In this article I want to share with you a major thinking frame, that has been of great use to me in my teaching and that comes from the work of Antoine de la Garanderie, a major French pedagogical thinker.

Thinking frames - methodology article - guest writers


  • What is a thinking frame?
    • Way 1
    • Way 2
    • Way 3
    • Way 4
  • How does this help me as a language learner?
  • How does this help me as a teacher?
  • Conclusion


What is a thinking frame?
Euclidean geometry is an example of a thinking frame: When I realise that there is a fixed proportional relationship between a circle's radius and its circumference, I begin to look for other proportionalities in other shapes. This state of mind both enriches and impoverishes me.

  • It enriches me by giving me tools for reflection and yet reduces my thinking by rendering what is outside the frame less worthy of interest. So, Euclid's brilliance might hinder me from thinking about shapes in terms of their weight.

De la Garanderie suggests that there are four main ways in which people learn.

Way 1
When you learn in this way you receive the new information auditorily or visually and you store it together with other similar information in your mind.

  • An analogy would be going to the market and buying honey; when you get home you store the honey in the jam and honey section of your larder. The analogy, though, is a weak one, as the new jar of honey will not
    change and rearrange the other pots of sweet stuff. New information, added to old, will often cause the old to modify, change and re-organise.
  • If I go to a teacher training workshop as a participant, I will often find myself working in this way: I listen to what is being said and insert it into my ready-made, internal schemata.
  • If I were learning a new language and came across a linguistic feature I already knew in another language I would have that warm feeling of recognition that is typical of Way 1 thinking.


Way 2
This is the way of learning deemed normal by many of the great, traditional, educational systems of the world.

  • When working in this mode you take in the new information though your ear or your eye and you try to memorise it just as it is.
  • If you are studying ground-plans you attempt to mentally photograph what you have on the page in front of you.
  • In Way 2 you try to retain the form of what you receive and store it in your mind as a complete text. Most readers will have learnt the Latin alphabet in Way 2 and, possibly, as an oral chant when at primary school.
  • Way 2 is clearly central in the life of any actor and is a must in the life of Chinese schoolchildren as they learn the 10,000 characters that bring literacy to one quarter of the world's population.


Way 3
In this way you receive the new information and you immediately start questioning it. Your mind swarms with queries like:

"Does what the teacher said at the outset fit with this ending?"
"Do I agree with that middle bit?"
"I wonder where the teacher got all this from. What are her sources?"

  • In Way 3, typically, you are in an intellectually aggressive and questioning state of mind.You enter into mental dialogue with the new information and its implications.
  • Classical Western scientific method draws majorly on this way of working: The central concept of striving to falsify a hypothesis is typical of Way 3.
  • In my own training at a UK secondary school and then at university I was praised by my teachers for staying as much as possible in this mode. I was praised for intellectual challenging, insubordination, refusing to take 'That's the way it is' for an answer.


Was I taught to value gentle learning, absorbing new ideas, was I made aware that my conscious mind can only think so far, and that the unconscious cognitive processes are vaster, deeper and more potent than that which can fit onto the narrow workbench of conscious mind? I think I was not introduced to such realisations.

Way 4
This is the most difficult of the thinking modes to accurately describe. In this frame of mind the person makes no conscious effort to "learn" anything and yet, maybe the next day, they realise that they have new knowledge in their heads.

  • Let me give you an example: I arrive in a new city and go to my hotel. I take a 40 minute walk around the neighbourhood, with the conscious intention of thinking through the steps of my next three hour teacher
    training workshop. Next morning, as I emerge from sleep, I sense that I "know" the layout of the streets surrounding the hotel. I have taken information on board without realising that I was doing it and I have done it completely, excellently, accurately and cognitively, and all this below the level of consciousness.
  • My guess is that nearly everything that I learnt between conception and the out-of-the-womb age of five was acquired in Way 4. My extraordinary mastery of my mother tongue was achieved 100% through a huge, effortless computational process in the unconscious part of my mind.
  • Way 4 is too "dreamy" to sit well with most educational systems, though, in language teaching, we have the work of Lozanov, father of Suggestopaedia and of Urbain and Dufeu, who have created Language Pscyhodramaturgy . Both these methods consciously try to reach the cognitive and affective power of what lies below the surface of the consciousness in the language learner.
  • It is fascinating how well learners in these two methods, even hoary, inflexible adults, produce the sound system of the target language, which suggests that privileging Way 4 may be an extremely efficient way of giving people back their L1 learning ability later in life when working with an L2 , 4 or 6.


