Over the last 15 years I have been blessed to have studied with numerous excellent teachers in a variety of fields of learning and educational settings. In that time, with those teachers and in those places I have observed 3 key approaches to teaching and learning which I have not seen described elsewhere and I thought may be useful to others as they consider how they are going to teach something or how something is being taught to them. I have made use of my understanding in these ways of structuring learning in the courses I have run over the years and have found them to be excellent ways of pinning down the best large-scale structure for a course either becuase it will match what the students are used to in terms of learning, or so that the structure of the course itself is part of the teaching - challenging the students to engage in a new way of learning, thinking and being.
The 3 styles are Linear (or modular), Cyclical (or spiral), and Holistic (or 'master key'). The first style, Linear seems to me to be the primary way of teaching and learning in Western culture and is therefore (rightly or wrongly) the most common method used and the most widely recognised method in terms of creating qualifications. The second style, Cyclical I discovered first when studying shamanism and I would suggest is the traditional method of teaching and learning in tribal, indiginous cultures around the world. The third style, Holistic I encountered while studying Japanese and Chinese martial arts and I would say was the most common way of teaching and learning in the Orient and possibly India (I say 'was' because Western methods of teaching and learning have become much more common in both Japan and China in the last 100 years). There may be other places where any of these styles of learning and teaching have been common or even originated, I am making an 'educated guess' about their origins and regions of application based on my experience and observation, this isn't an evidenced scientific paper! So, that gives you a bit about the background of these approaches, now let's sink our teeth into each of the styles in turn....
This is the style most of us will be most familiar with and will probably have grown up learning within. Learning progresses from 1 step to the next, to the next, and you need to start at the beginning in any area of study. Progress is measured by how many steps (or modules) you have completed along the path and completion of a module usually entails some kind of test or examination on the knowledge you have gained so far. Each step along the line of development is discreet and well defined and there are key things which should be learned at each step before progressing to the next level or module. People are valued based on how many steps they have taken along their chosen path and being an expert in one field is more commonly recognised and valued than being midway along several lines of development. A 'jack of all trades and master of none' is less valued than an 'expert.' An old person who has only studied 2 modules is less valuable than a young person that has studied 10.
This teaching and learning style is less familiar for most of us. The most common teaching tool is the circle or wheel, often referred to in shamanic teaching as a 'medicine wheel.' The learning is modeled on and usually associated with the turning of the seasons during the year. Other common correspondences which are used to 'anchor' certain learnings on the wheel are the cardinal directions (North, South, East, West), and the 4 elements (Earth, Air, Fire and Water). Incidentally, it is commonly assumed that because many of the Chinese (and oriental generally) systems use 5 elements that they haven't evr used the 4 elements more commonly referred to in Western culture and most indiginous cultures, however, I have found instances of oriental systems pre-dating extensive contact with the West which use the 4 elements. Whichever correspondences are used the mirroring of the cycle of the year is the common factor. In terms of how this is reflected in teaching and learning, it means that just as we pass through the seasons every year, our learning will pass through these same areas of study repeatedly over time. Your learning therefore spirals continually deeper with every cycle you are part of. While the student may be put through initiatory experiences at various stages along the journey of learning, these are not assessments in the same way that the linear style of learning uses them. That is one of the most common confusions in Westerners being educated by cyclical means. The initiations are experiences to be lived through. There is rarely a 'well defined learning outcome.' The lesson that the experience has for you is personal to you and cannot be judged or assessed by another person. Similarly, what is learned as we cycle around the wheel of learning is what is there for us that time around. We will come back to essentially the same lesson on the next cycle so there are no 'begginners learnings' or 'advanced learnings' as such. There are the learnings you get this time, and there are the learnings you will spot next time, and there are some learnings it will do you well to face more than once. If you keep going around the wheel long enough you'll see it all eventually. Just like learning about gardening, you can only learn winter lessons in winter and spring lessons in spring, and what you don't pick up this year you might spot next, or the next, or the next. Where this mode of learning and teaching is used people are valued by how many times they have been around a cycle. Of course if you have not been engaged in a particular course of study then you won't have even begun the cycle for that area of knowledge no matter how old you are, but old people are innately valuable because they have been through the cycles of life many times. While younger 'experts' who have seen several cycles of their area of expertise are very valuable, in terms of the cycles of life, no-one has seen more cycles than the oldest person. The nature of this method of learning and teaching means that just by the fact of having 'been around the block' a person has something worth listening to and learning from.
