Learn More About Your Own Theory of Learning

Framework for Understanding Different Learning Styles


After conducting extensive research into the field of education, including the study of individual learning and the neuroscience of cognition, I discovered the “Leaders of Learning” edX course created and led by Professor Richard Elmore of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Through this online course, I was able to refine my understanding of the learning process and explore innovative approaches to teaching, which I could then apply in my own classroom. In this article, I will detail the knowledge I have acquired and outline my current perspective on the subject of education.

What is the purpose of Education?

In order to survive and thrive in our rapidly-evolving world, continuous transformation is essential. Staying the same, or reaching a state of equilibrium, ultimately leads to stagnation and, eventually, death. Change is the only constant among living things, and our ability to learn is what allows us to stay dynamic over time. The human brain is wired for learning, and that process does not end. Research has indicated that personalizing one’s education to their own interests and objectives can lead to improved memory and recall.

In his 1998 publication The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Professor of Education Frank Smith elucidates his concept of learning as a continual, effortless, and inconspicuous process that is independent of rewards and punishments. According to Smith, learning is boundless, unpremeditated, and based on one’s own self-image. Moreover, he notes that learning is vicarious, never forgotten, inhibited by testing, and a social activity that leads to growth. (Smith, 1998, pp. 1–2)

Different Methods of Instruction

Professor Elmore’s Modes of Learning framework provides a valuable tool for individuals to identify their own personal learning theory. This allows us to question existing assumptions about the nature and process of education, and encourages students to take an active role in determining the manner in which they approach learning. Professor Elmore’s framework classifies educational approaches by degree of hierarchy (horizontal axis) and interdependence between individuals and the group (vertical axis). This results in the concept of four learning quadrants. By recognizing and understanding our own underlying assumptions about education, we can make more informed decisions about our approach to learning. This is a crucial step in shaping the future of education.

The learning styles inventory may be used to determine the present and desired positions on the four-way learning continuum.

The Path to Education’s Future

Wil Richardson outlines five ways in which education is changing. Those things are:

  • Information may be found anywhere: Digital media have made a wide variety of sources of information easily accessible.
  • Teachers may be found everywhere; the key is to find out who has the knowledge to aid in your education.
  • A customised education will allow students to focus on the subjects that most interest them and adapt to their unique needs.
  • The future of education lies in networks, where students and teachers may connect over shared interests and complementary skill sets.
  • In the future, learning opportunities will be ubiquitous, making administration of learning unnecessary. To facilitate this, instruction will be increasingly provided in smaller groups, such as in coffee shops, book clubs, and other settings.

We can see the shift from centralised to decentralised and from individual to group learning in this process.

  1. Individual Hierarchy (Q1)

    The Hierarchical Learning Environment emphasizes individual success, as measured by specific goals, within educational institutions which provide an environment conducive to this kind of study. This concept refers to the view that information can be organized and presented in an organized fashion, and each student is monitored and evaluated as they progress through a measured and tested curriculum. It is essential for students to take ownership and responsibility for their own academic progress, while teachers must be held accountable for ensuring the demonstrable improvement of their students.

    Teachers are responsible for providing students with the information and skills necessary for their success, and it is the students’ responsibility to take ownership of their own education. Consequently, it is essential for teachers to provide effective instruction in order to ensure that students are able to reach their full potential. It is also important to consider how student growth is measured, since standards and evaluations provide insight into what society as a whole believes students should be learning.

    The six-minute TED Talk by Angela Lee Duckworth, a professor of psychology, discusses her notion of “Grit” if you’re interested in this topic.
  2. 2nd Quadrant: Collaborative Hierarchy

    The Hierarchical Collective approach to learning still relies on the notion that knowledge is structured and follows a linear progression. However, it is now viewed as a collaborative effort rather than an individual pursuit. The primary objectives of education should be the promotion of both cognitive and social development. Those who learn best in a hierarchical setting tend to excel in activities such as public speaking and engaging in meaningful dialogue. Furthermore, there are clearly defined criteria for success when learning in this framework, which are rooted in the core principles and goals of the collective.

    Watch Professor Rob Reich of the Stanford Graduate School of Education discuss the Socratic Method if you’re interested in studying in this style.
  3. Third-Quadrant Distributed Individuals

    Individuals who fall into the Distributed Individual Learning quadrant are those who wish to explore their own interests in the manner that they deem fit. Those who have prior experience with online education will be most comfortable with this format. This theory is based on the belief that people have an inherent desire to learn, as well as the capability to decide which information is the most beneficial and interesting to them. However, in order to determine if they have achieved the goals and aspirations they set for themselves, the student must analyse and assess the various and sometimes conflicting sources of information, skill, and experience.

    I highly recommend the TED Talk given by 13-year-old Logan LaPlante if you find this kind of education interesting.
  4. Distributed Collective (Quadrant 4)

    In the Distributed Collective space, students have come together to collaborate and explore their shared interests. This environment has replaced the traditional lecture hall and has allowed for a variety of different experiences to be shared by its members. Everyone brings their own skills and expertise to the table and contributes to the learning environment as a whole. The success of the collective will be determined by the interests and priorities of its members.

At the Moment, This Is How I See Learning

The Leaders of Learning course offers a “Modes of Learning Assessment” that may be beneficial for evaluating one’s current approach to education. By completing the assessment, individuals can gain insight into their educational practices, and the final score may provide a valuable indication of the efficacy of those practices.

I was not surprised to discover that I am a dispersed individual learner. For example, I have always found attending lectures and classroom instruction to be quite unappealing. During my college years, I often skipped classes and did not make an effort to learn about topics that did not interest me, even though I knew that it would benefit me in my exams. However, I take a determined approach when I decide to learn something and do not stop until I have mastered it.

Despite my expectations, the results on the “Collective” axis came as a surprise. As I find it easier to learn when I am surrounded by other people who have similar interests, I had assumed that I would have performed better on those questions. Given that I am convinced that “distributed collective” learning is the future of education, I am now making a concerted effort to become part of learning communities and networks, with the intention of comparing them to the way I usually study alone.


Professor Elmore has asserted that the “Modes of Learning” test is capable of uncovering an individual’s tendency to learn. Furthermore, he suggests that by taking the time to gain an understanding of the different modes, one may recognise that some of their initial assumptions are no longer applicable and that they are instead likely to be strongly drawn to one of the four quadrants. For those who would like to learn more about the various instructional strategies, I would recommend the edX course “Leaders of Learning”.

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