Recently, a friend and colleague sent me a link to an article that speaks of learning styles as a myth, or at least tries to debunk some myths associated with learning styles. Initially confusing is the way that in the article, “Myths of Learning Styles”, the author appears to use “learning styles” to mean both learning styles and also what I commonly refer to as “multiple intelligences.” Forwarding the article to me was an intentional and thoughtful act by a dedicated colleague, so I decided to spend some time thinking about the topic.
First, some background: I’ve been an advocate of thinking about multiple intelligences (MI) within my school. I designed a custom Learning Profile (see the video linked here) application to provide each student with data about their self-assessed MI scores as well as their VAK and Learning Preferences. So I am invested in MI. On the other hand, I don’t wish to continue to promote and use a theory that is wrong. I’ve also had a complicated relationship with the idea of MI. Although I ultimately use and support it, I certainly have a voice in my head that values the old definition of intelligence and wants to privilege “book learning” and math above other modes. But I see real benefits to the theory and try not to listen to that voice when I’m teaching.
The “Myths” article presents two fact that seemed potentially most damning to my practice and MI as a whole:
1. Changing learning styles (MI) does not guarantee successful outcomes and
2. There is no evidence that when an instructor changes to a learner’s preferred style, it helps them learn.
These points took me aback. I spent some time of reading, observing and thinking, wrestling with whether we could be wrong. So I went back to some of the articles cited by the “Myths” author and read there. In “Advice About the Use of Learning Styles”, I returned to a question of definition. “Myths” opens with talking about how students learn, but the most convincing points in the cited article spoke of how students prefer to learn. Intentional or not, the term “learning styles” was being used broadly in “Myths” and narrowly (arguably properly) in “Advice.” Misusing definition allows error to creep into our thought. Students not learning best based on choosing a preference, is not the same as students not learning best when utilizing a strength.
The lack of evidence to support Learning Styles cited in “Myths” further turns out to be an issue with how research has been conducted by proponents of the theories. There are apparently a lot of competing versions of the Learning Styles theory, so research is fragmented – no one is talking about or researching exactly the same thing. So, it’s not that there is evidence against the theories, just not particularly good evidence to support it.
So, a little reading helped and I got to use my philosophy degree to talk about errors of definition. However, now instead of promoting the wrong theory, am I promoting the inadequately researched (and therefore possibly wrong) theory? To be sure, this is really about MI for me, not Learning Styles. I’m most heavily invested in how kids do learn, less invested in how they’d like to learn. So, I searched MI in my favourite academic catalogues and could find nothing negative. Hardly scientific, but if the theory was being widely debunked, I suspect I’d have found something.
Now for the observing and thinking. I don’t think that I or many other teachers expect to find a silver bullet in Multiple Intelligences theory. But I do find several benefits: the first is that we do clearly all have different strengths. It’s clear that I’m better at language and worse at math than some other teachers in my school. Others have more social skills. Similar differences are apparent in my students. These are not particularly contestable facts. We can argue causality and have a nature/nurture debate, but the immediate truth of our differing skills isn’t debatable. These differing skills are terms with names thanks to Gardner and MI. So that’s handy.
The second benefit is that through thinking about MI, students weak in traditional academic areas get to feel value in their own strengths. This is self-esteem based on real strengths, far better than some other self-esteem boosting practices in education. In recognizing strength and weakness, we can also challenge our students to develop their weakness, but from a position where they have a specific deficit, but not an overall deficit. In my video above, everyone’s pie graph adds up to 100%, we’re all equal. But we’re not all equal in all areas. Combined with a lesson in brain plasticity, students can choose how to tackle their developing brains.
Lastly, it’s never a bad thing to be reminded as a teacher that my students are all different. “Myths” speaks of those
differences in a way to debunk MI, but I see MI as one of several important aspects of the student learner. Students’ interests and backgrounds are very important in planning lessons and assessment, but that does not mean that the modes in which they learn best and worst are not also important. Our learning profiles help teachers by showing them individual MI, but more than that, when we’re insanely busy and rushing to prepare our lessons, they can remind us that our classes are not homogenous, that we need to reach all of our unique students.
Whether it’s MI, VAK, Learning Styles, Triarchic Intelligence or even True Colours, as long as we don’t label and unfairly categorize, I’m convinced there is value in pausing to think of our students using a few different lenses and to consider them as fully as individuals as we can. That leads to better teaching and it leads to better connected, more attached students.