Becoming a skier. How ‘Learning Styles’ Saved My Marriage (Revised)

Learning is the process of perceiving and organizing information. People learn in different ways. Brains work in different ways.

This is truly an amazing concept, one brought to Perfect Turn by Ed Joyce. There are just some things we really take for granted and assume are the same for everyone. The idea that our way of thinking is different is astounding. If accepted it can shake your world, which is a very good thing because it is that little jolt to the brain when it cries out, ‘Oh, no!’ that allows new information to enter.

Learning involves two steps:  taking in data and processing data. There are two general ways in which people do each, so we can build a simple grid that produces four styles of learning. Everyone falls into one of the four, although we are not limited to using only that one style and usually have a major and a minor way of dealing with the world.

The two ways of perceiving information are Big Picture and Parts. A Big Picture person needs to have a framework within which to work. They get the whole idea. A Parts thinker starts with the pieces and builds up, like a brick layer. We process the material either Actively or Reflectively.

We build our little 2-variable grid with Perception on one axis and Process on the other, and we find four Styles of Learning. (If you want to draw this out on a little scrap of paper next to the computer, go ahead.)* In the upper right quadrant is Style 1, Big Picture/Reflective. Below, bottom right quadrant is Style 2, lovingly known as The Engineer, Parts/Reflective. To his left in the left lower quadrant is Style 3, Parts/Active, and in the upper left square the adorable, bane of every elementary teacher who is not one herself, Style 4, Big Picture/Active.

Looking at the grid, you can see that each Style has something in common with two others. Style 1 shares the Big Picture way of gathering information with Style 4 and the Reflective method of processing the information with Style 2. Each learning style also has another with which they share nothing:  the person in the diagonally opposed corner of the grid. This is important in life.

In my first year at Sunday River we were presented with a scenario that explains how the various styles handle situations. You might want to keep this in mind as the Holidays are now upon us. It is Christmas Eve and there are four houses in a neighborhood. In each house there is a box within which is a little red wagon that will be the highlight of the morning for a child who is sleeping upstairs. The wagon must be assembled.

In House Number One the parent is sitting curled up on a couch with a cup of hot cocoa, dreamily looking at the Christmas tree and imagining how wonderful everything will be in the morning. There will be the little red wagon off to one side, filled with beautifully wrapped presents, and the children will cascade down the stairs and be filled with awe. It will be wonderful. The box sits in the middle of the room, unopened. Hopefully, someone else will come in before morning.

In House Number Two, the box is opened, and the Instruction Sheet has been found. The parent is reading the instructions. All parts are still in the box, awaiting the conclusion of the reading, when they will be removed from the box and counted and checked off against the Parts List. If there are tools necessary they will be gathered.  Eventually, there will be a perfect wagon under the tree.

In House Number Three, the box is open and empty. The Instruction Sheet has been tossed aside after all parts were checked, and things are strung together in ways that they will fit. It is looking a bit like a chain, but eventually it will take shape. Threes are persistent and do not mind taking things apart and trying again until they have it right. There will be a workable wagon under the tree.

House Number Four has a wagon. It also has some extra little parts, and Four is looking for the pesky Instruction Sheet to see if they were put in the box by mistake or if they are essential to the production. Why people put the Instruction Sheet on the top of the packing where it just gets in the way is a mystery. If only they packed it on the bottom then it would be easy to find if a person needed help, which occasionally they do, life would be infinitely easier. The wagon looks good and moves ok, now,  but we might want to check.

A simple, also simplistic, description. Style 1: ready.  Style 2: ready, set, go.  Style 3:  Ready, go!  Style 4: Go! I am a Style 4 learner, despite the fact that several of the training staff insist I am a three and need to swim to another island. They are wrong. I have to know the general idea before I can figure out what I am supposed to do. I also am predominantly a kinesthetic learner, and need to feel what i am doing. What confuses my peers is that many Style 4s are far more adventurous than I. Just because you see the big picture and immediately need to do something about it does not mean that you have not learned a bit of caution over time.

Although i had been exposed to the concept while studying towards my degree in Elementary Education, I did not live it until I was a ski pro. Then, it became vivid and explained many things about the way people operate. One’s learning style is not confined to gaining knowledge intellectually or physically. It is the way one moves through the world.

It was not until my husband became a part-time ski instructor that the importance of the way we learn became obvious. He is a Style 2. He happens to actually, as well as inherently, be an engineer. We live in diametrically opposed quadrants. Up until this time it had not mattered that I understood the complications, but once we were both exposed to the theory, we had a basis for discussion.

