Substance Matters Too

Following my blogpost yesterday on the impact of Howard Gardner‘s Theory of Multiple Intelligences on those of us who were teaching in the 1980s, it was quickly pointed out to me that I had wrongly attributed the concept of ‘preferred learning styles’ to the man himself, a schoolboy error if ever there was one. In fact, on re-checking my sources, it seems that Gardner was keen to distance himself from the idea. On pages 83-84 of the paperback edition of Intelligence Reframed he clearly states, under the heading ‘Myths and Realities about Multiple Intelligences’:

“Myth 3. An intelligence is the same as a learning style.”

Bizarrely (in my view), in the course of the next few lines of commentary, he goes on to offer the following observations:

“In my view, the relation between my concept of intelligence and the various conceptions of style needs to be worked out empirically, on a style-by-style basis……….

Perhaps the decision about how to use one’s favored intelligences reflects one’s preferred style. Thus, for example , introverted people would be more likely to write poetry or do crossword puzzles, whereas extroverted ones would be drawn to public speaking, debating, or television shows.”

So, if you are still with me, the argument seems to run along the following lines: There is more than one kind of intelligence. Intelligence is not fixed. We do not all have the same kind of minds. We all have preferred ways of learning (which should not be called ‘preferred learning styles’). Therefore, schools (and by definition, teachers) should take account of these differences when planning curricula.

Now copy these notes in whichever style you prefer

On a more practical note, Gardner expands on the ways in which students with different strengths may be engaged with and helped to understand a topic, by offering seven ‘entry points’ to learning which he equates roughly with specific intelligences:

1. Narrational – The narrational entry point addresses students who enjoy learning about topics through stories.

2. Quantitative/Numerical – The quantitative entry point speaks to students who are intrigued by numbers and the patterns they make, the various operations that can be performed, and insights into size, ratio and change.

3. Logical – The logical entry point galvanises the human capacity to think deductively.

4. Foundational/Existential – This entry point appeals to students who are attracted to fundamental kinds of questions. Nearly all children raise such questions, usually through myths or art; the more philosophically oriented pose issues and argue about them verbally.

5. Aesthetic – Some people are inspired by works of art or by materials arranged in ways that feature balance, harmony, and composition.

6. Hands On – Many people, particularly children, most easily approach a topic through an activity in which they become fully engaged – where they can build something, manipulate materials, or carry out experiments.

7. Social – Many people learn more effectively in a group setting, where they can assume different roles, observe others’ perspectives, interact regularly, and complement one another.

I think this is a very useful checklist to keep in mind when preparing a topic or a series of lessons. Going back to look at what Gardner has to say about learning is extremely powerful – even if a little confusing at times – but on one thing critics, academics and practitioners all seem to agree. From the moment Howard Gardner began to question our assumptions about intelligence, the days of the  ‘preferred teaching style’ of chalk and talk were numbered. It was no longer good enough for teachers to talk at children and assume that if they were smart enough they would get it.


2 thoughts on “Substance Matters Too

  1. Hi, I have used the Felder-Silverman Index of Learning Styles (ILS) for 8 years with my Sound Production Students. {see here for more info:~} here’s my observations.
    1) Carrying out the ILS during the induction week can be useful.
    2) Re-taking the test approx. 6 weeks later produces consistent results.
    3) Carrying out the test at points later in the academic year produces varying results, sometimes very different to the initial results.

    It’s clear to me that Learning Styles Preferences are dynamic and often contextulised according to learner’s needs, i.e. the preferred style changes depending on what is needing to be learned.

    You highlight a very common problem with the study of pedagogy/andragogy and its associated literature. Context is King. Any lecturer/teacher hoping to create successful learning and learners needs to look first to their learners, then the learning task and then the pedagogical techniques available and then back to their learners. Carry out this cyclic process with a healthy chunk of common sense and the pyramid of success will be easier to climb.

    • Many thanks for that contribution James. What strikes me about your observations is the fact that when tests were carried out later in the year results were often ‘very different’ from the initial results, which could illustrate, as you say, that context is king, or indeed that preferences are far more fluid than it is sometimes assumed. While I have discovered a range of views on learning styles, from enthusiastic support to outright denial, most educationists are agreed on the need for a range of teaching styles or ‘pedagogical techniques’ as you aptly put it.

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