Use of A-I Theory in the Practice of Teaching

Understanding our cognitive style can give us the opportunity to modify classroom technique appropriately
– Dr Joseph Harder

Since becoming KAI certified in 2001, and Advanced KAI certified in 2003, I have observed many opportunities to employ A-I theory in teaching. Course delivery can be enhanced even if students have not been administered the instrument or explicitly learned the theory. Many courses, however, do offer a good fit for discussion about A-I theory. Classroom or web instructors, from grade school through graduate school, can use A-I theory for self- insight, leading to improved effectiveness and satisfaction.

KAI as a Self Discovery Measure

As many teachers do, I had taken numerous “style assessment” instruments prior to taking the KAI. When I did so, in the context of initial certification, the impact of my cognitive style on my teaching relationship with students became quite clear. Being a high innovator, my style of instruction and need for control of students’ techniques was very open. A typical response to student questions like, “What format must our term paper be in?” would be “Whatever is readable and gets the point across.” As I now understand, this kind of instruction can cause great stress to students who are more adaptive.

In the absence of understanding the existence and dimensionality of a cognitive style, it is common to assume that those who don’t understand us are not trying hard enough. This makes teachers prone to believe they have two groups of students – one group that thinks we are brilliant and another group whose opinion of us is somewhat lower. Unfortunately, a few negative student evaluations may be written off as sour grapes from poor students. Even more unfortunate is the possibility that many students give us good evaluations yet assume their inability to learn is a personal fault.

Understanding our cognitive style can give us the opportunity to modify classroom technique appropriately – whether we are innovators who unwittingly make life miserable for adaptors or vice versa. This is never easy, as conforming to our natural style takes much less effort that assuming a different style when it is called for. If we care about improving our students’ learning and self-image, however, it is worth the effort. More adaptive students who are suddenly given the opportunity to excel by performing a task which plays to their strengths may suddenly become energized to work harder and take a greater interest in course material.

Creating tasks that are more adaptive or more innovative by nature may be a challenge. Some disciplines are more naturally adaptive or innovative. This has been established by comparing the tasks associated with the discipline to A-I constructs and by documenting the cognitive style of practitioners who are satisfied with their jobs. Every discipline, however, involves some facets that are more adaptive and some that benefit from a more innovative style. For example, in my field of Management Information Systems, areas of study include Systems Analysis (innovative) and Programming (adaptive). Even within a sub-discipline, there is usually a range of specific tasks from more adaptive to more innovative. Instructors and course designers can use this diversity to vary the nature of assignments. In addition, understanding A-I theory enables us to design specific assignments in such a way that adaptors or innovators can shine.

Instructors do not necessarily have to become A-I certified to understand the impact of our style on the classroom. Simply taking the instrument and spending some time with the practitioner who administered it can yield insight. Many higher education institutions have certified KAI practitioners on the faculty. Indiana State University has more faculty and staff certified across a broader spectrum of disciplines than any other university in the world.

A-I Theory and Course Content

A-I theory and the KAI inventory can be integrated into course delivery in business, education, engineering, industrial supervision, and many other disciplines. Few practitioners of any discipline solve problems insulated from contact with or dependence on others. As noted in Kirton’s literature, any time more than one person is assigned to solve a problem, that problem becomes two problems. Problem ‘A’ is the original one, which multiple parties have now agreed to solve. Problem ‘B’ is the problem of dealing with each other.

Students often discover before they graduate that interpersonal skills are vital to accomplishing goals with the content knowledge they acquire in their academic programs. Group projects are widely assigned to afford the opportunity to display knowledge and to simulate ‘real world’ context elements. When styles vary greatly among group members, friction often results. Statements like, “He is just way out there” or, “She can’t see the big picture” abound.

Too often, we smile and say “welcome to the real world” and tell them to work it out. While this approach is consistent with conveying a sense of responsibility for working problems out, it often leads to one student going it alone out of frustration and the rest of the team getting a free ride. I have found that incorporating A-I theory into “group dynamics” training at the beginning of a project-oriented course can help students learn to solve problems amicably.

Weaving in A-I theory has other benefits. Most students enthusiastically engage in learning more about themselves. Many discover that they have a unique style, different from their peers and reference groups, which nonetheless has value. Learning to appreciate that value, as well as the value of others different from themselves, has great rewards during the course and long after.

Finally, learning to manage diversity as a managerial and interpersonal skill is a significant professional competence. Always aspired to, but far less often achieved, is the ability to manage others in such a way as to maximize their appreciation for, and co-operation with each other. This, I believe, is a key component in leadership.


My exposure to A-I theory has enabled and energized me to make changes in both the pedagogy and content of my courses. It has also become a part of my research agenda – but that is another article. Instructors at all levels will benefit from learning A-I theory as a self-discovery tool. Understanding our cognitive style can help us appreciate the varied nature of our students’ gifts and help them find ways to use those gifts. Friends and colleagues who have passed by my office door have seen my favorite quote from Benjamin Disraeli – “The greatest good you can do for another is not just to share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.”