Allowing for Thinking Styles - ASCD
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November 1, 1994

Allowing for Thinking Styles

By keying teaching and assessment techniques to the diverse ways people think and learn, teachers will be surprised at how much smarter their students get.

Instructional Strategies
Instructional Strategies
Instructional Strategies

When I received a C in my introductory psychology course, I concluded (and my teacher concurred) that I did not have the ability to pursue my true interest and intended major— psychology. I decided to switch to mathematics. But discovering that I had even less ability in that subject, I returned to psychology; three years later I was graduated summa cum laude with exceptional distinction in that field.

As a high school student I had a similar experience. My French teacher advised me that, while I did reasonably well in the subject, I lacked the natural ability to learn foreign languages and ought to take this fact into account in my future planning. I did, and proceeded to avoid all foreign language courses in college. Years later, as an assistant professor, I received a contract to develop a program to help Venezuelan school-children enhance their thinking skills. I had to learn Spanish. I did so—rapidly—and today speak Spanish fluently. When I travel to Spain and Latin America, I have no problem presenting my talks in the native language.

  • Teachers almost invariably teach and assess students in ways that benefit those with certain styles of thinking and learning but place many others at a marked disadvantage.

  • Teachers and students alike confuse mismatches in styles of teaching and learning with lack of ability.

  • Teachers can easily and comfortably expand their ways of teaching and assessing students to accommodate virtually all thinking and learning styles. If they do, they will observe immediate and powerful increases in student performance.

What's My Style?

A style is a preferred way of using one's abilities. It is not in itself an ability but rather a preference. Hence, various styles are not good or bad, only different.

We all have a style profile, meaning we show varying amounts of each style, but we are not locked into any one profile. We can vary our styles to suit different tasks and situations. For example, the style you need to discern the meaning of a work of literature is not the same one you need to read detailed directions. The style you need to solve an algebra word problem is not the one you need to construct a geometric proof. Styles further vary over the course of a lifetime, and change as a result of the role models we emulate at different points in our lives. We do vary in our flexibility to shift styles, and in the strengths of our preferences. But while we have preferred styles, our styles are fluid, not fixed.

Many theories of styles have been proposed (for example, Gregorc 1985, Holland 1973, Renzulli and Smith 1978). All are attempts to describe how people think.

One such theory is known as mental self-government. The basic idea is that we must organize or govern ourselves, and the ways in which we do correspond to the kinds of governments and government branches that exist worldwide— legislative, executive, judicial; monarchic, hierarchic, oligarchic (see fig. 1). Note that there are 13 styles under five categories: functions, forms, levels, scope, and leanings.

Figure 1. Styles of Mental Self-Government

Allowing for Thinking Styles - table




LegislativeLikes to create, invent, design, do things his or her own way, have little assigned structure.Likes doing science projects, writing poetry, stories, or music, and creating original artworks.
ExecutiveLikes to follow directions, do what he or she is told, be given structure.Likes to solve problems, write papers on assigned topics, do artwork from models, build from designs, learn assigned information.
JudicialLikes to judge and evaluate people and things.Likes to critique work of others, write critical essays, give feedback and advice.
MonarchicLikes to do one thing at a time, devoting to it almost all energy and resources.Likes to immerse self in a single project, whether art, science, history, business.
HierarchicLikes to do many things at once, setting priorities for which to do when and how much time and energy to devote to each.Likes to budget time for doing homework so that more time and energy is devoted to important assignments.
OligarchicLikes to do many things at once, but has trouble setting priorities.Likes to devote sufficient time to reading comprehension items, so may not finish standardized verbal-ability tests.
AnarchicLikes to take a random approach to problems; dislikes systems, guidelines, and practically all constraints.Writes an essay in stream-of-consciousness form; in conversations, jumps from one point to another; starts things but doesn't finish them.
GlobalLikes to deal with big picture, generalities, abstractions.Writes an essay on the global message and meaning of a work of art.
Local Likes to deal with details, specifics, concrete examples.Writes an essay describing the details of a work of art and how they interact.
InternalLikes to work alone, focus inward, be self-sufficient.Prefers to do science or social studies project on his or her own.
ExternalLikes to work with others, focus outward, be interdependent.Prefers to do science or social studies project with other members of a group.
LiberalLikes to do things in new ways, defy conventions.Prefers to figure out how to operate new equipment even if it is not the recommended way; prefers open-classroom setting.
Conservative Likes to do things in tried and true ways, follow conventions.Prefers to operate new equipment in traditional way; prefers traditional classroom setting.

