March 26th, 2014

What’s Your Learning Philosophy?


I love it when something in the blog leads us to new ideas and insights. Neil Haave, who teaches on the Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, submitted an article on learning philosophies. (You can find the article in the April issue of The Teaching Professor newsletter) His thinking about learning philosophies was stimulated by his experience evaluating e-portfolios, which were being piloted on his campus, and by a couple of posts on this blog (November 13, 2013 and January 22, 2014). He was struck by how few insights the seniors preparing these portfolios had about themselves as learners and came to the conclusion that they should start writing about how they learn long before the end of their academic careers.

Haave makes a distinction between learning styles and a learning philosophy. Although some experts are now questioning whether learning styles exist (in the manner we’ve come to know them), the preference for a particular approach to learning is thought to be innate. A learning philosophy is something that reflects what a learner has discovered and come to believe about learning. It answers, not the “how” questions (of style) or the “what” questions (of content), but the “why” questions. Why are you learning? What role does learning play in your professional and personal life?

There are questions to ask before a learning experience, such as: How do you decide what you need to learn? And question to ask after: Was it worth learning? How do you know? If you were to learn it again, would you approach learning it in a different way? Why? In the process of learning this, did you discover anything about yourself as a learner? I agree with Haave. These are not questions most students have ever considered.

But Haave made another point that has been chasing me around for the last several weeks. He notes that we are all familiar with teaching philosophies. In fact, most of us have prepared them. But how many of us have crafted a learning philosophy?

I dug out my teaching philosophy statement and was stunned by its almost exclusive focus on teaching. There are some passing references made to learning, but no critical analysis of my beliefs about it. So I’ve started trying to write my learning philosophy, and it seems to be coalescing around three areas; beliefs about learning in general, beliefs about the relationship between teaching and learning, and beliefs about myself as a learner. In the first category, I’ve been thinking about the role of learning in a democratic society and what happens when people do and don’t value learning.

The second section is the longest: Do I believe all college students can learn the content I teach? Do I believe students who don’t learn something the first time ought to get a second chance? Do I think the students who have to work harder have less intellectual ability or are they just less able learners? Do I believe you can teach students to love learning? When teaching doesn’t produce learning across multiple students after repeated efforts, is that type of teaching ethical?

I’m embarrassed by how little I’ve considered what I know and believe about myself as a learner. When am I at my learning best and worst, and what do I take from those experiences? How do I handle learning that is hard? How do I deal with failure? Do I spend too much time learning what I love and avoid everything else? Do the ways I approach learning inspire those I teach?

Is there merit in crafting a learning philosophy? I think there is. My colleague and friend Larry observed that the more we know and understand about learning, the more we have a coherent theory of learning, and the easier it is to make good decisions about how to teach. Then we can select techniques because we understand how and why they promote learning, and not simply because they look and sound good.

Have you written a learning philosophy? If so, what questions did you answer? Be welcome to cut and paste pieces below and share what you learned by preparing one. I wonder how our academic administrators would respond to learning philosophies, instead of teaching philosophies or teaching philosophies, bolstered with critical analysis of bedrock beliefs about learning.

  • E. Anne Andrews, MSW

    by Anne Andrews, Professor
    There are two terms associated with education and learning. One you have experienced in your life and the other you probably have some awareness or concept of… yet never put a name to either.

    Pedagogy vs. Andragogy
    Both of these are two sides or aspects of the learning experience and also used to describe the theories of learning in education.

    Pedagogy has been around for years and is the means by which 99% of us were taught (and hopefully learned) from very early on in life. It is didactic, traditional, and teacher centered. It developed in the early Middle Ages when children were expected to be obedient, faithful, and efficient servants of the church thus taught in religious or monastic schools by the members of religious orders (monks). Pedagogy is described as the art and science of teaching children. In this style the “teacher has full responsibility for making decisions about what will be learned, how it will be learned, when it will be learned, and decides if the material is learned.” The learner only needs to know what the teacher teaches them. This promotes dependency on the teacher.

    But we (you and I) are not children. We are adults, although in a wide span of ages (17-65+). As adults grow and mature they become increasingly independent and responsible for their own actions. Adults are often motivated to learn by a sincere desire to solve immediate problems and led by an increasing need to be self-directing. In the 20th century a term arose that has come to be the term for educating adults: andragogy. This term is mainly identified with Malcolm Knowles, an educator at Boston University, and has become known as the art and science of educating adults. Although the terms should be considered as different sides of learning, not set in opposition of one or the other.

    Knowles held four basic assumptions about adults.
    Adults acted in the following ways:
    1.Their movement is from dependency to independent or self-directedness.
    2.Their resources of experiences are used as a basis for building learning.
    3.Readiness of learning is connected to the development of tasks and social roles.
    4.The timeliness of their learning moves from postponed use to immediate application and from subject-centered to performance-centered.

    He also discovered that “people who take initiative in educational activities seem to learn more and learn better.” In our modern world of innovative approaches to education (TV classes, online courses, self-help texts, etc.) there enters a stronger need for learners to assume the heavy responsibility and initiative of their own learning.

