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The Impact of Learning Styles

As is well known, the root meaning of the word “docent” is “teacher.” For that reason much of the attention currently being focused on learning styles in other educational settings has great applicability to the museum environment as well. Because every visit to a museum of any kind should be a learning experience, it is helpful for docents to consider the learning styles of visitors when planning and conducting tours.

Many approaches to learning styles are available for adaptation to the museum setting. Bernice McCarthy’s Format System was featured at the 1987 Docent Symposium in Toledo. I had an opportunity to explain the Myers- Briggs Type Indicator at the recent symposium in Denver. Without going into great detail, I’d like to discuss briefly how an acknowledgment of differences in learning styles can lead to more satisfaction for both visitors and docents, especially when the goals of a tour involve inquiry teaching.

A concept critical to this endeavor is that “differences are gifts to be cherished, not deficits to be corrected.” This means that a wide variety of types of questions will need to be included in each tour (regardless of the age of the visitors) and a wide variety in the nature and number of responses should be expected and welcomed. Because most of us teach the way we would like to be taught, the danger is that tours will be conducted to meet the needs and desires of “conceptual clones” of the docent!

Four sets of significant differences are examined briefly here and then applied to the museum setting. Each is a component of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which is itself an outgrowth of Carl Jung’s theory of personality. Although there are currently no publications that directly focus on the use of MBTI in museums, two general references that are very helpful are Gordon Lawrence’s People Types and Tiger Stripes (Gainesville, FL: Center for Application of Psychological Type, 1982) and David Kiersey’s and Marilyn Bates’ Please Understand Me (DelMar, CA: Prometheus, 1984). Both are easily ordered from local bookstores if they are not already on the shelves.

Introverts and Extroverts
The first of four differences in learning style (and hence in visitor behavior in a museum) has to do with where information is processed, or how an individual figures things out and tries to make sense of things. Here, the essential difference is between extroverts who process information orally, by talking about it, and introverts who process information internally, by thinking about it. What this difference means is that, when a docent asks a question on a tour, the extroverts (estimated to be about 75% of the general population) will be willing to tackle it immediately because they find it natural to “think out loud.” Extroverts use conversation as a way of conveying their thoughts as those thoughts fonn and develop. Therefore, they are often a boon on tours because they are willing to respond to a docent’ s questions immediately. On the other hand, docents need to be careful not to judge extroverts by what they say when they begin to speak, but rather by their concluding thoughts, which represent their having “thought through” the question.

Introverts, of course, are just the opposite. They prefer to think a response through in their minds before they venture to say anything out loud. This means that there can be a pause (which may seem an eternity to the docent) before an introvert responds to a question. However, the pause doesn’t imply an unwillingness to respond or indicate a judgment being passed on the question asked (or the docent asking it!). Although introverts are seldom the first to answer questions, they are interested in answering them. If the docent asks “Are there any other ideas about this question?” after the discussion seems to have concluded, there are likely to be contributions from introverts that would otherwise be missed.

Sensers and Intuitors
The second significant difference in learning style has to do with how individuals notice things. Here the differences seem to be between those who notice things based on input from their five senses (seeing, hearing, etc.) and those who call upon their “sixth sense.” Members of the former group (about 75% of the population) are sometimes called sensers, while individuals in the latter group are sometimes referred to as intuitors. Clearly there is a case that can be made for the use of all six senses on a museum visit, but the difference between sensers and intuitors helps to explain why visitors react differently to different questions. Sensers enjoy the questions that ask them to notice detail, identify colors and shapes, compare and contrast the specifics of two artifacts. Intuitors, on the other hand, sometimes find the preceding questions too confining. They would prefer to focus on larger themes and enjoy addressing questions that have to do with the mood of a piece of art or the quality of life in a particular historical period. They are also among the more enthusiastic participants in brainstorming sessions, whether in zoos, botanical gardens, or museums.

Thinkers and Feelers
Whatever the setting, visitors on tours are often asked to make judgments about what they observe and experience. Individuals tend to respond to these requests for evaluation from one of two perspectives. Some, a group called thinkers in MBTI terminology, tend to objectively, logically, and analytically make such judgments using facts and data. Others, called feelers in MBTI parlance, call on their values, convictions, and beliefs when making judgments; they take a more subjective, people-oriented approach. Thinkers and feelers are evenly divided among the total population. Differences between them make for very interesting conversations when visitors in museums are asked to determine which work, artifact, or device best exemplifies the spirit of an artist, or a period, or a scientific concept.

Thinkers generally select some criterion to make their decision and then systematically evaluate individual items against that criterion. Feelers, on the other hand, often consult their own personal preferences or consider the impact an item had/has on the lives of individuals (including the artist and the visitor him/herself), or look for items that are reflective of values important to the individual visitor. Of course, asking members of a tour which item (painting, plant, animal, artifact, etc.) they will highlight when they tell others about their visit to the museum, zoo, or botanical garden results in, not only a wide variety of responses, but widely divergent reasons for the choices as well.

Judgers and Perceivers
Although people give many reasons for making their decisions, not everyone is equally inclined to make judgments. In fact, the propensity to evaluate or not is the basis of the fourth set of significant differences according to the MBTI. Here the distinction is between those who automatically evaluate what they observe and experience (the judgers) and those who just as automatically delay making judgments because they keep noticing additional information that could impact upon their decision (the perceivers). This means that judgers, about 50% of the general population, are very responsive to a docent’ s request for evaluations of works, or artists, or influences, or utility. The perceivers’ tendency to remain open to incoming information means that they are fairly willing to tackle unfamiliar materials or ideas, while judgers sometimes make up their minds a bit too quickly about, or against, challenging items or concepts. In this case, judgers can sometimes be asked an informational, rather than evaluative, question. A wonderful example used by the docents at the Toledo Museum of Art is directed toward modem abstract art; instead of asking whether museum visitors like a particular piece, they ask “How do you know this piece was done in the twentieth century?”

The difference between the two questions just described is a good illustration of how knowledge of museum visitors’ learning styles can help a docent enhance the quality of the learning experience these visitors have in the museum. The Myers- Briggs Type Indicator is just one approach to understanding learning styles. The important thing is not which approach to learning styles is used, nor is extensive formal training in any particular perspective on learning styles necessary; what is critical is an understanding of the extent to which attention to learning styles can influence the quality of a visitor’s experience at a museum, or zoo, or botanical garden. Reading about and attending workshops on learning styles can help docents plan and conduct their tours so that a wider variety of visitors can have the kind of learning experience that will make them eager to return for more.

Sister Eileen Rice. OP, is the Program Director of Teacher Education for Siena Heights College, in Adrian. MI. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, she is a well-known and much respected lecturer on the topic of learning styles and motivational strategies for school system and museum in-service training.

Rice, Sister Eileen, “The Impact of Learning Styles,” The Docent Educator 2.1 (Autumn 1992): 4-5.

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