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Learning Styles:

The Squiggle game



The trainer prepares in advance a number of cards (laminate them if you intend to re-use them) each containing a question.

  • “How would a ~ learn to swim?”

  • “What kind of car does a ~ drive?”

  • “What would a ~ name a new-born baby girl?”

  • “What is a ~’s favourite song?”

How many you need depends on which variant of the game you play – but I have found 30 different questions to be sufficient for most purposes.


Working in small groups, each group collects a card and seeks to answer the question, replacing the “squiggle” (~) with each of the four categories (Activist - Pragmatist - Theorist - Reflector) in turn.  Groups should be encouraged to be as stereotypical as they wish, the more extreme and exaggerated answers often providing most fun – and more than a little enlightenment.  Groups record their responses then collect another card.  The game finishes when you run out of time, question-cards or patience.  Enlightenment comes during feedback when the small sub-groups are encouraged to share their responses with the whole group.


The mechanics of the game can vary to suit the participants or the trainer’s own style.  Variants I have used include:

  • Dividing the whole group into four sub-groups and getting each one to answer in respect of one specified learning style.  This works best if groups have identical sets of questions.

  • During feedback, encouraging sub-groups to guess each other’s responses – and awarding points according to strict rules – or according to whim.

  • Adding an element of competition by encouraging groups to get through as many questions as possible.

  • Getting groups to write their answers on four flip-charts (one for each category) thus building up a profile of each learning style.

For some while I have been introducing trainers and teachers to the concept of learning styles, focusing mainly on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory and the Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic approach favoured by NLP practitioners – both of which are well-received by teachers.  However, the model with which most UK trainers appear to be familiar is that proposed by Honey and Mumford, which differentiates learners into four broad bands: Activists – Pragmatists – Theorists – Reflectors.


The difficulty one faces as a trainer is that one is never sure of the level of course participants’ understanding of this particular model.  There are those for whom it is novel and interesting – whereas to others it is “old hat”.  The challenge is to think of different ways of communicating the simplicity of the model without risking losing the interest of those who exhibit a growing familiarity with the theory.  I have, in the past, developed a raft of different games and activities that will help to reinforce the understanding of the newcomer whilst nevertheless enhancing the appreciation of the seasoned practitioner.


One of these is the “squiggle game” (see left).  What is interesting about the game to me as a trainer is the uniformity of responses that one encounters.  I am sure that this is not merely due to lack of imagination on the part of game participants but is attributable to their recognition of deep-seated behaviour traits that permeate the nooks and crannies of our lives.


I often illustrate the game by describing my observations concerning that most fundamental of activities – how you put milk in the fridge.  I have noticed that theorists are “rules and regulations” people with set ways of doing things.  They are quite rigorous in their application of common sense and put milk in the fridge according to strict rules of rotation on a “first in – first out” principle.  This, they argue, ensures that milk is not allowed to “go off” by being tucked in some remote corner behind cartons of fresh orange juice.


Pragmatists need to make room by tidying out “left-overs”.  This poses a problem in that they cannot bring themselves to actually throw away those leftovers.  Hence, putting milk away often provides the incentive for preparing lunch.


Reflectors are probably most wasteful of electricity, standing at the open refrigerator door dreamily listening to the radio whilst trying to recall what it was they were doing.  “Never mind,” they ponder, “while I’m here I might as well do something useful.”  Whereupon they take the milk out again to make another cup of tea.


Activists, on the other hand, don’t have time for such mundane activities as putting milk in the fridge: they are far too busy dashing past the doorstep to get somewhere else.  Another busy day – a session at the gym – another wild party – perhaps a bungee-jump before lunch.


What kind of car does a ~ drive?


Activists drive anything that is red and racy; pragmatists prefer Fords (because they are easy to maintain yourself); reflectors wallow in the nostalgia of yesteryear (or simply cannot make the decision to buy a newer car) – whereas theorists prefer the sturdy practicality of the Volvo or the economic fuel consumption of the Astra.


What is a ~’s favourite breakfast cereal?


The consensus of the various groups that I have worked with is than an activist’s favourite cereal is anything that goes “snap, crackle and pop”, or has a free toy in a cellophane wrapper hidden somewhere in its depths – thus necessitating distribution of the packet’s contents across the breakfast table in a frantic bid to get at it before the kids do.  Theorists are alleged to prefer the wholesome goodness of muesli – preferably preceded by fresh orange juice and topped with fresh or dried fruit.  The reflector appreciates the time taken to prepare porridge, using that valuable quiet space for evaluation and nostalgic reflection.  The pragmatist merely uses up whichever packets are nearing emptiness – or what it is that the kids won’t eat.


Favourite songs


Activist = “Agadoo” or “The birdy song”

Reflector = “Sitting on the dock of the bay”

Pragmatist = “We can work it out”

Theorist = “Dem bones, dem bones”

What does a ~ call their children?


Activists are committed to giving children avant-garde names like Willow, Storm or Forest.  Pragmatists stick with tried and trusted John and Susan.  Reflectors hanker after Amy and Matthew – whereas theorists consider whether a name is presently in style, whether it will date, whether it can be shortened and the likelihood that it may attract some hitherto unsuspected connotations because of the peccadilloes of pop-stars or cabinet ministers.


Other habits and behaviours worth exploring are the ways in which we tackle putting together a DIY bookcase, put clothes away or do the shopping.  If you feel confident enough to risk being cited in divorce proceedings, try asking about the learning styles of course participants’ partners.


I am sure that we cannot really be as predictable as the results of the game would suggest.  After all, I baulk at the idea of categorising people according to their star-signs because it seeks to constrain the rich diversity of humanity into a mere 12 pigeon-holes.  Nevertheless, I have often been more than a little surprised at the accuracy of my predictions concerning my students’ personal habits and behaviours.  But don’t take my word for it.  Prepare yourself a set of “squiggle cards”, explain the rules to your group and set them off.  But don’t be surprised if they start describing some of your secret habits and innermost thoughts.  All-pervasive – these learning styles.

John Fewings