T-11 Learning Styles

  • Introduction
  • Either/Or – Analysis
  • Or – Synthesis
  • And – Fusion
  • Both/And – Paradox
  • Interpolator – Systems Synthesis
  • Wrapping It Up

Tutorial #11 – Learning Styles and

Some Visual “Interpretive Patterns”

I’ve often said that, “The way we ask our question preconditions our answer.” For instance, if we ask, “WHAT is the church?” we typically get vastly different responses than if we ask, “WHO is the church?”

I am of the opinion that most discussions of today’s spiritual movements and ministry methods overfocus on questions that are too shallow. (Do you find that shocking?) How often I’ve participated in or overheard “conversations” that end up diving into specific points of theology, but with almost no recognition that our information processing modes shape the ways we put together our theology. In technical terms, we talk about theological issues without going deeper into our epistemological assumptions, and those are what create the kinds of questions that interest us. And so, I believe we could be asking far better questions if we decided to explore epistemologies, and that learning style theories and applications give us key tools to do just that.

I wrote this article in 2009 in an attempt to boil down to the bare essentials what I think I’ve learned about information processing modes. Many of my blog posts of the past few years have explored questions I think delve deeper under the theological points. I believe learning style theories and applications are critically important to understanding paradigm analysis – which is one skills I find of the most help in understanding the times and discerning what disciples should do – and I hope you will find some insights here that link you into that skill.


Part of what I’d hoped to do with learning styles is get to some “interpretive patterns” that represent visually what various learning style process elements look like. I searched the F0t0lia.com stock photos files to see what I could find. Here they are, with some descriptions of everyday ways I’ve found in listening to people in order to understand how they think.

We’ve talked a lot about “either/or” and “both/and” thinking, and yet there are other patterns. When we get into our culture modules, I’ll show how these individual patterns get compounded at the societal level, as there are entire cultures that present themselves in one dominant thinking pattern. Meanwhile, here are five different individual patterns, with pictures and descriptions to go with each:

  • Either/or (analysis)
  • Or (synthesis)
  • And (fusion)
  • Both/And (paradox)
  • Interpolator (systems synthesis)

Either/Or – Analysis

Learning Styles 1 ~ “Either/Or” ~ Analysis

Business Organizer. Some of us prefer details, often presented in lists of words or phrases instead of full sentences. We like the format of bullet lists, check lists, check boxes, calendars, and schedules. These often represent to-do tasks that we can tick off as we finish (and if we do something not on the list, we often will add it to our list and then cross it off). EITHER we have done the item, OR we have not.

Sometimes we hear our abilities described in such negative terms as “bean counters” or “over-detailed” or “constipated.” But we are the ones who make sure the paperwork is filled out correctly, who follow the schedule so we don’t get docked for being late, who ensure that rules are followed when it means people stay safe. Believe it or not, sticking with procedures can be an important contribution to keeping a team safe by avoiding know points of trouble … if you’ll just give us a chance.

Learning Styles 2 ~ “Either/Or” ~ Analysis

Leaf. Some of us prefer details, but instead of lists and tasks, our penchant is toward concepts. We like to break things down into their component parts, figuring out what elements EITHER are OR are not in the whole. This are key processes in analyzing, and much background work and improvement rely on someone who can do this.

Sometimes we hear our abilities described negative terms like “to dissect it is to kill it” or that we’re “reducing things to death.” But we are the ones who make sure items are analyzed for their positive abilities or their poisons, and that is certainly something that’s needed in ministry, isn’t it? Also, we can help a team by doing the sorts of conceptual research and cultural fieldwork needed to come up with a wider understanding of the bridges and barriers in a particular neighborhood or culture.

Learning Styles 3 ~ “Either/Or” ~ Analysis

Flowchart. Some of us prefer concepts, but we like to focus on processes instead of on just products alone. We can “mentally model” processes in our heads, or using flowcharts and mindmaps, to determine what could possibly result a particular process goes EITHER this direction, OR that direction, OR some other direction. This process is crucial to critiquing and improving our plans – whether before they’re implemented or after.

We might be criticized as “too theoretical” or “overanalytic.” But people tend to come to us when they need to think things through and critique concepts before they are implemented … we can save them significant amounts of time and money if they’ll let us do what we’re designed to do. The ways our mind works can be crucial to identifying the best strategy for ministry teams to take. That’s because the most “strategic” course is seldom in a straight line from the starting place to the goal; it’s most often a series of twists and turns to avoid barriers. Give us a chance and we can help identify the options that could either smooth the way or cause us problems.

Or – Synthesis

Learning Styles 4 ~ “Or” ~ Synthesis

Paintball – Splattergram. Some of us generate thoughts so quickly that we come up with a series of all kinds of options with hardly more than a “So, whadda you think …” to get us started. Our ideas may be practical or impractical, mundane or magical, crazy and maybe not necessarily connected (or at least not seemingly so). It could be this, OR that, OR the other, OR perhaps something else. Or … or … or … We excel at synthesis of creative ideas, output at a quick pace, plus we can actually fabricate some real-world projects using our creative points of option.

We can be criticized for making people feel like they’re being subjected to a rapid fire round of ideas or projects. We don’t mean to come across as ministry machineguns. But our streams of imaginative possibilities can certainly be of help to get some creativity going, and – since we’re all about change – we can help people adjust to changes beyond their control. And since our teams will all have to navigate through the currents of global culture changes, maybe our presence can restabilize a rocky ministry boat.

And – Fusion

Learning Styles 5 ~ “And” ~ Fusion

Whirlpool. Some of us seem to go in circles, whirling from one topic to another to another. These may seem like nothing but a stream of consciousness to others, but the thing is, we actually see these topics as interrelated. There is some point of connection between each segment in the circle … even if the relevance is so deep that we cannot easily bring it to the surface. And if we lose track of where we were in the line of thoughts, we shouldn’t get too upset – eventually our minds will track back to the point where we left off and pick things up again.