How does this help me as a language learner?
I am seriously considering learning Polish. In constructing my one-to-one programme I want to offer myself the chance of all four modes of learning.

  • In part of each lesson I want to learn some tiny, rhythmical chunk of Polish by heart. At first these texts will be just 2-4 lines long. I want to learn in Way 2 and stock my head with some auditorily memorable strings of sounds. I want to build myself a small auditory library, which gradually will give me memorable examples of many areas of Polish grammar.
  • I will happily use parallel Polish-English text so that I can associate what is new with what I already know. I will joyfully indulge in comparison of Polish patterns in sounds, in graphemes, in syntax and in collocational behaviours with the same in other languages I know. I want each lesson to have space for me to work in Way 1, where I weave the newness of Polish into the safe, lazy, conservative structures already in my head.
  • Yes, and Way 3, I definitely want to ask my Polish teacher questions she finds hard to answer about her language. I want to give the wobbly rules the grammar books will teach me a hard time. I will have fun being a linguistic terrier worrying the bone of inadequate descriptions of Polish, (assuming they are as goofy as some of the mad " rules" we shove at students in teaching EFL).
  • Perhaps Way 4 will be the most important mode for me in my learning of this language. Since I am able to safely and easily go into light trance, I feel that it is in this condition that I will take in most Polish and at the deepest level. It is from this level that I will come to speak the language most effectively.


How does this help me as a teacher?

  • I reckon that some of my students may well be happy in Way 1. In this case I need to give them plenty of opportunity to compare the target language with the way their mother tongues work in the same area. I need to respect and foster their natural recourse to their mother tongue as their reference point.
  • Why do I use the Way 2 mode so little in my classes? How often, in the past ten years, have I asked students to enjoy the committing of striking text to memory? When did I last ask a class to learn a blackboard diagram of the English tense system by heart? If my students come from almost anywhere in the World beyond Western Europe I am denying them exercise of a skill that they have deeply ingrained in them from their previous education.
  • Knowing that some students live mainly in Way 3, I realise that apparent aggressiveness in their reception of new knowledge is to do with their preferred learning style and does not constitute an attack on me as a person. This awareness has frequently stood me in good stead in the heat of the moment in class, and allowed me to behave reasonably rather than with defensive aggression.
  • Have you noticed that some students seem to spend part of the lesson in a sort of distant mood, as if they were not paying attention? They seem fascinated by what is beyond the frames of the windows. They seem like they are partly not there. Knowing that Way 4 is a powerful way of absorbing new ideas and skills I have become circumspect about jumping to the conclusion that such students are "doing nothing". I monitor such folk carefully and check what they have acquired by the next day after a lesson spent apparently suspended from a cloud. Some apparent wool-gatherers are doing just that, while others are genuinely learning in their own, powerful Way 4 mode.


If you have read this article mainly in Way 3, objecting and mis-matching like hell, that's fine. De la Garanderie's theory of the four ways of learning does not have to be true to be useful to us as both learners and teachers. This goes, too, for the further" thinking frames" I hope to introduce you to in subsequent articles.

Further reading

Suggestopedia and Language Acquisition: Variations on a Theme by W.J. Bancroft
Défense et illustration de l'introspection: Au service de la gestion mentale by Antoine de La Garanderie

Mario Rinvolucri, Pilgrims, UK

Research and insight

We have hundreds of case studies, research papers, publications and resource books written by researchers and experts in ELT from around the world. 

See our publications, research and insight

Sign up to our newsletters for teachers and teacher educators

We will process your data to send you our newsletter and updates based on your consent. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every email. Read our privacy policy for more information.