The topic has been around for the best part of thirty years now but the controversy surrounding it has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent weeks thanks to the social networking sites Twitter and YouTube. I’m talking of course about the concept of ‘learning styles’ and the flurry of excited posts on Twitter celebrating the research of Professor Daniel T Willingham of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia which – he claims -demonstrates that ‘learning styles don’t exist’. Quite why there should be such enthusiasm for his ‘findings’ is worthy of consideration in itself, but if you haven’t yet seen or heard it you may wish to listen first of all to Professor Willingham in his own words:
I’ve written before on the blog about my admiration for the work of Harvard professor Howard Gardner and his Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which transformed thinking about learning and teaching in the 1980s. Gardner’s notion – arrived at largely through his work with brain-damaged adults – that there are different ways of learning and that we all have preferred learning styles, led us to question traditional notions of intelligence or ‘IQ’ which until then were based largely on an academic model of learning through reading, and depending wholly on the teacher/expert for the transfer of knowledge:
“The daily opportunity to work with brain-damaged adults and with children impressed me with one brute fact of human nature: people have a wide range of capacities. A person’s strength in one area of performance simply does not predict any comparable strengths in other areas……..
We are not all the same; we do not all have the same kinds of minds (that is, we are not all distinct points on a single bell curve); and education works most effectively if these differences are taken into account rather than denied or ignored.”
Over time, Gardner’s views were often misinterpreted or distorted, with some schools and teachers in extreme cases going so far as to label children as one kind of learner or another, reinforcing the concept of ‘fixed’ intelligence which the theory of MI had done so much to rebut, but for many of us it marked the recognition at last that significant numbers of young people in the system were being failed because they didn’ t fit the narrow definition of intelligence which had hitherto prevailed. Suddenly, it was not acceptable to focus only on a small section of the population, with talk about those who were ‘willing to learn’ as opposed to those who weren’t, those who were ‘bright’ and those who would never ‘get it’. The common practice of ‘streaming’ in secondary schools (grouping pupils according to IQ scores into the same group for all subjects) was largely abandoned. Learning and teaching became a whole lot more challenging and a whole lot more rewarding at the same time.
I believe that Willingham falls into the same trap as those who took the theory of MI too literally and who wrongly came to the conclusion that the way forward was to identify a young person’s preferred learning style and cater for that exclusively from then on in, when in fact what Gardner had been advocating was that teachers use a wide range of methods and approaches for all students.
It’s well worth listening again to Howard Gardner himself in this 1997 interview on the importance of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences and its significance in the context of education:
For more on this topic see Ian Gilbert’s excellent post over at Independent Thinking.
Next time: ‘Entry points’ for understanding and why they matter.