Extended version adapted from BRAZ-TESOL’s Newsletter
For decades the idea that people can be categorized according to how they supposedly learn best has become widespread on every level of educational systems around the world. The Learning Styles Theory (LS), often referred to along with the Multiple Intelligences Theory (MI), has shaped curricula and how teachers and students think about learning. However, what does the specialized literature on the topic have to say about these theories? Can these ideas really be considered false claims about the brain, the so-called neuromyths?
LS and MI are controversial and the literature suggests that there’s a lack of empirical evidence to support these notions (Waterhouse, 2006a; Howard-Jones, 2010; Paschler et al., 2010; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Howard Gardner himself has already said that:
[…] by the middle 1990s, I had noticed a number of misinterpretations of the theory—for example, the confusion of intelligences with learning styles […]Howard Gardner (2003, p. 8)
Drop the term “styles.” It will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students.Howard Gardner for The Washington Post (Strauss, 2013)
How did the notion of “intelligence” evolve?
Before 1950: Alfred Binet and Théodore Simon developed the IQ test which proposed that human intelligence was fixed and quantifiable. Despite Binet’s disagreement with Simon regarding how fixed our intelligence was and how accurate the test could be, the IQ test took the world and is widely used to this day (Dweck, 2008).
After 1950: The idea that people could express their intelligence in ways other than reasoning skills and the ability to solve logical problems became more popular. Many models of cognitive styles and learning styles were proposed and this gave teachers the idea that anyone could learn (or learn better) if their styles were considered when teaching them. In the 70s, the concept of crystallized and fluid intelligence appeared (Cattell,1971) and in the following decade, Gardner (1983) proposed the idea of multiple intelligences.
After 2000: IQ tests and learning styles became more debatable as concepts that could determine someone’s success at learning. New experiments were designed and new advancements from neuroscience, such as neuroimaging technologies, became more accessible and raised some questions. In this period, the notion that learning styles theory is a myth is held widely by most neuroscientists (Howard-Jones, 2010)
The good, the bad, and the ugly
So what does science have to say about these two theories nowadays and why are they controversial? Regarding LS, my former professor Paul Howard-Jones from the University of Bristol explains that:
The implicit assumption seems to be that, because different regions of the cortex have crucial roles in visual, auditory and sensory processing, learners should receive information in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic forms according to which part of their brain works better. The brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption unsound, and reviews of educational literature and controlled laboratory studies fail to support this approach to teaching.Howard-Jones, 2014, p. 1, 2
In fact, a large systematic review done by Coffield et al. (2004) with the most popular learning styles theories (13 out of 71, yes, there are many!) reached the conclusion that the conceptualizations of these studies were confusing, the methods inadequate, and that there was no conclusive relationship between visual, auditory, and kinesthetic teaching methods and students’ performance. A more recent study conducted by Paschler et al. (2010) demonstrated that there’s no evidence in the literature to support the idea that students learn best when taught in their supposed learning style. As a matter of fact, the authors end on this note:
The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. If classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstratedPaschler et al. (2010, p.117)
What about human intelligence? What defines it and how can it be tested? Despite being a matter of controversy still, Cognitive Psychology seems to agree that there is a global factor that extends throughout different aspects of cognition. This general intelligence global factor, the g factor, is what IQ tests measure. It’s the human capacity to solve logical problems through cognition, something that separates us from animals. We require not only visual-spatial abilities for solving such puzzles, but also literacy and numeracy.
In the words of professor Linda S. Gottfredson, co-director of the Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society:
Is there indeed a general mental ability we commonly call “intelligence,” and is it important in the practical affairs of life? The answer, based on decades of intelligence research, is an unequivocal yes […]. And this factor seems to have considerable influence on a person’s practical quality of life. Intelligence as measured by IQ tests is the single most effective predictor known of individual performance at school and on the job.Linda S. Gottfredson for Scientific American.
If you want to read more in plain language about the g factor, check out Linda S. Gottfredson’s text here.
This matter, as mentioned above, is still controversial since authors such as Carol Dweck and Angela Lee Duckworth put a lot more emphasis on long-term commitment and effort rather than IQ scores to determine success.
What about the multiple intelligences theory? Well, when Howard Gardner put forward the idea that humans have multiple intelligences, he was basically arguing that there were different intelligences outside the realm of this g factor. That meant that these intelligences could not be measured through traditional IQ tests. Originally, Gardner proposed 8 different intelligence domains, claiming that they should be separate or autonomous with very little overlapping. They were:
So here’s the thing: if these intelligence domains were in fact autonomous from one another, we’d expect to see low correlations betwen them. However, numerous intelligence psychometrict tests have found high correlations between most of these domains corroborating the idea of a g factor, that is, supporting the theory that there’s actually a single entity that permeates different features of cognition (Geake, 2008).
We might say that one of the big issues with MI is that most intelligences proposed by Gardner, such as musical, intrapersonal, interpersonal, naturalist, and bodily, for instance, are more like non-cognitive traits and have more to do with personality, skills or “talents” (if we may use this word) than general intelligence and cognitive aptitudes (Visser et al. 2006b; Waterhouse, 2006a; Locke, 2015).
If all of this comes as a shock to you, I might have good news. You might be wondering why you have designed so many lesson plans taking into account the different learning styles and multiple intelligences if they are not really quite valid concepts. Well, not all of it is bad if we look at the underlying ideas and the practices that came out from these theories and why they might actually help students learn.
