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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences: What Does the Research Say?

Most educators have had the experience of not being able to reach a challenging student until trying a completely different approach. Perhaps it was a student who struggled with writing until the teacher provided the option to create a graphic story, which blossomed into a beautiful and complex narrative. Or maybe it was a student who just couldn't seem to grasp fractions, until he created them by separating oranges into slices.

Because of these kinds of experiences, the idea of learning styles and the theory of multiple intelligences resonate with many educators. These theories support what we all know to be true: A one-size-fits-all approach to education will invariably leave some students behind.

The Difference Between Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles

The theory of multiple intelligences says that individuals are born with the innate capacity to succeed in a particular domain, and education should help to identify and develop students' innate capacities.

The idea of learning styles predicts that each student has a particular way of learning that works best for them, such as visually or through hands-on activities; therefore, teachers should ensure that students can learn in the style that best suits their preference.

Lack of Evidence

But can learning styles or multiple intelligences actually provide a basis for teaching models in the classroom? Despite their popularity, as well as what may seem to be an intuitive correctness about them, neither is supported by research. To wit:

  • There is no scientific evidence, as of yet, that shows that students -- people -- have specific, fixed learning styles or discrete intelligences.
  • There are no published studies to date that support the idea that students benefit when teachers target instruction to a specific learning style or intelligence.

Additionally, learning styles have been categorized in a number of different ways -- visual/auditory/kinesthetic, impulsive/reflective, right brain/left brain, etc. -- yet there is no overarching model that has been proven to have reliable outcomes. For example, there is no evidence that categorizing people as either left- or right-brained learners leads to any predictable results about their aptitudes or skills.

What the Theories Can Teach Us

Still, the development of both of these concepts has done much to broaden people's understanding and definition of what intelligence is. Even without scientific evidence, these ideas can be useful for informing teaching practices; the crux is in how you use the information. Most critically, students should not be classified as being specific types of learners nor as having an innate or fixed type of intelligence.

For example, Edutopia's Learning Styles Quiz maps to Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences and is a fun way to learn about how some of our tastes and interests can influence how we take in information. However, its results are not intended as a way to label people as "naturalistic learners," "musical learners," etc. Labeling creates limits, and when it comes to learning, boundaries are the last thing we want.

Practices Supported by Research

However, having an understanding of different teaching approaches from which we all can learn, as well as a toolbox with a variety of ways to present content to students, is valuable for increasing the accessibility of learning experiences for all students. Indeed, providing different contexts for students and engaging a variety of their senses -- for example, learning about fractions through musical notes, flower petals, and poetry meter -- is supported by research. Specifically:

  • Providing students with multiple ways to access content improves learning (Hattie, 2011).
  • Providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills increases engagement and learning, and provides teachers with more accurate understanding of students' knowledge and skills (Darling-Hammond, 2010).

As our insatiable curiosity about the learning process continues and studies of it evolve, scientific research may emerge that supports multiple intelligences, learning styles, or perhaps another theory. Ultimately, though, the best guides for how to reach students will always come down to a teacher's experienced intuition combined with her knowledge of each of her students.

Comments (11)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

regina davenport's picture

I am always open to ideas of how I might better understand and and diversify my teaching to reach my students. This idea of multiple intelligences recognizes that students vary in way they are able to understand concepts simply validates the importance of finding many ways to present and allowing students many ways to show their understanding.

regina davenport's picture

I am always open to ideas of how I might better understand and and diversify my teaching to reach my students. This idea of multiple intelligences recognizes that students vary in way they are able to understand concepts simply validates the importance of finding many ways to present and allowing students many ways to show their understanding.

Bettih Shabazz's picture
Bettih Shabazz
16 year old Psychology student at SNHU

I am glad to find out that of what Ive read previously and comments by other teachers regarding their students in public schools in the not so far past, that philosophies on learning styles and labeling have changed and/or been updated to reflect the realities of potential in all children.

