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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.