Learning Voodoo

We’ve just had a full day intensive on Educational Theory as part of our Congregational Ministry subject.
The final part of the session involved talking about learning styles and doing a couple of  Questionnaires to work out how you operate.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably done this plenty of times in work, Church, or uni contexts…
If you’re really like me, you probably hate them with all the passion of a mis-spent post-modern youth.
Woe to you, Essentialists.
Just stop trying to label me,
c’mon man.
<puts down bucket of irony>

Strangely though, whenever I am put in a room where Personality Testing is taking place I find that it tends to provoke a period of fruitful philosophical reflection (It’s probably a strategy to avoid answering the questions).

My juicy cogitation has led me to think that what we are really doing in ‘Personality Testing’, and all this theorising about learning styles, is a simplified Phenomenology – an attempt to describe how we structure our experiences.

‘We are the only beings for whom ‘Being’ is a question’ … and all too often Contemporary Beings express that questioning through Questionnaires. It’s a terrible cop-out, rather than genuine engagement with The Question: ‘what am I?’, we surrender to the comfort of being told, labelled, categorised.

The methodology of Personality Testing Questionnaires makes them virtually useless for genuine existential (the structure of consciousness) description. The major weakness is that they cannot quantify the context specific nature of decisions and relational strategies. However, I’m also faintly suspicious that their explanatory power has as much to do with suggestion and over-generalisation as genuine personality traits. Have you ever heard the instructor read out the list of types…
“You are the Concrete Random mindstyle. You like Imagination, Creativity, Fluffy animals, and Long Walks in the Rain.”
It works the same way as a Horoscope – you read yourself into it. You’ve been told that you have to be one of four types so you sift your set of experiences to fit into the structure.  You could get the same thing from Athena Starwoman or any side-show psychic.

I’ll try to be a little bit fair, PTQ’s probably do have some good points. They certainly can provoke existentiell (first-person questioning of the meaning of life, etc) reflection.
At least, they do in my case,
particularly after a few hours of it.

Further, our lecturer made the very useful point that in the Questionnaire you will tend not to select options that reflect what you don’t like or don’t want to be like. As a result, the personality types that you score least upon are likely to be a useful indication of the types of people that you will find frustrating or look down upon. I’m willing to accept this conclusion because, as much as I’m sure typecasting doesn’t work for me, it’s probably a reliable guide to everyone else.
In seriousness, I think that the negative results are slightly more methodologically sound, and could be quite useful in working with other people.
In case you’re wondering, I really don’t always play well with Concrete Sequential and Abstract Random type people (from Mindstyles). Sorry, I still love you guys.

I did find the VARK website quite handy. I think that their underlying approach is a bit more sensible. It has an online Learning Styles Questionnaire but the really useful stuff is in the Helpsheets – guides for how to study according to your learning style.

On a different point, check out this great little critical introduction to Heidegger called, aptly, Heidegger: a (very) critical introduction. It’s a product of the Centre for Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham so it’s attempting an integrated Philosophical/Theological engagement with Heidegger’s thought. It’s making me think of Heidegger as primarily a Lutheran theologian.

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7 thoughts on “Learning Voodoo

  1. It depends on the test you take. Some have more predictive power, and thus efficacy, than others.

    Some psychologists have made millions off the back of their personality research and the questionnaires and testing they have developed from them. I mention the rich thing, because it means that business is buying and making use of them, and you can be fairly sure that you wouldn't sell enough to make millions if they didn't work.

    The results you get from such tests is not just a few fluffy statements about yourself, but more often several pages of detailed description and analysis. The better ones of these I have seen are also less about personality testing in isolation, and more about how you relate to and work with others (particularly in a team context).


  2. Dan, I share your disdain for the use of these tests in general. I often also find myself wondering how it is that people who have done a test then very quickly take the results so seriously without asking very much about how the test was constructed, and what lies behind the interpretation of the results.

    I tend to agree with you also about how the testings are most useful for their "negative results" (and this made me think about how I preach and who I try to preach for, and what groups of people I may not make concessions to).

    One example of misunderstanding just from yesterday is how people interpreted the Kinesthetic category to mean fidgety, or needing to move while learning – very different to the definition given by the VARK website which more concerned more people relating to concrete personal experiences, examples, practice or simulation.

    my reply is not so thoughtful as your post… but both yesterday's content and your posts content struck a note in my brain…


  3. Hey Tim,
    I'm sure you're right. There is a world of difference between certain tests.
    However, there is also a world of difference between making money out of an idea, and that idea being right, as the captains of industry are ably demonstrating.
    I still think that much of what we get out of these tests is produced by the deep longing to be told what we are – and that's something we bring to them.

    Thanks for the comment and the encouragement, next time we have to do one of these things we should sit up the back and murmur.



  4. Hey Dan

    That's all true. My comment, though, does reflect my experience of certain tests. Despite being cynical about such testing, particularly after studying psychology at uni, I've been very positively surprised about a couple of tests I've done, organised by work.

    Also, the ones I've done were less about putting you in a personality box and more about saying that you tend to relate to people or work in xyz ways, and other people who work like that tend to have weaknesses in abc areas that you might want to keep an eye out for, and you should be aware of def issues about how other people might perceive you.

    I realise in typing that up that it doesn't sound particularly different than your standard myers briggs or whatever testing, but I actually found them useful despite my general resistance to being categorised.


  5. You're probably right. I think the most valuable information I've gleaned from the various tests I've taken has been related to working with other people. I guess that's why employers like them.


  6. huh, I'm not dense, I'm just very multimodal.

    That VARK one is fun. I love these sorts of tests, of all kinds, the crap ones are even more fun because they are so laden with preconceptions that they are easy to slant in any particular direction. And then when they give you some rubbish absolutes about you and your way of being it gives me a happy time of being all "you so don't get my depths, Facebook-quiz, my subtleties, my shades of grey, are infinite. You couldn't hope to understand."

    The good ones though, do offer something for practical purposes – figuring out how you learn best when you study or how you work with others – which is generally what they're for, rather than the more philosophic explorations of the very nature of being. It can help you articulate both to yourself and to others how you are going to get to a certain point in your study or work and what you need from them to make that happen.

    *AND* they give you a chance to do something "productive" that involves both a multiple choice survey and time spent completely self-absorbed, and really what could be more fun than that?


  7. eventually I will have uploaded so much of myself onto the interweb that I will have to fill out questionnaires to know when to pee…
    I'm I Concrete Sequential or Abstract Random? Maybe Multimodal?


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