Russell Alexander's picture

I like to learn much as I can about a subject, like to share the new info I have learnt. It helps me to grow the more I learn and I am open minded about learning new info.

jeradena hunter's picture

I think that learning about levels of multiple intelligences, can help students as well as teachers to better understand each other in ways more than before. Like we tends to hold every thing in, and not want to share our true thoughts because maybe we thinking that others may see us differently than who we really are, therefore, we need to know who we are, and what we are capable of being or becoming as well as knowing and understanding others, their feeling, and what they are capable of. Thanks to multiple intelligences.

Mary Blouin's picture

Your article contradicts itself!
First you say that "There is no scientific evidence, as of yet, that shows that students -- people -- have specific, fixed learning styles or discrete intelligences. There are no published studies to date that support the idea that students benefit when teachers target instruction to a specific learning style or intelligence."

Then you go on to say, "Indeed, providing different contexts for students and engaging a variety of their senses -- for example, learning about fractions through musical notes, flower petals, and poetry meter -- is supported by research. Specifically:"
Providing students with multiple ways to access content improves learning (Hattie, 2011).
Providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills increases engagement and learning, and provides teachers with more accurate understanding of students' knowledge and skills (Darling-Hammond, 2010).

You have just proven the point of learning styles... Utilizing a variety of ways to allow for understanding, because everyone learns, perceives, understands and interprets information differently.

Next time try discrediting something you actually understand yourself.

Melissa's picture
Melissa
Research Associate at Edutopia

Hi Mary,

It's very easy to see how the concepts presented in this article can sound contradicting. As you pointed out, Isn't the whole point of multiple intelligences and learning styles to open people's eyes to the idea that there is value to using different methods to teach the same content because everyone is unique?

The confusing part is: yes and no.

The ideas and larger concepts of people learning in a variety of ways, and benefitting from experiencing information in different ways is supported. That is shown through the Hattie (2011) and Darling-Hammond (2010) excerpts that you pointed out.

The key to the difference between those ideas, and the specific definitions presented by theories of learning styles and multiple intelligences however, is the idea that this variety of ways that people learn and understand information can be categorized and that they are both innate, and fixed; with people fitting into one category or another, or being a specific combination of different categories that can and should be "figured out" by the educators. This is the portion of the argument that research cannot support.

The article states, under "What the Theories Can Teach Us":

"Still, the development of both of these concepts has done much to broaden people's understanding and definition of what intelligence is. Even without scientific evidence, these ideas can be useful for informing teaching practices; the crux is in how you use the information. Most critically, students should not be classified as being specific types of learners nor as having an innate or fixed type of intelligence." (emphasis added)

So you are right, in that providing a variety of vehicles for students to learn information is valuable, and research backed. But as the article states, and I think we all agree, "Labeling creates limits, and when it comes to learning, boundaries are the last thing we want."

Thank you for the feedback and I hope this clarifies our intention and meaning somewhat! Please let us know if you have any other questions or thoughts!

Mary Blouin's picture

Dear Melissa,

Thank you for your respectful reply. I appreciate your further explanation.

I agree with you that labeling is not where education should excel. In fact, labeling, I am sure you would agree, has caused much of the current ills of education and that as adults has limited possible vocations as well as avocations. So, in this respect, and if this was indeed the intention and purpose of the article, I totally agree with you.

I do, however, believe that the term multi-intelligence is a way of removing labels, in that the word implies all are intelligent.

Just as all have different acquired personalities and in born temperaments, which are acceptable and not considered negative labeling, multi-intelligence and/or learning styles, should, and are, in many educational environments, considered to have the same positive connotations in the educational world today.

As an example, The Waldorf Schools started by Rudolf Steiner are the best proof that education based on learning styles and multi-intelligence works. Since 1919 the Waldorf method of education has been based on a profound understanding of human development that addresses the needs of the growing child. Teachers are interested in the students as individuals. They are interested in the same learning style questions that teachers use in a multi-intelligence format.

How do we establish within each child his or her own high level of academic excellence? How do we call forth enthusiasm for learning and work, a healthy self-awareness, interest and concern for fellow human beings, and a respect for the world? How can we help pupils find meaning in their lives?

