Is flexible learning a new concept or just a fancy new word?

Is flexible learning a new concept or just a fancy new word for an old way of doing?

We are flexible learners

Human beings are designed for flexible learning from the time we are born we start to learn through experience and experimentation. Although closely related learning is not the same as education. Learning is the process through which knowledge is acquired by an individual, education is the process by which knowledge is imparted for the purpose of making changes to knowledge, skills and attitudes of individuals, groups or communities (Knowles & Swanson, 2005). Education has the intention of stimulating learning. John Dewey (1859-1952) believed that education should engage with and enlarge on experience, I find his thoughts on education remarkable as he died in the year I was born and I did not notice his influence in any part of my formal education as a child. Dewey considered reflection on experience to be a key element in the learning process. Knowles (2005) believed that adults learn differently to children, adults seek out learning and knowledge and relate this to their prior knowledge and previous experience. Practical experience is a key component of learning for adult learners. Learning occurs through establishing neural pathways, there has been a great deal of research in this area of learning in recent years (Winkley, 2008) listening to music and engaging in physical activity can enhance the ability to absorb and retain information.

Learning styles

Not all people learn in the same way this has been explained through various theories.

One such theory is Kolb’s learning styles:

Kolb stated that learning occurs in a four stage cycle. Learning begins with stage one with a concrete experience, this provides the opportunity for stage two observation and reflection and is followed by stage three, abstract conceptualization, when these reflections and observations are assimilated and finally stage four, where there is active experimentation and this new learning is tested, this may provide an experience which starts the cycle of learning once again.

This cycle is matched by four learning styles, diverging, assimilating, converging and accommodating, illustrated in this diagram. These four styles sit alongside the learning cycle and lead to learning preferences where individuals prefer to learn by feeling and thinking or by doing and watching

Kolb suggests that learning styles may change through the individuals life cycle. During the school years individuals are mainly acquiring knowledge, during early adulthood individuals have a specialised learning style and in mid to later life they are integrating knowledge.

Following is copied from Kolb’s learning styles

  • Diverging (feeling and watching – CE/RO) – These people are able to look at things from different perspectives. They are sensitive. They prefer to watch rather than do, tending to gather information and use imagination to solve problems. They are best at viewing concrete situations several different viewpoints. Kolb called this style ‘Diverging’ because these people perform better in situations that require ideas-generation, for example, brainstorming. People with a Diverging learning style have broad cultural interests and like to gather information. They are interested in people, tend to be imaginative and emotional, and tend to be strong in the arts. People with the Diverging style prefer to work in groups, to listen with an open mind and to receive personal feedback.
  • Assimilating (watching and thinking – AC/RO) – The Assimilating learning preference is for a concise, logical approach. Ideas and concepts are more important than people. These people require good clear explanation rather than practical opportunity. They excel at understanding wide-ranging information and organising it a clear logical format. People with an Assimilating learning style are less focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts. People with this style are more attracted to logically sound theories than approaches based on practical value. These learning style people is important for effectiveness in information and science careers. In formal learning situations, people with this style prefer readings, lectures, exploring analytical models, and having time to think things through.
  • Converging (doing and thinking – AC/AE) – People with a Converging learning style can solve problems and will use their learning to find solutions to practical issues. They prefer technical tasks, and are less concerned with people and interpersonal aspects. People with a Converging learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They can solve problems and make decisions by finding solutions to questions and problems. People with a Converging learning style are more attracted to technical tasks and problems than social or interpersonal issues. A Converging learning style enables specialist and technology abilities. People with a Converging style like to experiment with new ideas, to simulate, and to work with practical applications.
  • Accommodating (doing and feeling – CE/AE) – The Accommodating learning style is ‘hands-on’, and relies on intuition rather than logic. These people use other people’s analysis, and prefer to take a practical, experiential approach. They are attracted to new challenges and experiences, and to carrying out plans. They commonly act on ‘gut’ instinct rather than logical analysis. People with an Accommodating learning style will tend to rely on others for information than carry out their own analysis. This learning style is prevalent and useful in roles requiring action and initiative. People with an Accommodating learning style prefer to work in teams to complete tasks. They set targets and actively work in the field trying different ways to achieve an objective.
  • The above was copied from Kolbs learning styles

Other learning styles and theories

There are many other theories associated with learning these are listed here. The major framework covering adult learning is the Constructivist Theory which suggests learning occurs through constructing new ideas and concepts based on previous knowledge and experience.

Learners may also be classified as Visual, Auditory, Readers (writers) or Kinaesthetic. These may be learners who prefer to see, hear or do. Learners may also be a mix of these styles but usually have a preference for one more than the others. There are various online tests to help test your Vark learning preferences.

As technology has developed it has been used to support learning. This has been so from the beginning of time. In my family we have some old slates and lead that were used for previous generations school work. In 1948 distance learning began in Australia, with the School of the Air, when the Royal Flying Doctors radio service was used to broadcast school lessons to children living remotely. Adult education has generally been delivered in a flexible manner with classes being offered in the evening and at weekends.

Differences in learning styles require learning to be delivered in a flexible manner to take account of difference. What we learn builds on our previous experience which is unique to each individual , therefore learning opportunities need to be delivered in a flexible manner taking account of individual preferences. Where we live affects how and when we can access education. As communication technology has developed it has been used to support education and learning. Flexible learning is not a new phenomenon but has become a topic of greater awareness and concern in recent years. This has occurred in part due to greater uptake of higher education as well as increased knowledge of difference in learning styles and learning preference.


Knowles, M., Swanson, R. A. (2005), The adult learner. (6th Ed) New York: Butterworth Heinemann

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  1. Someone took this posting and placed it in another blog elsewhere. Unfortunately I did not bookmark the site I found it on, but the entire blog seemed to be pilfered material. I don’t mind this if there was some indication where the original source was for the posting but I could not find that information on the blog at all. Has anyone else come across this sort of thing? Is it OK to do this? Personally I feel guilty taking even a small piece of another blog posting even if I do acknowledge the source, as I did in this post actually with the section on Kolb that I have indicated is borrowed. I felt that it was put so well here and I would be able to do it no better.

  2. Yes, these sorts of blogs are common. They are designed to reap advertising payouts through Google’s ad payment scheme. Don’t worry, it doesn’t affect your work negatively.

  3. some great theory here carolyn. I like the way you have described the development of FL over the years, summarised some learning theories and linked in the importance of learning styles.

    It is not surprising that you did not get to bask in the wisdom of Dewey’s work until last year when you participated informally (at first) in an online course; often it takes many many years for the wisdom to filter to the masses.

    Don’t forget Vgotsky ( and social constructivist learning. A lot of educationalists believe that social interaction is the most important aspect of learning and especially online learning.

    If we are to take account of learning styles and preferences, how do you believe this could impact on the cost-effectiveness of a flexible course? Is it feasible to provide resources and strategies to suit every learner?

    Have you seen Felderman and solomon’s Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire ( It has a broader and more indepth analysis tool than the Vark.

    also Kolb and Honey & mumford learning styles
    A wonderful post.

  4. Thanks for your comment here Bronwyn. I have looked at the references you have given here. Thanks for those. I am just starting to think about education and partnership models. In the midwifery field early arguments against continuity and partnership were that they would be too expensive. I believe that these arguments have been disproved over time. Also many were concerned about the move away from routine practices to individualised care, stating it was unmanageable in a busy maternity facility. This as also been an unfounded concern in the institutions that have gone to more individualised care.
    I think that it would be a similar situation in education. When considering change it often seems too hard however there often is a better way to do things.

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