As I said earlier our primary learning style is the way we move through the world. Not long ago we went to a museum. When we walked in, my husband immediately went to the directory. I looked around and proceeded to an interesting looking room. There were several people at the first exhibit, so I went to an empty one to look at the artifacts and read the descriptions without needing to wait. My husband entered the room and went to the first exhibit. He continued around the room in order, while I chose random exhibits. He read everything that was available at each stop. I lingered at some, re-reading a few entries that I had not absorbed the first time; leaving some with a cursory view and ignoring others entirely.

We were both happy. In the past I would have followed him in chronological order, regardless of whether I had a difficult time because there were people blocking my view of some things, or whether I was totally bored with the presentation. I would have been miserable. On the other hand if he tried to follow me in my random path it would not make sense and he would be miserable.

When he has tried to teach me something new it is a struggle. He supplies relevant facts, but until I have a framework my brain does not know where to put the facts. This causes a tremendous disturbance. I need to have the frame, and, unless I am quite disciplined I will ask the pertinent questions to make sense. However, my teacher does not come to the frame until all the facts have been assembled. Any questions interfere with his train of thought, and his response is most likely to go back to the beginning and retell me the pieces.

The way his brain works requires the assembly of all the pieces in the proper order. My inability to understand is thus interpreted as having missed some of the pieces. To help me he will go back to the beginning. If possible I will try to just hold all these little pieces floating in my brain until he gets to the end and I find out what we are talking about. There are many times I have to ask that question when the pieces start falling away, “What are we talking about?”

As long as I know the subject I can take random pieces and put them in their proper place. Like the jigsaw puzzles I love, there can be many groups of pieces put together that will be moved around the table until they are in the proper part of the picture as it develops. My engineer is building a wall and if the foundation is not correct, it will crumble. To him my questions are random and interfere with the construction.

The opposite can occur if I try to teach him. The overall view does not matter if he does not have the important pieces. If I bounce around from part to part, his wall is in danger of disintegrating. Good teachers need to concentrate on the learner’s style to impart information. The same is true of conversationalists and people who cohabitate.

Our primary Learning Style is only the place where we begin. We use other styles as we progress through the absorption process. This leads to other complications in life.

One of my happiest years as a ski instructor was when Rik Dow returned to Sunday River as director of Perfect Turn. Whether he was aware or not, he has been one of my most important mentors. We worked closely when he came back.

Rik is also a Style 4, and it was heavenly to work alongside someone who shared my brain structure. However, as the season progressed things clouded. I walked into the office one morning to find a chart with about three gazillion notes all over it. My head was in danger of exploding before I had finished reading the first of dozens of slices of the pie.

Where had my compatriot gone? This was the man who had invited me and one other trainer to his office pre-season and asked if we could present the Education Principles on snow. Now, someone was sitting at the desk with tiny scribbles of every possible thing that a person could learn or teach another. I decided that for my sanity I needed to ignore the chart as long as possible.

Then, members of the training staff went through the learning styles assessment, again, in greater depth. This time we determined not only our primary, but also our secondary, learning styles. Mystery solved. Although both of us primarily live in Quadrant 4, Big Picture/Active, we moved in different directions. Rik moved over to Quadrant 1, Big Picture/Reflective (hence the myriad steps on his chart), while I moved down to Quadrant 3 Parts/Active (the reason my supervisor and training coordinator mistakingly think I am not a 4).

Great. So, primarily I am diametrically opposed to my life partner; secondarily I was diametrically opposed to my boss and mentor.

Life is easier when we are around others who share the way our brains work. Were I a pre-marriage councilor I would give the Learning Styles assessment to my clients and heavily suggest that they choose someone who is compatible. In fact I bet almost every true case of a divorce because of irreconcilable differences is a Learning Style problem.

I also know that human relations are always complex, and working through the maze of interactions is the core of life’s journey. Understanding that you think radically differently from your partner or work associate can mitigate many problems because you can see that, truly, “What we have here is a problem of communication.”

(Of course, while everyone can accept that there are different Learning Styles, Style 2 people know in their heart of hearts that when the rest of us grow up, we will all be 2s.)

*If you need to draw things out or take notes or just doodle along the edges, you are simply likely an active learner. Welcome!















Genie Jennings

About Genie Jennings

My blog, as my life, is composed of many interests. Because you are reading this, we must share at least one. They are divided into categories, so you can easily find others on our mutual topic. Also, you can avoid things on which we might diverge. Things labeled 'genie' are general life musings. When I took up fly fishing in earnest, I was struck by how much it was like skiing to me. It is an intricate activity that is easy to enter, and the more one knows, the more one realizes how little one knows. My comment was, "I would love to have something I love that does not require so much effort." I immediately knew that was not true. It is the striving that makes things valuable, and it is the striving that is life. I am evolving; I am becoming many things, a skier, a fly fisherman, an irrationally self-reliant human. I am becoming 'genie' whoever that might be.