Most of us tend toward one style within each category, although these preferences may vary with the task and situation. For example, children who are liberal in science class (enjoy doing things in new ways) may be conservative in cooking class or in gym (prefer the familiar). Teachers who are legislative at work (preferring creation, invention) may be executive at home (following or giving directions, preferring structure), almost always taking the lead with the family.

We have devised a number of instruments to assess styles. One is based on self-reports of students or teachers, another on performance, and a third on evaluations by another person. One tool looks at teaching styles rather than learning styles (for example, whether a teacher fosters legislative or executive behavior in the classroom).

But these tests notwithstanding, teachers need no formal questionnaire or other measure to assess their own or their students' thinking styles. The most direct way is to analyze the types of instructional and assessment activities a person prefers. By doing this, you can make a difference to your students now! Figures 2–4 show you how. Figure 2 shows how different teaching methods favor students with different styles, Figure 3 shows the same for assessment methods, and Figure 4, for activity prompts.

Figure 2. Mental Self-Government: Thinking Styles and Teaching Methods

Allowing for Thinking Styles - table 2

Method of Instruction

Most Compatible Styles

Thought-Based QuestioningJudicial/Legislative
Cooperative LearningExternal
Problem Solving of Given ProblemsExecutive
Small-Group RecitationExternal/Executive
Small-Group DiscussionExternal/Judicial
Reading ... For Details... Local/Executive
Reading ... For Main Ideas ... Global/Executive
Reading ... For Analysis... Judicial

Figure 3. Mental Self-Government: Thinking Styles and Assessment Methods

Allowing for Thinking Styles - table 3

Forms of Assessment

Main Skills Tapped

Most Compatible Style(s)

Short Answer/Multiple ChoiceMemoryExecutive/Local
Time AllocationHierarchical
Working by SelfInternal
Time AllocationHierarchical
Acceptance of Teacher ViewpointConservative
Working by SelfInternal
Working by SelfInternal
High CommitmentMonarchic
InterviewSocial Ease External

Figure 4. Mental Self-Government: Thinking Styles and Activity Prompts

Teachers can reach more students by varying their activity prompts in teaching and assessment.

Allowing for Thinking Styles - table 4

Executive Style

Judicial Style

Legislative Style

Who said?Compare and contrast...Create...
Who did?Evaluate...If you...
When did?In your judgment...Imagine...
What did?Why did?Design...
How did?What caused?How would?
Repeat back...What is assumed by?Suppose...

Change Styles Often

One principle underlies all three approaches: Teachers must accommodate an array of thinking and learning styles, systematically varying teaching and assessment methods to reach every student. The key is variety and flexibility—using the full range of styles available to you. You probably know all these methods and have used them in the past, yet most teachers regularly use only a few.

As the figures show, the solution is not to replace traditional teaching and assessment methods with modern methods. Traditional methods (like multiple-choice tests) benefit children with an executive and conservative style, while modern methods (like performance assessment) benefit children with a legislative style. Neither method is uniquely correct. By changing from one to another, you'll merely benefit a different group of children. Again, the key is to vary your approach.

Note, too, that children with oligarchic and anarchic styles are almost always at a disadvantage: virtually nothing teachers do specifically benefits them. We therefore need to help students with an oligarchic style (they like to do many things at once) to become comfortable with setting priorities. And we need to help children with an anarchic style (who approach problems randomly and chafe at guidelines) learn to discipline themselves to direct their energies in an organized and focused way.