"When children relate what they learn to their own experience, they are interested and alive, and what they learn becomes their own. Waldorf schools are designed to foster this kind of learning."
--Henry Barnes, a longtime Waldorf teacher and the former Chairman of the Board of AWSNA

Here is a copy of their annual report. Time permitting, you may find it interesting: http://www.whywaldorfworks.org/04_AWSNA/documents/FINALasn_annualrep2012...
Further, there has been no scientific research or reporting to support learning styles because of a major new report published this month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. "The report, authored by a team of eminent researchers in the psychology of learning--Hal Pashler (University of San Diego), Mark McDaniel (Washington University in St. Louis), Doug Rohrer (University of South Florida), and Robert Bjork (University of California, Los Angeles)--reviews the existing literature on learning styles and finds that although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners (such as "auditory learners" and "visual learners"), those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible." (my emphasis)

Which means to me that the scientific community needs the research done in a specific manner before they will buy into it.

"Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity." (my emphasis)

Again, the scientific community needs to have the research done in a very specific way as stated below, before they will accredit it.

"Any experiment designed to test the learning-styles hypothesis would need to classify learners into categories and then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods, and the participants would need to take the same test at the end of the experiment. If there is truth to the idea that learning styles and teaching styles should mesh, then learners with a given style, say visual-spatial, should learn better with instruction that meshes with that style. The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design." (my emphasis).

How can anyone claim the research does not support learning styles when the science community claims that accurate, credible and scientific research has not been done?

So while it seems to be true that research does not support learning styles, it is truer that the research required by the scientific world has not been supported or completed. In other words, there has been NO proper scientific reporting done for anyone to claim that there is no validity to learning styles.

On the other hand, since 1919, Waldorf Schools have utilized temperament, age grouping and learning styles within their curriculum with much success as evidenced by their annual report. I believe the fact that they are still using this same curriculum today is the BEST EVIDENCE for the viability of learning styles to promote educational success.

In my estimation, science and the scientific process is not an appropriate assessment tool for the validity of learning styles. Experience and success in the real world is the only good measure. For that we have lots of experience and testimony to the fact by thousands of children who have gone on to become successful enterprising adults from being educated within their learning style rather than the one style to fit all approach we educate with today.

Thank you again for explaining your purpose and reasoning for your article. I hope that with my further explanation you can see my perspective on the subject.

Melissa's picture
Melissa
Research Associate at Edutopia

Dear Mary,

Thank you as well for your thoughtful reply! I have to agree that in many education communities the term "multi-intelligence" does have a positive connotation, and we do not mean to discredit the idea that all students are intelligent in a wide variety of ways. I think most would agree with us that acknowledging that students need a variety of vehicles for learning is a good thing.

You also make a fair point that the scientific world does require a very particular level of certain types of evidence in order to call something "research supported" and it is indeed possible that there simply is not enough evidence to refute OR support current concepts of learning styles. This can be a limitation of scientific research, but that is why experience in the non-lab world is so important.

In my view, both on the ground experience and scientific evidence are of equal value, with both having a great deal to teach to those who wish to make strides in education. Often, the experiential evidence comes first, and causes the researchers to dig deeper and design their experiments to examine the evidence shown so widely in the classroom. Each realm of evidence informs the other, making for ever-improving views of education and human development.

Edutopia knows that there is great power in discussion among individuals, which is why we encourage people to share their ideas just like you did! Thank for sending the Waldorf school report. I am always open to learning more about different types of education, and the report was a good intro to the school philosophy. I will have to delve more into the school and learn more about it!

I hope our discussion has been as enjoyable and informative to you and others as it was for me!

Mary Blouin's picture

Dear Melissa,

Indeed the perspectives and ideas we have discussed have been very enjoyable for me. I also hope that others will join us with whatever information or experience they have to share.

The more qualitative information and experience that we all share will indeed help in collecting the experiential evidence so needed to bring awareness to the scientific community.

Thank you again for your respectful comments and enjoyable discussion.

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