with subjective judgements.

Theorists learn best when:

  • an activity is backed up by ideas and concepts that form a model, system or theory;
  • in a structured situation with a clear purpose;
  • they have the chance to question and probe;
  • required to understand a complex situation.

Theorists learn least:

  • in situations that emphasise emotions and feelings;
  • when activities are unstructured or ambiguous;
  • when asked to act without knowing the principles or concepts involved.


Pragmatists are keen on trying things out. They look for new ideas that can be applied to the problem in hand. They like to get on with things and tend to be impatient with open-ended discussions; they are practical, down-to earth people.

Pragmatists learn best when:

  • there is an obvious link between the topic and a current need;
  • they are shown techniques with clear practical advantages;
  • they can try things out with feedback from an expert;
  • they can copy an example, or emulate a role model.

Pragmatists learn least when:

  • there is no immediate practical benefit;
  • there are no clear guidelines on how to do it;
  • it appears to be ‘all theory’.

When considering which preferred style you have, also consider that any one person can have a blend of these preferences. Yes the may have a dominant style but subject to the learning context and subject matter, an individual may switch between styles.

Have you spotted how this model outlines not just learning styles but personality traits too?

This fusion shows how there is a direct correlation between how are minds our function, and how we perceive and prefer to engage with the world. As you would expect though, this is not the only way to look at this subject. We will look at a couple more examples for you to reflect on (that is, if you are a reflector!).

How we are Wired to Learn

Multiple Intelligences Theory – Howard Gardner 1983

Accepted more by the education community than the psychology community, Gardner’s Theory of multiple intelligences attempts to define classifications that encompass cognitive ability, behaviours and personality traits.

In this context, intelligence is defined as our ability to process information of a specific type.

The theory challenges the notion that there is one single type of general intelligence and proposes that we each have a genetic predisposition to certain types of intelligence while also being open to the effect of environmental factors which may influence our preference over time. Basically, your preferences can change as a result of what you experience and learn.

Here is a summary of the classifications:

Linguistic Intelligence (“word smart”)

Learners have sensitivity to spoken and written language, ability to learn languages, and capacity to use language to accomplish certain goals.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)

This refers to the capacity to analyse problems logically, carry out mathematical operations, and investigate issues scientifically.

Spatial Intelligence (“picture smart”)

Spatial intelligence features the potential to recognize and manipulate patterns that exist within space and area.

Bodily-Kinaesthetic Intelligence (“body smart”)

Bodily kinaesthetic intelligence is the potential of using one’s whole body or parts of the body (like the hand or the mouth) to solve problems, fashion products or perform specific skills.

Musical Intelligence (“music smart”)

Musical intelligence refers to the skill in the performance, composition, and appreciation of musical patterns.

Interpersonal Intelligence (“people smart”)

Interpersonal intelligence is the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations, and desires of other people and consequently to work effectively with others.

Intrapersonal Intelligence (“self smart”)

Intrapersonal intelligence is the capacity to understand oneself, to have an effective working model of oneself-including own’s desires, fears, and capacities—and to use such information effectively in regulating one’s own life.

Naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”)

Naturalistic intelligence involves expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species—the flora and fauna—of his or her environment.

As I mentioned at the start, the psychology community challenged and resisted this theory due to the difficulties in testing and finding empirical evidence to support the classifications. In terms of intelligence there is a broader acceptance of the concept of a general intelligence. This theory was and is adopted widely by the educational community and created the foundation for the final model we will look at.

VARK Learning Styles – Neil D. Fleming – 1987

Focussed more specifically on classroom learning, Fleming originally proposed four core modalities for how learning can be tailored to suit the preference of specific children. More recently, they expanded this model to include 7 learning styles and refined the definitions to be more universal to all age groups

1. Visual

Visual learners prefer to see things drawn out or in graphs to understand concepts. If you like to doodle, draw, or create mind maps, it’s likely that you’re a visual learner. Visual learners use images and symbols to connect concepts and be able to see relationships between ideas.

2. Auditory

This style is also known as aural or auditory-musical. Such learners like to listen and hear information in order to process it optimally. Those who lean towards aural learning are able to notice the nuances between pitch and tone.

3. Verbal

If you love words and writing, you’re likely a verbal learner. Linguistic learners enjoy reading and writing and enjoy word play. Some techniques that verbal learners employ to soak up information could include role playing and using mnemonic devices.

4. Physical

Kinaesthetic learners are hands-on, participatory learners who need to take a physically active role in the learning process. They are sometimes referred to as “tactile learners,” but this can be a bit of a misnomer; rather than simply utilizing touch, kinaesthetic learners tend to engage all of their senses equally in the process of learning.

5. Logical

Logical learners have a mathematical brain. They can recognize patterns easily and connect concepts. To understand ideas, they prefer to group them into categories.

6. Social

Social learners are known as interpersonal learners. They can communicate well both verbally and non-verbally. Social learners have a distinctive sensitivity and an empathetic nature.

7. Solitary

Intrapersonal learners like their solitude. They like to spend a lot of time with their own thoughts and works best with the least distractions.

Modes 1-4 are the core modes and we each may have a predominant preference for one of them. Modes 5-7 are the later addition. To me they are more of a description of how we prefer to process information rather than receive information so would be applied in combination with the core modes. The inclusion of them in this model highlights the fluid nature of this area of psychology.

The devil is in the detail though as these classifications are pretty much identical to those used by Gardner with just a refinement of the wording to allow the reader to easier comprehend how they would apply in the context of teaching.


As with all things, learning styles are not black and white. You may have a preference for a particular learning style, but seldom are people locked in to a single style. We often blend multiple styles while being influenced by our prior knowledge (think Bloom’s taxonomy knowledge dimensions), the type of information we are receiving (the subject matter) and the environmental conditions around us. Effective learners learn how to tailor their learning style to the context at hand.

If you had a job building flatpack furniture, you may take your initial learnings from reading some instructions, looking at diagrams or watching a video. Your skills would improve over time through practical experience and by discussing best practice with other flatpack construction engineers (decent job title eh…). Your learning style would evolve naturally based upon your level of competency with the activity at hand.

I recommend that you have a search online and find both a Kolb learning styles test (which will most likely be actually based on the Honey and Mumford definitions!) and a VARK test to take. Find out what your predominant learning style is.

Are you a theoretical, logical, verbal, visual learner with a tendency to like a bit of solitude and reflection?

If so, we have something in common!

Learning is the process of receiving new information and accommodating it in to our internal schemata. As I mentioned right at the start, everything that we perceive, and everything we choose to project in to the world can be classed as information. With this fact in mind, you can also see from the learning style definitions that our personality types are synonymous to our learning styles.

It is this deep interconnectedness that underpins why both our optimum way of learning and our optimum way of living (covered in my next post) combine to make up our OWL.

Enjoy, for now.

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