Explore your Theory of Learning

Modes of Learning Framework


Recently, I was doing some research on learning(how people learn, how the brain works etc) when I discovered Leaders of Learning edX course created by Harvard X, the online learning platform of the Harvard University The e-learning course, designed and facilitated by Professor Richard Elmore from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, gave me what I wanted: to fine-tune my own personal theory of learning, and to recognize opportunities for innovation in my own learning environment. In this post, I will discuss some of the content I learned and share my current theory of learning.

What is the purpose of Learning

One of the fundamental features of all living things is that you change over time and to stay still(to reach equilibrium) is to die. So living things are always in the process of change, always in a dynamic state and learning is the engine that allows us to continue to be dynamic. Fundamentally, learning is an inherent biological imperative; people never stop learning. People learn best when they tailor their learning to the things that matter most to them and to the things they want to achieve in life.In his 1998 book, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, education professor Frank Smith argued that learning is: continual, effortless, inconspicuous, boundless, unpremeditated, independent of rewards and punishment, based on self-image, vicarious, never forgotten, inhibited by testing, a social activity, [and] growth. (1998, p. 1–2)

Modes of Learning

Modes of Learning framework was developed by Professor Elmore. It helps individuals identify their disposition toward learning or their personal learning theory. Modes of learning framework allows us to take apart a lot of conventional understanding of what learning is and how it works. It makes your implicit understanding and beliefs about learning more explicit. The future of learning is about an active choice of what you want to learn, where you want to learn and how you want to learn. Professor Elmore divides modes of learning into two axes namely horizontal and vertical. The horizontal axis is hierarchical to distributed while the vertical axis is individual to collective. This gives rise to the learning quadrants.

Modes of learning help you to identify which quadrant you currently fall under and where you want to be.

The Future of Learning

Wil Richardson talks about 5 ways learning is being transformed. They include:

  • Content is everywhere: Knowledge is readily available through digital means from many sources.
  • Teachers are everywhere: Emphasis will be on where is the expertise to support your learning.
  • Learning will be personalized: Learning will be tailored to cater for individual differences and learners will have many opportunities to learn what they are interested in learning.
  • Networks are the new classroom: Learning will be formed around people with common interest and differences in expertise.
  • Learning will be everywhere: Learning won’t require a bounded type of organization. Learning will occur more in small groups(in coffee shops, in bookclubs etc).

Through this transformation, you can notice that learning is moving from hierarchical to distributed and from individual to collective.

Quadrant 1: Hierarchical Individual

Learning in the Hierarchical Individual quadrant emphasizes individual achievement with clearly-defined metrics for success. This is the kind of learning we see in schools and colleges. It’s defined by the idea that there is a particular structure and sequence to knowledge. Individuals learn academic content in chronological order from basic to advanced which is measured and assessed. Individuals are responsible for their success as learners while school staff are accountable for measurable growth in individual learning.In this mode of learning, teachers provide the content and knowledge the learners must acquire while individual learners invest in their academic work. This, in turn, requires learners to have strong guidance in order to learn properly. Success is based on measurements of student learning while standards and assessments represent society’s agreement on what it is important for students to learn.If this kind of learning appeals to you, check out psychology professor Angela Lee Duckworth theory of “Grit” in this six-minute TED TALK.[embed]https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance[/embed]

Quadrant 2: Hierarchical Collective

In the hierarchical collective, learning is still defined by the idea that there is a particular structure and sequence to knowledge but emphasizes learning as a communal activity as opposed to an individual activity. The most important learning objective is social and cognitive development. A hierarchical collective learner will enjoy things like group presentations and discussions. Learning in the Hierarchical Collective quadrant has clear measurements for success, based on communal values and goals defined by the Hierarchical Collective organization.If this kind of learning appeals to you, watch Professor Rob Reich (Stanford School of Education) speak about the Socratic Method.[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr_NtXFskQw[/embed]

Quadrant 3: Distributed Individual

Learning in the Distributed Individual quadrant is seen in individuals pursuing their unique interests with as much depth and breadth as they wish. It is most familiar to those who use digital learning. It’s based on the assumption that individuals are natural learners and can make the judgment about what knowledge is helpful and of interest to them. However, learners must make sense of competing and diverse sources of knowledge, skill, and expertise while determining success based on his/her goals and ambitions.If this kind of learning appeals to you, I encourage you to watch Logan LaPlante (a 13-year old) TED Talk.[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h11u3vtcpaY[/embed]

Quadrant 4: Distributed Collective

Learning in the Distributed Collective quadrant happens in networks of learners who explore and support communal interests in as much depth and breadth as they wish. In this quadrant, networks are the new classroom. These networks consist of people with varying degrees of knowledge and expertise and members take on both learning and teaching roles to maintain the network’s strength as a community. Success is determined by the learning community and its members and is based on communal interests and priorities.If these philosophies and practices speak to your personal theory of learning, take 30 mins to watch this documentary.[embed]https://vimeo.com/70279241[/embed]

My Current Theory of Learning

The Leaders of Learning course has a “Modes of Learning Assessment” that helps evaluate your current theory of learning. Below was the result I got after taking the assessment.

The above result comes as no surprise to me. It shows that I am more of a distributed individual learner. For example, I have always found lectures and classroom lessons very boring and tiring. I missed a lot of lectures when I was in university and I don’t force myself to learn things that don’t interest me, even if it’s for the sake of passing exams. I enjoy learning things that interest me and I don’t stop until I fully understand.I was, however, a little bit surprised with the scores in the “Collective” axis. I expected to score higher in those areas since I do enjoy learning with people with common interests. I think the future of learning is moving towards “distributed collective” and so I am currently challenging myself to seek out learning communities/networks and see how that compares to my individualistic mode of learning.


According to Prof. Elmore, all the “Modes of learning” assessment does is to identify your initial disposition toward learning! he argues that we might change our mind by learning more about the different modes and or probably move toward the boundaries of one quadrant or another. If you want to know more about modes of learning, I encourage you to take the edX course Leaders of Learning.

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