Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligence

[BPSDB] If you work in a school you have doubtlees heard about “learning styles” and “multiple intelligence”. Your pupils may well have filled out questionaires to determine whether they are Visual, Auditory or  Kinesthenic learners.

These notions have their root in Howard Gardner’s hypothesis that we have multiple intelligences. These are Verbal/Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Visual/Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic and Existential. The definitions can be found here. According to this, he has yet to make a decision as to the existance of Spiritual Intelligence.

This is where I run into my first problem with this hypothesis, scientists do not decide whether something exists, they examine the evidence. Evidence that these Multiple intelligences exist is hard to come by. The hypothesis is hard, if not impossible, to falsify. If someone lacks musical ability for example, does it mean they have low “musical intelligence” (how is it measured?) or does it mean they had little exposure to writing music in their formative years? Nor can it be said to be predictive. If it is determined that someone has high logical/mathematic intelligence that suggests that they might make their living in a field requiring such skills. If this eventuality comes to pass, is this evidence for multiple intelligence? No, not really, as this label might have resulted in a concentration on learning logical and mathematical subjects. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

The MI enthusiasts in schools concentrate these intelligences into three learning styles; visual, auditory and kinesthenic. Why three? Surely if there are nine intelligences there are nine learning styles? Or possibly more, depending on how the separate intelligences interact with each other.

There is a serious problem in labelling children as different styles of learners in that they might come to believe the label and reject learning by other means. The “auditory learner” might refuse to read books because s/he “doesn’t learn that way” so this labelling could actually damage children’s education.

There is also the danger that the child will use the label as an excuse for bad behaviour – refuse to listen because they are not auditory learners or justify fidgetting and fiddling on the grounds that they are kinesthenic learners.

Enthusiasts for VAK/MI claim improved results as an outcome of putting points across in different ways to accomodate the different learning styles within a class. I have not seen any systematic evidence that this is so but even if it were true, the improved results could be explained by repitition re-inforcing the point.

My final concern is a more general one. In their eagerness to climb the results league tables, schools are falling for all kinds of gurus (remember brain gym?). How much public money is being diverted into pseudoscience? How much time is being spent on questionaires and INSETS on the enthusiasm du jour? How much evidence is there that any of it is achieving anything?


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2 Responses to “Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligence”

  1. rob2xx2 Says:

    “Why three?”

    I think the first time I came across this concept was in the mid-eighties when I read “Frogs into Princes” the first popular book on Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) which was written in 1979. In that book the model is just VAK, so given the huge growth in NLP since the 80s, maybe that’s where ‘three’ came from. It seemed a plausible hypothesis at the time and served a purpose in reminding me not to simply repeat stuff if it wasn’t understood the first time, but to rephrase it using different metaphors. However from the very first I remember being astonished by the lack of any kind of ‘scientific’ (ie repeatable, objective) metrics; therefore it maybe an amusing and even useful thought, but not science.

  2. tobybarrett Says:

    When I did my PGCE a few years back I had to write an essay on the subject. Like you, I was skeptical and, the more I looked into it, the more skeptical I became. I seem to remember that there is some very good critisism of Howard Gardner’s work in Stephen J Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man”. (A book that is well worth reading anyway.)

    I was fairly damning of the whole thing in my essay which, to the lecturer’s credit, I got top marks for. However, this concept is still commonplace in all of Education.

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