The 4 Ways People Disconnect From Learning

Most school teachers prefer to learn differently than the rest of us do. Only 18% of people prefer to learn in “teacher mode.” 

Unfortunately, this frequently causes the majority of students to become disconnected and give up on educational pursuits, while only a small fraction of the population truly engages with the organized structure of formal schooling.

I’m not talking about “learning styles” by which some people may prefer verbal or aural learning methods, while others prefer visual, physical, or logical styles of learning.​ 

No, I’m talking about “learning preferences,” which describe four modes of engagement and questioning that all students cycle through during every learning experience. 

We call them “preferences” because, while all learners eventually consider the questions related to every quadrant of the spectrum, most of us prefer to begin learning in one of the four modes.​

In fact, 85% of everyone who goes into the teaching professions are most comfortable with asking questions related to “What” a topic is all about. That’s why teachers are most often concerned with delivering the information on the syllabus systematically.

However, we need to appreciate the fact that only 18% of the population prefers to learn with the same approach.​ The rest of us prefer to begin learning something by asking other questions, such as, “Why, How, and What if?”

When a student of any age disengages or disconnects, it’s usually because they haven’t answered their initial question about the topic. We may not continue learning until we can satisfy the learning objective characterized by our preferred mode of learning.​

Here are the four categories, represented by the primary question, the main concern, and how disconnection happens in each mode.

  1. “Why?”
    1. Students are mainly concerned with finding personal meaning and relevance to the topic at hand.
    2. Students get disconnected ​when the content seems personally irrelevant, lacking meaningful purpose, or the teacher fails to connect with a student on a personal level warmly.
  2. “What?”
    1. Students are mainly concerned with receiving information, knowledge, and facts in an organized manner.
    2. Students get disconnected when the course is missing an organized structure, or when fluid discussions of the humanities or “softer” subjects proceed too long without data and facts.
  3. “How?”
    1. Students are mainly concerned with manipulating materials and information kinesthetically, even without all the facts.
    2. Students get disconnected ​by getting distracted prematurely in the lesson, wanting to take the first piece of information to manipulate and try out new ideas, even without all the knowledge.
  4. “What if?”
    1. Students are mainly concerned with applying knowledge and evaluating, wanting a good challenge.
    2. Students get disconnected ​when it is impossible to challenge the course structure, or give any input to the instructor, discouraging any sense of new possibilities or improving the status quo.

Do you see yourself most strongly represented by any particular mode? 

Remember, we all go through all stages of questioning and engagement during any significant learning experience.

Think about how each of the stages might play out during the process of shopping and buying a new car.

  1. “Why?” people want to feel a warm personal connection to the salesperson. If the salesperson is rude or doesn’t make an effort to connect​ personally, the buyer likely won’t progress to the other parts of the process, like comparing features or taking a test drive. On the other hand, if the salesperson starts by offering a warm cookie and lemonade, “why” people see it as a meaningful and important gesture.
  2. “What?” people will likely walk up to the dealership knowing all the numbers, facts, and features of the car they prefer. (This is how most teachers would theoretically shop for a car.)​ They probably already know exactly what car they want along with its price and trim level – they’ve already decided everything except for the color of the car, which doesn’t matter so much because it doesn’t make a functional difference. They don’t really care for “fluffy small talk” that the “why” people love so much​.
  3. “How?” people don’t want to get bogged down with the nitty-gritty details of the car. “How” people want to manipulate the environment and try stuff out, even without all the complete information. They’re going to need to take a test drive before they start asking other questions like the price of the car.
  4. “What if?” people want to buy a Tesla or another super cool car. They’re excited by the idea that they could drive something exceptional that would place them squarely outside of the norm. They don’t want to blend in; they challenge the status quo, question old assumptions, and buy a car that makes a bold statement to everyone on the road.

If you can key into your most burning question and how to get it answered, it can help you to persist through unfamiliar territory.

What’s your preferred way to approach new learning experiences?​