Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles

One of the criticisms of mainstream education is that it often doesn’t cater for the ‘fact’ that students have different “intelligences” or that they have preferred “learning styles”.

When we think about intelligence the first thing that is likely to cross our mind is IQ. The existence of metrics like IQ presume that there is a single attribute that people have that determines their overall cognitive ability.

However, we intuitively know that people are a very diverse bunch: we vary in our attitudes, our interests, our personalities and all of these traits impact on how well we learn. But does that mean that we all have a different spectrum of intelligences? Yes, and no, because intelligence is a word that is not easy to define and not easy to quantify. Furthermore, there is no definitive list of the possible intelligences that humans can possess. Indeed, the inventor of multiple intelligence theory, Howard Gardner, has stated: “I readily admit that the theory is no longer current. Several fields of knowledge have advanced significantly since the early 1980s, and I am no longer wedded to the particular list of intelligences that I initially developed.”

Regardless of Gardner’s own misgivings and the general lack of empirical evidence for theories of multiple intelligences, you’d have to admit that there is some ‘truth’ to the idea. People have different interests and aptitudes (natural/genetic or acquired), and different personality traits; and all of these factors affect how well they learn new material. Traditional exam-driven systems obviously suit people who score highly on the personality trait, conscientiousness. Exam systems are also likely to be highly stressful for people who score highly on the character trait, neuroticism. The playing field is never really level.

So in a truly equitable world, shouldn’t we design an education system that accommodates everyone’s individual interests, aptitudes and personality traits? Shouldn’t we design assessments that place equal value on different intelligences – like Gardner’s “intrapersonal intelligence” or, perhaps, creativity? Maybe, but we have no idea how to asses these ‘intelligences’ in a robust, fair and transparent way; at least not yet. Robust and fair assessment is a basic requirement of any education system.

Much of the thinking around multiple intelligences is well-intentioned idea but it depends on one very insidious idea and that is that our abilities and our personalities are fixed. Attempting to tailor education to suit the supposedly individual needs and likes of students carries with it a big risk of pigeonholing them. This is one of the problems in the German and Finnish systems where young people are put into academic/non-academic boxes at an early age. Let’s think of creativity as an example of an intelligence. Numerous reports produced over the years by Enterprise Ireland have shown that the majority of entrepreneurs have a tertiary education and many have PhDs. These are examples of creativity emerging from knowledge acquired through conventional education. Furthermore, as the world becomes more technologically advanced, creativity is going to depend more and more on having relevant, cutting-edge knowledge. So to characterise a young student as creative or non-creative at an early age is a big mistake.

A similar argument can be made against the Learning Styles concept. The core idea behind learning styles theory is that students learn better when taught in a way that matches their preferred learning style where that learning style is usually determined by a highly subjective self-administered questionnaire. There is no solid research to support the learning style concept and no serious educator takes the idea seriously any more. But people tend to still believe in the idea for the same reason as they believe in multiple intelligences: human beings differ. But while differing in some respects, human are also very similar, especially in how they operate cognitively, and the current consensus is that for the vast majority of students, there is a best way to teach a topic and that best way is determined by the nature of the content in question. Trying to teach topics in a way that suits every supposed learning style would lead to ludicrous outcomes like trying to teach map-reading (inherently visual) through dance (for so-called kinaesthetic learners).

In my own teaching I often need to show students how to solve simultaneous equations. I can do in this in a purely abstract/algebraic way or I can do it geometrically – the solution to two equations can be interpreted as the point of intersection of two curves. Invariably I find that students find the geometrical interpretation more difficult so I nearly always focus on the algebraic approach. And my experience is that if I present multiple ways of solving problems – as learning styles theory suggests I should – students end up confused.

So what to do? Should we revolutionises the education system so that it accommodates every students particular characteristics as they are at a single point in time when the student’s life experience is limited? Of course not – traditional education has endured for over a hundred years and has improved the lives of millions of people all over the world. Education as we know it drove the remarkable developments of the 20th century, and continues to do so in the 21st century; so we need to tread cautiously.

But introducing more diversity into the way we assess students is probably a good thing and certainly no harm. Assessment at third level is now very diverse – there is far less emphasis on final exams – but one thing has struck me from doing tons of stats over the years: marks in different assessments tend to be correlated. ‘Strong’ students tend to do well no matter how they are assessed; weaker ones tend to perform less well across the board. Of course, there are exceptions and the data will always have some scatter but the way we assess academic ability these days is pretty robust in my view.

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