I'm Oligarchic, You're Oligarchic

Most teachers are best at teaching children who match their own styles of thinking and learning. We have found, however, that teachers tend to overestimate the extent to which their students share their own styles (Grigorenko and Sternberg in press, Sternberg 1994, Sternberg and Grigorenko 1993).

It's natural to think others are more like you than they really are. It becomes a problem, though, when teachers underestimate the abilities and achievements of students simply because their styles are different. And the more students differ from the teacher culturally, ethnically, and socioeconomically, the more their styles are likely to differ; thus the more likely it is that these students will be undervalued and even appear to be stupid rather than mismatched.

Conversely, we have found that students do in fact receive higher grades and more favorable evaluations when their styles more closely match those of their teachers. Teachers therefore need to take special care not to undervalue students just because they are different. You don't have to match your students' learning styles, merely expand your methods. As you do, your students will expand their own styles of thinking and learning— the benefit will be mutual.

Our research further shows that students' styles, at least to some degree, come to match their teachers', just as teachers' styles come to match the predominant style profile at their school. In other words, we come to be like those we are with. As a role model, then, a teacher should exhibit a variety of styles in the classroom. If you want students to be flexible, you must be flexible yourself.

Teachers' styles not only differ across schools, but across grades and subject matter, demonstrating that the demands of the environment may mold the kinds of people we are. Teachers of younger students need to be more legislative and less executive than teachers of older students. In the upper grades, curriculums and requirements tend to be more rigidly specified because older students, and particularly those in high school, must take so many achievement tests for both college admissions and state and local requirements.

Of course, it is possible that the two groups of teachers also have dispositional differences. Both situational and dispositional differences may account, too, for our findings that science teachers tend to be more local (enjoy dealing with details, specifics) than humanities teachers, and that humanities teachers tend to be more liberal than science teachers. We also have found that the longer teachers teach, the more executive, local, and conservative they become.

Groups of students differ as well. For example, the lower the socioeconomic level, the more likely the student will be judicial, oligarchic, local, and conservative (like to judge, do many things at once, deal with specifics and with the familiar). Later-borns are more likely to be legislative (preferring creation, invention) than first-borns.

Clearly, both students and teachers vary widely in their styles. In workshops I have held, teachers are often amazed to find that their peers, whom they previously viewed as a relatively homogeneous group, have a very diverse array of styles. If their own peer group is so diverse, imagine how diverse the student body must be!

They've Gotten Smarter!

I must confess that when I started teaching psychology, I did all the things that I have accused others of doing. I taught in a way that systematically benefited students with my own style profile (legislative, hierarchic, global, internal, liberal), and tended to devalue the abilities and accomplishments of those who were unlike myself. I now systematically vary my instruction and assessment to meet the needs of more learners. In so doing, I have discovered that I have a lot more able learners than I realized. I suspect this is true of your students as well. They are there, waiting to be discovered and valued—waiting to learn.


Gregorc, A. F. (1985). Inside Styles: Beyond the Basics. Maynard, Mass.: Gabriel Systems.

Grigorenko, E. L., and R. J. Sternberg. (In press). “Thinking Styles.” In International Handbook of Personality and Intelligence, edited by D. Saklosfske and M. Zeidner. New York: Plenum.

Holland, J. L. (1973). Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Careers. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Renzulli, J. S., and L. H. Smith. (1978). Learning Styles Inventory. Storrs, Conn.: Creative Learning Press.

Sternberg, R. J. (1994). “Thinking Styles: Theory and Assessment at the Interface Between Intelligence and Personality.” In Intelligence and Personality, edited by R. J. Sternberg and P. Ruzgis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sternberg, R. J. and E. L. Grigorenko. (1993). “Thinking Styles and the Gifted.” Roeper Review 16, 2: 122–130.

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