    So, where are you in this process? Can you identify your time of being taught by a system of pedagogy? Do you see yourself as the adult learner being so described here? What feelings can you name or recall from either of these methods as defined? And finally, what does all this say to you about your process of learning?

    I was taught in the earlier model but somewhere about the age of 14-15 I shifted into a more adult model and took on the responsibility of my own learning. What a freedom I discovered. The early methods felt suffocating and rigid. I wanted to know more, and I was wiling to dig for the reasons, theories, and answers. I loved problem solving and investigating new situations. My only downfall was becoming so engrossed in new ideas and learning that I could easily find myself obsessed with the topic, but I sure learned a lot. It was to guide my learning style for the rest of my life, and it has made a huge impact on my teaching style.

    In my class I hope to challenge you to think for yourself, to become curious enough to dig and search for more information, and to love the learning in such a way that you not just do the work assigned but work to do the best effort you have possible. I am a facilitator. I offer information; guide the process of discovering it, and open doors. Yes, I do assign work, and I do grade it. It is your responsibility to be the adult learner. Go for it. Discover yourself.

    Resource: (note: how adragogy was spelled online) For further reading:
    Knowles, M.S. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species. Houston: Gulf Publishing.

    • Neil Haave

      Really interesting learning and teaching philosophy statement that invites students to consider where they lie on this spectrum between andragogy and pedagogy. I think I might use this in my own conversations with students about their learning philosophy.

      I am interested if you have noticed students (post-secondary) having difficulties moving from pedagogy to andragogy? In my teaching experience I find that students will state on course evaluations that they are bored with the teacher-centric approach (traditional lecture) yet when the teaching strategy changes to one that is more student-centric (e.g. team-based learning) there is much resistance from students in taking on that greater responsibility for their own learning.

      This is where I find having students articulate a learning philosophy can help them recognize the disconnect in themselves between what they want vs what they are willing to take responsibility for in their own education.

      • Paul Williamson

        Unfortunate, in some ways, student evaluations dictate my performance evaluation and keeping my job. Students are fickle. I have experienced the same. Bored by persistent lecturing, I construct in-class team work and try to institute more active learning experiences. Change can be difficult and students are often emotionally driven first before being cognitively balanced. Finding a student's motivation and joy of learning can be revealed often by demonstrating my own joy of learning. Then I can take advantage of the students joy of learning. Eventually though, a learner must determine their own desire and motivation for learning.

        • Neil Haave

          Paul, you raise a really important point: the risk faculty take when trying to meta-cognitively engage their students. If students are unwilling to do this work (for example as part of an e-portfolio or when doing self and peer assessments) then the blow back can be severe on end-of-term course evaluations. Sometimes I wonder, given the realities of the academic world, if pre-tenure faculty need to be wary in implementing such student-centred teaching strategies until after they have achieved tenure. Sad state of affairs when our goal is to enable students' deep learning.

  • Karen Adsit

    Here is mine…Not perfect — yet!!!!! I have been working on it for a couple of years. Would love feedback and suggestions. I don't think we share these enough — with other faculty or with our students. (I post mine for students.)
    –All students are "grown up" and they can, should (and will be expected to) take responsibility for their own learning.
    –To learn, people must actively participate in the learning environment in a productive, engaged manner.
    –Theory and practice go hand in hand and are inseparable.
    –We can learn more as a group than we can learn on our own. Sharing ideas, concepts, resources, etc. extends the learning environment and enriches the learning process.
    –I believe that as a part of learning teams, we all (students and faculty alike) must respect others and take responsibility for the course–how the class proceeds and how it evolves.
    –I believe that, as a teacher, I have a responsibility to maintain my knowledge and skills in my areas of expertise and to learn from my students.
    –I believe that, as a teacher, I have the responsibility to my students to give constructive feedback in a timely manner on all assignments and projects.

    • Paul Williamson

      Sometimes I view my classroom as a laboratory for trying new methods of teaching. As long as I am remaining true to the course objectives and helping students achieve fulfillment of the course objectives, I try one or two new methods a semester.

      I agree with your comments. Have you been reading my learning/teaching philosophy?

      True mentoring is important for me to improve my teaching skill, but it is difficult to find much less expect the time it takes for someone to fill that role. This is a great forum for both mentor and mentee.

  • Gerald Grow

    My sense is that learners' philosophies change as they gain more experience, content knowledge, and learning skills, so that learners become capable of more self-direction.

    Some learners think of themselves as self-directed before they gain the skills, knowledge, and motivation needed to be self-directed, and it is not always helpful to expect them to be independent learners. Many students need more coaching, deadlines, interaction, and evaluation from a teacher than they believe, and, left on their own, may become distracted from an independent learning project and not carry it out successfully.

    My thoughts on matching teaching with learning can be found at the link below, where a widely reprinted chart summarizes the approach. Basically, adapt your teaching to the student's degree of self-direction, in a way that advances that self-direction.

    "Teaching Learners to be More Self-Directed" first appeared in Adult Education Quarterly, and it is available online at:

    • Neil Haave

      Gerald, this is exactly the difficulty I have when teaching many students enrolled in the same course who are each at different points in their own learning development. Some students will require a more pedagogical approach while others are craving greater andragogy in the teaching strategies used by the instructor.