This is the most alien style of learning and teaching for Westerners. It involves a huge amount of trust on the part of the student as much of the learning will be done 'blind.' There are often ideas of 'Mastery' in this approach to teaching and learning and the teacher will typically be someone who exemplifies the skills they are saying the student will learn by following their method. For students engaging in this approach to learning it can be vital to see some of the Master's other students and see if they are progressing under the Master's tutelage as some people can do but not teach what they have seemingly mastered. The teaching and learning is made up of bodies of knowledge and practice which often don't have immediate application (or at least, not obviously to the student). Even if there is some clear (ish) connection between what you are learning and what the teacher can do, there is usually some significant leap to be made between learning the technical skills and applying them in any way that resembles the teacher's skill. All of this means that there is a strong tendency to deify the teacher. In reality this only creates a mindset which makes you even less likely to mature into your own sense of mastery as you make them 'special' and yourself 'ordinary.' Some unscrupulous teachers encourage this disempowerment of their students either unconsciously to bolster their own ego, or deliberately out of a paranoid need to control their educational legacy. The piece that is needed to make best use of all the seemingly unconnected knowledge that the student acquires is a 'master key.' This will be a core body of knowledge which gives context to what the student has been studying all along. "Why not give the master key up front?" you might ask. Well, some teachers do, and in some systems that works really well. It can help the student to have enough of a concept of roughly where they are going so that they find it easier to trust the teacher even when the body of teaching seems a little strange. However, often, without having the experience of living through the learnings of the system the master key will have very little meaning to the student (or prospective student). This is, I believe, why some teachers using the Holistic teaching modality will keep the master key to themselves until they deem the student ready to have it. Otherwise it is 'casting pearls bfore swine' so-to-speak. For me personally, I'd prefer to give people the key, and keep giving it to them until they understand it's value. I feel this approach makes the student less likely to put me on a pedestal as a teacher (if anything they may think I'm a little strange or even dim for keeping telling them this obscure bit of information or harping on about the same thing all the time!). This system of teaching and learning typically has many small tests along the path and some would see every lesson as a small test. Ironically then, people are valued not necessarily for a particular skill set or measured and tested proficiency (although there is typically a level of skilled mastery which is observable in a respected educator in this style), nor are they valued just because of years in the practice (although that is more important here than in linear learning cultures), a practitioner's and teacher's value is largely determined by whether or not they have received transmission of the full system. In simple terms, do they have the master key? As you may have spotted, depending on the teacher's approach, any monkey 2 weeks into training may have been showed and even thoroughly taught the master key, but whether you know it and whether you've really 'got it' are 2 very different things! One way to spot if this is the case is if the entire system is expressed in every part of the system when they perform it. What I mean by this is that when they perform even the most basic techniques or methods of the system, their performance is invested with the depth of learning engendered by a full embodiment of the whole of the rest of the system. If you don't know the system intimately yourself this can be very hard to percieve. This difficult to define level of qualification is, I think, part of what makes this approach to learning and teaching so difficult for Westerners to get a handle on. Coming from our background of linear study it is hard to quantify or equate the knowledge a teacher in this style has, and this is further confused by the potential for someone to claim 'full transmission' and be a charlatan. After all, how do we measure them up? How can we gauge their veracity? With our linear tools we can't so it is easy to either deify all who make such claims or declare all such teachers baseless charlatans.
In case it helps to have a reference: my Warrior Leadership is taught using a Holistic learning method. That doesn't mean it is baseless nonsense(!), or that I am claiming to be a 'Master' but the model which you can see on the Warrior Leadership page is the matser key (so to speak). It probably doesn't mean much to you on the page and is difficult for me to describe in a satisfying way. However if you come on a workshop and live through the exercises, while no one exercise will explain the whole model, the exercises are given context and a framework to 'hang from' by the model. As a whole body of learning it is coherent but any part alone doesn't give you much. There is no 'basic paper' to study which will give you any real understanding of the system. Also, there is no one starting point or ending point. There is no basic skill and advanced skill. All aspects of it can be explored as a beginner or as an advanced student. The study of the subject is the study of the whole.
I hope this has given you some insight into these different methods of learning and teaching. If you would like to know more then please get in touch and I can do my best to help deepen your understanding or run a course to teach how to consciously enagage with each of these styles and how to skillfully apply them under different circumstances. From the point of view of each approach the other approaches look crazy. They are profoundly different approaches to learning and teaching and each has its place. The key is understanding what style you are learning within so you can fully immerse yourself in the learning rather than getting confused by the methodology. Or, on the flip side, it is about assessing a group of students and gauging which style of teaching will give them the right balance of familiarity and novelty to challenge them to grow, but not freak them out!
Enjoy your adventures in learning out there!