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Seventy Two Years Later and What Have We Learnt?


Peter Honey, the creator of the Learning Style Questionnaire illustrates the longevity of good learning advice.

Sorting through a tin trunk that had belonged to my late father, I came across a little War Office booklet called ‘Principles of Instruction’.  It was published, ‘by command of the Army Council’, in 1943.

I flicked through the pages expecting to chuckle at descriptions of 72 year old best practices long since overhauled by all we now know about the learning process.  It only took a few paragraphs to wipe the smirk off my face.

The booklet, written by an unnamed author, sets out principles that are as relevant today as they were all those years ago.

Admittedly there are some things that seem old fashioned by today’s standards.  It is an all male cast, for example, and keeps referring to ‘the men’.

Also, the booklet tends to assume that lessons/instruction are the only way to help people (the men!) to learn.  But, to be fair, the booklet does what it says on the cover; it is written for instructors and it is unashamedly about instructing.


Independent Learning

A couple of verbatim quotes from the opening paragraphs will perhaps help you to understand why I read on:

Whenever you take on training, remember the hours you spent on parade, bored and fed-up, and make up your mind that your men are not going to suffer in the same way through your fault.

No one will learn if he is not interested, or does not know how a particular piece of training will help him be an efficient soldier.  On the other hand, if a man leaves a lesson feeling he has taken a personal part in it, and contributed himself to his own knowledge, he will probably, not only remember what he has leant, but look forward with keenness to the next lesson.’  


Learning to learn

Both these quotes give a flavour of the style and approach taken throughout the booklet. It is empathetic, anti-boredom, and extols the virtues of engaging ‘the men’ through active participation.

Here is an example: ‘If you were to take four or five raw recruits and give them a rifle and say, ‘Here is a rifle.  I am going to leave it with you for half an hour and then I shall want you to tell me all you have been able to find out about it’, it would be very rare for you to come back and find that the men had found out nothing.

This is a classic example of an invitation to learn-by-discovery, resisting the temptation simply to instruct (by the way, I’m hoping that one of the things they would quickly discover was that the rifle wasn’t loaded!).


Active instruction

Other examples make it clear that the philosophy the booklet is expounding is what we could call active-instruction, as opposed to the one-way process that the word ‘instruction’ usually conjures up.

The booklet finishes with a summary of ‘simple rules for an instructor to observe’.  Here are some examples.

  • Never instruct without preparing. Know your subject
  • Be simple, be logical, be lucid.
  • Be accurate, be thorough, be patient.
  • Make each man feel you are teaching him.
  • Do not allow yourself to discriminate.
  • Demonstrate. Be sure everyone can both see and hear.
  • Make sure one stage is understood before going on to the next.
  • Press for questions.
  • Never make a man feel a fool.
  • Don’t show off. Remember the time when you knew nothing.
  • Look your class in the eye, always talk direct to them.
  • Avoid tricks, avoid mannerisms, avoid distractions.


The final piece of advice

Remember that the test of good instruction is not ‘have I covered the ground?’ but ‘does the soldier know what I’ve taught him?’.

In other words, has he/she learnt what they were supposed to learn?

Spot on.


Read about how we are enhancing the online output of the Learning Style Questionnaire and various changes to the Learning Series.

Peter will be hosting a learning workshop on Friday 4th December - this event is now fully booked but feel free to contact matt.stevens@pearson.com to be placed on the reserve list and register your interest for future events.


Learning Styles

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