Learning Styles as Planning, and Learning Styles as Situated Action

Continuing my thoughts about how learning styles could affect people’s encounters with machines, I wanted to examine Suchman’s Planning and Situated Action (1987 and 2007) in an educational context. Curriculum as experienced by humans might have similarities that can help inform about interaction as experienced between individual and groups of humans and machines.

Firstly, it appears learning style models have weaknesses. A review of 13 of the most influential learning style models (Coffield et al, 2004) highlights a lack of theoretical rigour, conceptual confusion and poor quality in learning style models, and an over-reliance on categorisation schemes. Attempts to categorise and then design pedagogy around these feels much more like planning, than planning with situated action. It underplays the idea that “lessons are always co-constructed by teacher and students together, through the unfolding actions and interactions” (Lemke, 1985). Coffield et al (2004) do not rule out the existence of learning styles; their primary concerns are with the research field, and use of learning styles to dictate interventions.

Wells (2003) provides an early discussion of “situated enactment of learning and teaching” highlighting the non-deterministic nature of plans. Whilst undertaking recent team-based activities in our MRes Digital Civics modules, each person does not use a single consistent learning style. Instead it is more fluid – an improvisation based on the materials, objectives and most importantly the other participants – just like Suchman’s analysis (1987) of photocopier users when they try to help each other. These interactions vary session-to-session, and group-to-group. Fortunately, our combined group agency is not entirely pre-scripted and predictable. It is situated action influenced by our experiences, conventions, traditions, knowledge, collaborations, and of course the instructor and lesson plan.

There are equivalences in the dynamics of (human-human) teacher-learner interaction with machine-human interaction – from an initial imbalance of understanding/knowledge, agency emerges during interpretation. The photocopier (Suchman, 1987) was trying to teach “users” its plan, and various interfaces, guides and handbooks were simply alternative methods of broadcasting a fixed plan to address different imagined learning styles.

Furthermore, teachers and learners are not the same, and Suchman (1987) proposes that machines and humans are complementary rather than equivalent. The result (knowledge) again is not a fixed pre-determined outcome, but like Suchman’s flexible and moving “boundaries”, instead is something which is relational, situational and changes over time.

The outcome of an interaction cannot simply be pre-planned, but needs to consider the context, and the interactions between all the participating parties at the time. Human learning styles should inform research in Human Computer Interaction (HCI).

By considering the ways people approach and make sense of unfamiliar problems with other humans and technology, we reveal alternative approaches to how interpretation is encountered, working our way towards better solutions. In turn we can embrace some degree of ambiguity so digital technology is permitted to understand and facilitate people’s actions and circumstances, rather than pre-define these encounters. Learning styles are considerations in both planning and situated action.


Jay L. Lemke. 1985. Using Language in the Classroom (Specialised curriculum: language & learning). Deakin University Press, Australia. ISBN 0730003086.

Frank C. Coffield, David V. M. Moseley, Elaine Hall, Kathryn Ecclestone. 2004. Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post‐16 Learning: Findings of a Systematic and Critical Review. Learning and Skills Research Centre, London.

Lucy Suchman. 1987. Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human–Machine Communication. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521337399.

Lucy Suchman. 2007. Human-Machine Reconfigurations – Plans and Situated Actions. 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 052167588X.

Gordon Wells. 2003. Lesson Plans and Situated Learning-and-Teaching. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12:2, 265-272.


Author’s own. School reports.

Author: Colin Watson

2 responses to “Learning Styles as Planning, and Learning Styles as Situated Action”

  1. Colin Watson says:

    Agata‘s blogpost about influences on our research and analysis has given me some further thoughts about my own learning styles.

  2. Matt Wood says:

    Brilliant Colin – you eloquently describe how your thinking about learning styles is changing and evolving, specifically in relation to the idea of situated action – which you incorporate eloquently into your argument. Excellent structure as well, your argument was very well informed and easy to read, and I loved the balance of literature, your own experience, and even referencing other blogposts as well – fantastic to see your engaging with other students’ writing. After you indicating the weaknesses of learning style models, I did wonder about your argument that “human learning styles should inform research in HCI” – you might be a bit more specific about the benefits of taking this approach, particularly in the situated framework you describe. You might also be interested in looking at activity theory as a way of theorising learning, and how this might apply to work in HCI – which could lead to some more concrete conclusions. Anyway, great engagement evidencing a thorough and sound understanding of SA – well done.

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