      How do you manage the construction of your courses' learning environments with a variety of students who each will require/desire a more student-centered vs instructor-centered style of teaching? This is the balancing act I find changes at the beginning of each course and requires a very personal response from myself, the instructor, to the personal learning needs of each student. Very difficult to do in larger classes.

  • Bob Loser

    Great topic. This is what I post in my bio for my online courses:

    I am most interested in how to achieve deep, meaningful, long-lasting learning. From the research I have studied, I conclude that purposeful significant learning requires strong motivation, active engagement in inquiry, and interaction with and feedback from others. As an instructor, I think my job is to help you find your own strong motives to learn, to suggest appropriate questions and problems for inquiry and practice, to promote a learning community within the class, and to provide guidance and feedback.

  • Swoop

    I enjoyed this post, and it's got me thinking about my own learning philosophy. I hope to sketch something out soon, but already I realize that what I most love learning about is learning itself, and how that relates to teaching. They WHY is a great question.

    I was disappointed though to see the continued reference to "learning styles" in the post. Based on what I learned in the past I've dug into the research on learning styles, and read much by Dan Willingham. There really seems NO credible evidence that learning styles exist. At least they don't exist in a way that has any tangible meaning. The concept seems mostly a crutch that students use to account for disappointing performance or a class/instructor they don't like. Don't get me wrong. I am a big believer in using a diversity of approaches in teaching, but it's not because of any evidence based belief in learning styles. It just makes sense that variety helps hold interest and focus.

    So now it seems many are using "learning preferences" as a surrogate for learning styles – even Maryellen Weimer, who I respect so deeply. Can someone explain this to me? If there is almost no evidence that there are learning styles that affect learning, where do "learning preferences" come into play. What do they even mean?

    Here's a couple of articles that Maryellen cited in her post "The Myth of Learning Styles" from 2011. I've sent that post to many colleagues since.
    Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 105-119. Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., and Bjork, R. (2010).

    The myth of learning styles. Change, (September/October), 32-35. Riener, C. and Willingham, D. (2010).

    • Neil Haave

      Yes, this myth of learning styles is really interesting. It is why I try, and I think Maryellen indicates in the blog post above, to have students develop a learning philosophy in an effort to circumvent their assumption that they have an innate learning style. Learning is learned. The impetus for getting students engaged in developing their own learning philosophy is so that they might take responsibility for their own learning. A pet peeve of mine is the instrumental approach to education of many students: take a course to earn the grade, credit and eventually the parchment. Rather, my hope is that by developing a learning philosophy, students might instead consider how their education is preparing them for who and what they wish to be by asking themselves how and why they learn.

  • Michael Porte

    My lifetime learning philosophy is simple. Learn something new every day. Listen carefully to what others say. Meditate on it.

  • Gardner Lepp PhD

    I'm really interested in this topic, and I've been working with a colleague on a process that we're calling Intention/Reflection. We've been using it for over a year now, and it's proving to be a very interesting experience. Essentially, we ask learners (be they faculty, students, professionals, etc) WHAT they intend to learn in a given experience, HOW they intend to accomplish that goal, and WHY they intend to learn it. After the experience (classroom, course, seminar, etc.) we ask similar questions. We're finding that this metacognitive approach resonates with many learners. Personally, I find it fascinating!

    • Neil Haave

      This is exactly what I am trying to do with my students – ask students to consider what, why and how they learn. I am particularly interested in how their answers to these questions develop over the course of their university degree program and why I am trying to use e-portfolios to help students develop their learning philosophy. Sometimes when students come to me to discuss their difficulties in studying/learning course material I find it helpful to ask the other two questions: when and where do you learn? That can often be telling in terms of how they prioritize the work and effort required to learn. Are they trying study late at night? Are they trying to study while on the bus to class? Would it be better to study first thing in the morning? Would they be more productive if they studied in the library? Are they better able to engage the course material alone or in a study group? Basic questions, but important ones for students to consider when constructing their own best learning strategy.

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  • antonemgoyak

    Love this post. And it so parallels what Weimer discusses in her book, Learner-Centered Teaching. I do think we need to be careful as educators because our classroom can be so teacher-focused that we miss the true essence of the classroom: our students "getting it." It is about their success and what they take away. A learning philosophy speaks to what makes them powerful thinkers and communicators, not what makes US powerful thinkers and communicators. This post is causing me to think this morning and serves as a reminder that I must stay current in the research so that I am an expert at what tool to use for any given learning objective. "We…select techniques because we understand how and why they promote learning, and not simply because they look and sound good."

    • Neil Haave

      Thanks so much for this post. It lead me to your blog which lead me to Maryellen's 2003 article: Focus on Learning, Transform Teaching (Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 35:5, 48-54, DOI: 10.1080/00091380309604119). I really like her idea that you raise on your blog about viewing course content as a means to developing students rather than as an end in itself. Now there is something that is going to impact my teaching philosophy…

      Thanks again.

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