Learning Styles and Diversity

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about learning styles and diversity. Admittedly, this straight, white, Christian, right-handed American male thinks about diversity a lot of the time anyway, but I’m also thinking about learning styles lately as I suffer through a lot of education that doesn’t match my learning style.

  • “Your mileage may vary.”
  • “Reasonable people may disagree.”
  • “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

All of those phrases speak to diversity. To me, diversity is the word we use to remind ourselves that in lots of things, at least 10% of us are different. Not “worse,” just “different.” For example, apparently 10% of us aren’t strictly right-handed. Sociologists tells us that at least 10% of us aren’t strictly homosexual. I’m pretty sure that at least 10% of us prefer blue over red, and at least 10% of us prefer red over blue. Don’t even get me started on those people who prefer earth tones over bright colors (obligatory Reamde reference).

When my employer’s CEO gets nearly apoplectic because her employers aren’t clustering at the front of the auditorium but rather are spread out across the large auditorium, I smirk. Outright laughter would be rude, but I know that at least 10% of the population will just gravitate to the rear of the space, no matter how many times someone tries to cajole them to move forward. When she asks us, during a staff meeting, to explain why we’re in the back, so she can rebut our answers, she’s missing the point. I won’t ask her to explain why our company logo is red instead of blue; that’s a 10% preference. I’m sure some marketing team somewhere can explain why red’s a better color for a logo; just don’t try to use that on IBM, EMC, or Blue Cross/Blue Shield, at least one of whom is a customer of ours. If our logo is red instead of blue, let me sit in back, not in front, even if I can’t provide a nice, logical reason why.

So it is with learning styles, too.

“You need to know more than ‘you need to know,'” was the koan my graduate school advisor invoked frequently. I’m pretty sure I embraced that attitude long before I heard him say it, but he gets the credit. He was telling us to keep track of the whole project, not just our little piece of it, so we’d understand the inputs and how the outputs would be used, among other things. Don’t just know the specifications; know why they’re the specifications and what breaks when the specifications aren’t met.

“Be liberal in what you accept in precise in what you produce,” was another phrase from my early adult years. I heard it in the context of implementing computer standards, such as e-mail. If you can be reasonably sure what the producer meant, even if the inputs aren’t precisely correct, act as if you have the correct inputs. But product correct output as strictly as you can, because you never know when your output will be parsed by some bureaucrat (in mindset, if not in occupation) who can’t handle input that meets the spirit of the specifications but not the letter of them.

But, I digress.

When I start to learn something, I play with it. If I don’t have precise specifications or design criteria about why things are the way they are, I experiment. I break things and put them back together again, partly to see what is necessary to break them, and partly to see what happens when they break. Then I put them back together again and try things a different way. When I play a computerized RPG such as Baldur’s Gate, I don’t just stick to one character class or one alignment (although, admittedly, I skew heavily towards “chaotic” over “lawful,” which is, of course, the diverse way to do things); how does the game differ with a predominantly evil group? The book talks about reaction times and store prices in light of the group’s reputation, which interacts with alignments; how much do those variances matter? When I write programs in a new language, my variable names are sometimes whimsical, irreverent, or worse, depending on my mood. I’m learning. I’m writing code for myself. Writing code can be tedious; I’ll find my fun where I can.

Don’t tell me only the benefits of something. Don’t discuss only one option. If you spend a week telling me that your feces doesn’t stink, I don’t believe you. If it doesn’t stink, why not? How’d you do that? Does it cost more? Why wouldn’t it cost more? How much more does it cost? Does it not stink because of some non-sustainable component you use? Why does someone else’s feces have 15% of the market if yours is so good? If you discuss these points with me and admit that your feces isn’t perfect, then I’ll trust you a lot more than if you seem unaware of or unwilling to admit to the flaws. If you don’t know the flaws or don’t know the alternatives, how well do you know your shit? (There, I said it.)

Don’t give me one narrow path to learn something. Make room for me to wander. I might stay on the path if it all looks boring, but if you get my interest, I’ll play with it. Playing with something isn’t being disrespectful to the teacher; it’s a sign that I’m engaged in the process. It’s a good thing.

Don’t try to teach me dogma. Teach me logic and rationale and reasoning and let me arrive at the rules and generalities on my own. Sometimes I’ll drive the speed limit, and sometimes I’ll judge that it’s safe to drive 72 MPH in a 55 MPH zone on a remote stretch of NY 17 on a dry, calm day. (What, me resent a speeding ticket 25 years later?)

Challenge me. Don’t give me trivially easy exercises unless you can also explain that they’re building blocks for later exercises. I often tell support line personnel that I don’t call in with easy problems; so it is with exercises, too: if I can see the point of the exercise immediately, the new features we’re supposed to use, and if I’m confident that I understand their use and thus the point of the exercise, actually doing the exercise seems tedious. And if the point of the exercise is that using them is trickier than it first seems, why is that? Is it because their use isn’t well defined? If that’s the point, why not just document the precise nuances to begin with?

And if you put me in a class for commercial software developers when I have no intention of writing commercial-grade software, of course my variable names will seem “inappropriate,” and of course I’m not going to bother with all of the code-control parts of the course when some random stranger in the class reviews my code and tries to tell me what’s wrong with it. “No feces, Sherlock. I know that variable name is irreverent.” I’m in the 10% who doesn’t need to follow those rules. Smile and move on. Or smile and hope I opt put of “peer reviews” so I don’t annoy my “peers.” (Yes, we’re all smart enough to work here. I literally was programming before most of my classmates were born. That counts for something.)

Don’t even think of sending me to a vendor conference where seventeen varieties of feces don’t stink unless I’m in a very good mood and display enthusiasm (not a mere lack of resistance) for it.

Anyway, that’s what I’m up to.

PS – I reserve the right to exclude conservative fundamentalists of various ilks and UConn basketball fans (both men’s and women’s)  from the set of “reasonable people” on the grounds that they’re dogmatic, not able (and open) to reason.


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