We hear often enough that we are “ditsy,” “can’t focus,” and that we say things that are “off the wall.” But in fact, because we draw everything in as relevant in some way or another, if others would let us figure it out, we’d perhaps find the exact point of relevance. Also, we hear critiques like “you never finish anything” and “you’re right back where you started.” While it’s sometimes true that we don’t follow through, in reality, there are times when our projects are more like cycles, not circles: We come back around to a very similar situation as before, but it’s actually a similar issue AND at a deeper level than the previous time. We are not the same person we were then, and circumstances are not the same. Give us a chance, and we can help remind our team of cycles and seasons of growth. And, since we find all things relevant, you may find us far more inclusive than most of different people on our team. A team without diversity isn’t really much of team.

Learning Styles 6 ~ “And” ~ Fusion

Spider Web. Some of us have minds that process very fast and can quickly go down a dazzling number of possible directions. Our line of reasoning takes us through interconnected threads that branch off to multiple different “nodes” and cross-over points, much like a large and complex spiderweb. Where the threads merge creates our “AND points.” It might appear our mind works like a flowchart or whirlpool, except we seem to be more intent on keeping the full set of threads and connections intact instead of dividing the paths into either this way or that (flowchart) or merging everything together and losing individual characteristics of the parts (whirlpool).

We’re often accused of “bringing up irrelevant subjects,” or of “going off on rabbit trails.” But it’s not exactly a “rabbit trail.” Rather, it’s more like our minds went half a dozen steps ahead in the webwork of interconnections, down a few threads and through a few junctures. And, unfortunately, you only know the first and last in our series of quicksteps, as we failed to fill you in on all the inbetween steps. Which, by the way, seem perfectly “logical” to us even if invisible to others. Since we often focus on processes, we can help bring a team together by finding multiple paths to get people from different starting places to end up at the same goal.

Both/And – Paradox

Learning Styles 7 ~ “Both/And” ~ Paradox

Double Helix. If some of us go ’round in circles, others of us seem to do that plus with a push-pull paradox that twists topics around like a double helix. It’s as if we’re BOTH comparing AND contrasting constantly, while examining a topic simultaneously from multiple points of view. For instance, we’re constantly looking at the unfolding of events in the concrete world around us and asking the conceptual/interpretive question, “What is God up to in the midst of this?” In painful circumstances, we look for redemptive purposes. In difficulties, we find a devotional edge.

You might hear us say, “Yes, but …” a lot, which indicates our partial agreement with what you’re saying, yet attempting to remind you that there is another pole to your point, another perspective to your story, another complementary item that rounds out your musings. Sorry if you find it annoying when we do that … We don’t mean to be invalidating, and often, the other side of the topic just pops out of our mouth because we’re engaged with what you’re saying and our internal twist-o-matic has gone and done it again. Give us a chance, and we’ll help our team keep in mind things that need to be kept in “dynamic tension” and keep in balance polar opposites that need to be kept in paradox. Since our minds automatically keep multiple elements together, we also can help teams keep BOTH details AND a holistic, big picture in mind. And, with our dual focus on what’s going on BOTH in heaven AND on earth, you might find us some of your best partners for prayer and discernment.

Interpolator – Systems Synthesis

Learning Styles 8 ~ “Both/And” ~ Paradox

Filing Cabinet/Grid … What if there’s a way of processing information that seems to be all-in-one? What would it look like if we could think in both concrete tasks and conceptual ideas? Plus in both linear lists or flowcharts, and in web structures or cyclical patterns? Plus in the comparison and contrast of polarities, and in the dynamic tension of paradox? And what would that look like? What thing could combine points and parts, processes and products? That’s how an “interpolator’s” mind works, and why they are often able to bridge over the divides between people with other thinking patterns often cannot get past.

It seems best described in terms of a three-dimensional object with multiple movements. So, imagine the mind as a 3D grid of filing cabinets: row upon row, and stack upon stack. Suppose you are given a very complex question to answer, problem to solve, or opinion to formulate – with a very limited time to do it in. Then imagine that in the micro-seconds between when your brain decides Ummm? and you open your mouth to say, “I don’t know,” something dramatic happens. It’s as if all the file cabinets come to life, like something right out of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia. Certain file drawers all across the grid suddenly pop open, up jump a file folder or two, and as they flip open, some text from papers inside cut-and-paste themselves onto a flying clipboard, which then transforms into a coffee grinder and the clipboard papers pulverize into powder, through which a fountain of water zooms through, distilling into a single drop the essence of the cut-and-pastes, and that drop rolls around and down a chute and then out of your mouth suddenly comes a completely unexpected and brilliant response … to the surprise of all, including you.

Learning Styles 9 ~ “Both/And” ~ Paradox

… and Rubik’s Cube. Or perhaps it’s like a Rubik’s Cube where a few quick turns can realign previously mixed up elements into a pattern that actually makes sense – even if you cannot retrace the steps your hands took in turning things ’round right.

Give us a chance on your team, and perhaps we can help break with a skewed or shrewd thought that helps through the barriers when the way seems stuck. But just don’t expect us to explain exactly what process got us to that point, or something even more wild may emerge when we intend to say, “I don’t know” to that question!

Wrapping It Up

So – what do you think?

Do you identify with one or more of these learning style pictures or portraits?


What experiences have you had that seem to fit?

How do you think teams could best put to use any or all of these kinds of ways that people think?

What toxic problems or spiritual gaps are created when some kinds of thinkers are left out or their contributions minimized?