First of all, diversifying the way we deliver content through visual and phonological input actually works because of our working memory structure and the way our brains encode information. Paivio (1991) suggests the concept of dual coding, which basically means that combining verbal and visual representations increases memorization. Baddeley (2000) posits that our working memory, that is, the memory system we use to hold information long enough to put it to some use, is composed of a visual and a phonological channel and a buffer that puts things together in a timely manner. The working memory system is like our work station where we constantly bring new and old information to so that we can accomplish a task. The best part is that we have neuroimaging studies showing where this memory is located in the brain and experiments suggesting that dual coding is effective (Howard-Jones et al., 2016; Wirebring et al. 2015)
Secondly, integrating non-cognitive skills to the curriculum and focusing a little less on students’ ability to solve puzzles and logical problems, seems to walk hand in hand with notions like self-determination, self-efficacy, growth mindset (this one is getting more controversial too), self-regulation, which are tested and have yielded positive correlations with students’ achievement because they deal with things like motivation, emotional regulation, and collaborative learning environments (Bandura, 1997; Dweck, 2008; Hattie, 2012; Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014). Like António Damásio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang propose in their article We feel, therefore we learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education, learning is not all about cognition, it’s also about emotion (Immordino-Yang & Damásio, 2007)
In third place, we can all agree that the so-called intelligence domains proposed by Gardner are ways of human expression, understaning and important aspects of life. They can lead to successful paths regardless of IQ scores. Someone who’s good at dancing can become a successful dancer and make a better living than anyone with a high g factor. Think of people with excellent interpersonal skills and how far they get in life. What about amazing artists who produce musical hits that shake entire generations?
We need to address the bad and the ugly, though. The bad is that many teachers around the world might be using teaching approaches or methods based on ideas that are not supported by science . This is not always bad unless there’s evidence to show why it might be. An example is this excerpt I got from one of my blog posts:
But assigning homework or teaching a one-to-one lesson, for example, based on a specific learning style and neglecting the others will most likely be bad for the students.Me from my blog post
In other words, what if you had 12 students in your classroom and you tested them using a learning styles questionnaire and coincidentally they were all categorized as auditory learners? Would you bother preparing lessons with visual materials? Some teachers certainly wouldn’t depending on how much they believe in the concept.
The ugly is best represented in a situation that took place in 2019 during a session I was delivering in Bucharest, Romania. I’m sure many of you know who Hugh Dellar is. If you don’t, Hugh is an ELT author, speaker, teacher trainer and runs the Lexical Lab with Andrew Walkley. Besides being an amazing chap to hang out with, Hugh is a captivating speaker and has great remarks on various topics. I was honored to have him in my session in Bucharest and I said that one of the good things about the whole learning styles theory was exactly the fact that it made teachers think about how they were reaching every student in the classroom by varying their input. Hugh pointed out something and it was sort of like this:
What about the huge amount of money invested to support and propagate a theory that isn’t evidence-based? What if that money had been put somewhere else?Paraphrasing Hugh Dellar
Well, I’d have to agree with Hugh and say that if ELT and education, in general, hadn’t propagated the learning styles theory and used the money to produce materials, courses, diplomas on, let’s say, furthering our knowledge of how neuroscience could be used in the classroom and which metacognitive strategies might work more effectively, things could be quite different.
The way I see it, we can keep doing many of the things we do in the classroom and be effective teachers. We do need to start calling things what they are. Instead of saying that you have some auditory learners in the classroom and you need to take that into consideration when planning your lesson, you can start saying that the brain encodes information visually and phonologically and that you need to help your students create multiple representations of what you’re teaching them in their brains to facilitate retrieval and maximize learning outcomes. You could also stop saying that one of your students has musical intelligence and say that she has great musical skills or that someone has interpersonal intelligence and say that they’re sociable and like to interact with others.
Nowadays, I suppose most educators as referring to “learning styles” as “learning preferences”. That means that students may have preferences but it doesn’t mean that their preference may be the best way to learn something in particular. As Paul Howard-Jones says:
However, it is true that there may be preferences and, perhaps more importantly, that presenting information in multiple sensory modes can support learning.”Howard-Jones, 2014, p. 1, 2
An analogy that recently came to me while debating this post on facebook is the following: People might have a clear view of what they like or not when they are working out in a gym. But those views may be determined by cognitive biases and/or based on concepts that are not validated by the scientific method or the literature on how the body works and how our muscles develop. Therefore, they might be completely irrelevant to a functional and effective workout program and even cause injury. On the other hand, considering that gyms offer a number of possibilities for people to exercise different groups of muscles (push ups and bench press do the same thing for example), a qualified personal trainer or gym instructor can and should take their students’ preferences into account. They just need to be justified and aligned with our knowledge of anatomy and physiology.
I’d say a teacher doesn’t need to be fully aware of neuroscientific jargon and every little detail available in the literature about how the brain learns. But I believe teacher training courses, ELT materials, and professionals working with teacher education should know basic principles that will most likely affect the outcomes of their work. It’s totally fine to ditch ideas that were once quite prevalent, take what’s best out of them, and add the latest discoveries of science. This is how science works. And it’s important to call things what they are and understand more about them so that companies stop profiting from our lack of knowledge by selling products and services based on shaky grounds. I say let’s follow Gardner’s recommendation and drop the “styles” and start teaching students more holistically using every tool we have and focusing on things like attention, engagement, memory, motivation, emotions, consolidation and the list goes on. I say we focus more on basic knowledge about the brain and some evidence-based learning learning.
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