Cat-Based Learning

by John Wyatt
copyright 2002

To succeed in college as an adult learner, I must identify those learning techniques that work best for me. While making notes for this paper, I wore a T-shirt that read: “Everything I need to know I learned from my cat.” As I scribbled ideas, my cat Kattrina nosed in, trying to lie on top of my notes. It was then that I saw the truth behind that simple statement. Here are some examples that show how my cat taught me to learn.

Learning is play. If it isn’t fun, it isn’t learning.

In high school, I had a difficult time with history. The source of my problem was not the subject, but the way it was being presented. I doubted that there were job opportunities for people who could recite names and dates of rulers, and I resented having them pounded into me day after day. To make matters worse, the teacher was new to the profession and openly resented teenagers. Week by week, my grades slipped. Then I discovered a board game of Napoleon’s greatest battles. After only a few games I was no longer satisfied with just playing; I wanted to know the reasons behind Napoleon’s decisions. The rule book only had a small history section, so I went to the library in search of more information. Was the Duke of Wellington really a better commander than Napoleon? How did all of this come about after the French Revolution? Before long, I knew more about Napoleon and the politics of his era than anyone else; and I was beating the Duke of Wellington fairly often. It did not help my grades, I still could not memorize names and dates; but I knew more about the subject than the students who were getting A’s.

The key for me was getting the big picture first, and finding a learning technique that I enjoyed. Names and dates meant nothing to me; I had to know the overall picture before focusing on the details. Ned Herrman would later term this a D-quadrant, or holistic, conceptual approach (qtd. in de Boer). This style focuses on right-brain creative and holistic approaches, and disdains the use of left-brain analytic and structured processes. No one told me that school was designed for A-quadrant and B-quadrant learners – focusing on controlled, structured thinking and analytic processes. I only knew that I had found an enjoyable and highly productive method of learning.

Sniff at it first. If it smells good, take a nibble.
If it tastes bad, walk away.

Years later, while working at a high tech company, I attended a seminar on “garf.” (The actual term is meaningless to a non-engineer, so “garf” is as good a term as any.) As I entered, I saw that the seminar was sponsored by the XYZ company, and that the table was covered with XYZ sales brochures. I quickly realized that this was not a seminar designed to teach me about “garf”; it was a day long infomercial for XYZ’s “garf” products. The only thing they intended to teach me was that I had no hope of ever understanding “garf” unless I bought their products.

Prior to the seminar, I had specific questions about “garf.” As the XYZ facilitator presented the material, I had looked ahead to see where he was leading me. I quickly lost interest in analyzing the value of the “garf” products once I realized that the facilitator was really a salesperson. Instead of returning after the break, I embarked on my own journey through the bookstores to understand “garf.” I also talked to others who had attended the seminar, and found better places to buy products for using “garf.” Psychologist Alan Miller might term this a “subjective-analytic” learning style (Miller). This style is characterized by withdrawing from objective reality to analyze the experience. My analysis said that the salesperson was more interested in lightening my wallet than in teaching me about “garf.”

Chaos is a sign of creativity.
Take plenty of naps.

At another job, I was tasked to write a program for a production process I did not understand, for people who had never used computers, in a programming language I had never used. An orderly design process would not work here; I had to learn and teach at the same time. I bought some books, discarded those that took too long to understand, and took plenty of baths. In the bathtub, I could relax and let my mind wander. Freed of bodily confines, my ideas mixed freely. I imagined pieces of the program talking to each other. Reflecting, I became the pieces of the program. I imagined what things I would need to know from the other program pieces. I imagined how the operator would want to use me. It dawned on me that I could create a miniature “language” of my own, then make the different pieces all talk the same language. Later, referring to my scattered and slightly damp notes, I designed a common interface language that would allow the different program pieces to talk to each other. After that, I could design each program piece independently of the others, confident that they would all integrate into a single coherent whole.

Through reflection, my mind had assembled pieces of information in random ways, until at last a pattern emerged. To help learn the new production process and programming language, Alan Miller might say that I used a “subjective-holistic” approach (Miller). This approach is characterized by abandoning analysis in favor of an intuitive, holistic experience. Miller writes: “the romantic lives in an impressionistic, often imaginative, world of personal anecdote and unanalysed subjective experience.” This approach had allowed my mind to wander freely, and arrive at intuitive solutions that had resisted previous attempts at rational analysis.

In school, information seems largely presented in a rational, analytic fashion – aimed at Hermman’s A-quadrant rational, logical processes. However, to ensure success in college I must focus on my most effective learning techniques. My preferred learning styles are holistic, using intuition to synthesize facts and experience into new knowledge – such as Herrmann’s D-quadrant or Miller’s subjective-holistic models. However, I also have the ability to learn using an analytic style, using Miller’s subjective-analytic style, as long as I can first assemble the knowledge into an overall “big picture.” Getting the “big picture” is my key to success in college; or, to “cat”-egorize my learning styles from my T-shirt:

Curiosity never killed anything.

If at first I don’t succeed, take a nap.

Let my own personality guide my learning.

Don’t be afraid to skip around through a subject.

Enjoy how I’m learning, not just what I’m learning.



de Boer, Ann-Louise, and Tobia Steyn.  "Thinking style preferences of underprepared first year students in the Natural Sciences."  South African Journal of Ethnology 22.3 (1999): 97-102.

Miller, Alan.  "Personality types, learning styles and educational goals."  Educational Psychology 11.3/4 (1991): 217-38.