Friday, September 12, 2014

Creating barriers in student learning: Learning styles and multiple intelligence theories

The educational system is creating barriers in student learning through the enforcement of learning styles (LS) and multiple intelligence (MI) theories in the classroom.

That is one of the major things that I have learned from being both learning to be a teacher and doing my undergrad in Psychology.  I recognize that education and educational practices may not want to be "behind the times," but to be honest, they are in a bit of a sticky situation because of two main reasons:

(a) To implement any new research into practice takes years and typically faces challenges from people set in their ways.  By the time things are in place, the research upon which those changes were based may no longer be relevant newer, updated versions have since become available, or alternatively, the research may have been shown to be flawed.   Or, it could simply be that something may have interrupted the flow of change preventing the research from having any lasting effects as education reverts back to where it was before.

(b) Schools and school boards want to show parents that what they are doing is for the good of the students.  This in itself is not bad, but sometimes parents want tangible evidence which leads to theories like LS and MI becoming predominant in classroom planning and application.  The idea then is that to effectively teach all of the students, a teacher needs to structure their lesson activities by catering to their different styles of learning or intelligences (e.g. people high in visual-spatial intelligence learn best with pictures, charts, graphs and kinaesthetic intelligence is best met with movement and action, logical intelligence... etc. and so on).  In including this into the doctrine of teaching, parents are then satisfied because teachers are seen to be doing their best to reach different types of students.  I want to stress that wanting to help students is absolutely the job of a teacher, but there is a problem with LS and MI which I will get back to in a second.
One of the things the professors stressed to teach us in my undergrad is that we need to think critically about everything.  Just because something is the common practice or just because someone tells us that there is a certain way to do something does not mean that is the best way or the right way.  There is no empirical research that justifies the use of LS and MI in the classroom.  These popular beliefs, despite all the power they hold over teachers all over the world, are merely theory and philosophy and serve only to satisfy parents who worry teachers aren't trying hard enough to reach their students.

I'm not saying that different teachers strategies will not help in the classroom.  If a teacher lectures every single day, eventually, a student will most likely get bored.  In that respect, I think it's good to liven things up and do a diverse selection of activities.  However, this obsession over understanding and catering to learning styles and different intelligences is unfounded and may actually lead to problems in the classroom.

What problem?  A self-fulfilling prophecy problem.

I remember taking a LS quiz in grade 10 and many of my peers likewise took a variation of an LS or MI quiz in their high school careers.  Whereas now I don't put much stake in those results, I remember at the time thinking that the test results explained why I felt I had to work harder when information was expressed verbally over visually.  I was simply more visual learner than audible learner.

Can you see the problem yet?

Students who take the tests (tests that are not necessarily reliable between testings and that measure preference more than actual style/intelligence), may build themselves a box.  They will put up walls that could prevent them from attaining their full potential.  A student who sees himself as having a low intrapersonal intelligence may give up sooner on individual work because that's not his "strong intelligence" or someone low on mathematical-logical intelligence may reason that they don't have a math brain so why try?

I do not want to be apart of the belief camp that is given our students the tools they need to fail.  Sure, not everything will be easy when learning, but as a teacher, it's my responsibility to help you find a way over the hurdle, not build it higher.

Thank you for reading.
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For more on this topic, see:
Re-examining Barsch Learning Styles, a critical reflection by me.
Here are also a couple of articles that I found via google search:
Multiple Intelligences: The Making of a Modern Myth, by Daniel T. Willingham
Multiple Intelligences theory by Gardner: myth, proven theory or philosophy?, by... Pedro, I think

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