Why debate over styles needs more substance

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Reading Fran Abrams' report about learning styles ("Cognitive conundrum", TES, May 20) made me sufficiently depressed to write to you.

The report embodies a number of features that blight education today.

First, there is the tendency to have a go at any popular trend (although if a trend is popular, it must have something going for it). The trouble is that criticism often ignores much of what is being said and misrepresents the subject.

Howard Gardner's work is not easy reading and I suspect many critics (and advocates) have not read too much of it. As a result, what develops in the media (and many schools) is a "Chinese whisper" effect that can distort the theory. I have read two of Gardner's books and do not recognise the idea that the intelligences are "located in different areas of the brain" (at least not in clearly defined areas). Nor does he suggest labelling anyone as a "kinaesthetic learner", "visual learner" etc.

The principle is that everyone has multiple intelligences, although some may be stronger than the others. The weaker ones can (and should) be developed, but the stronger aspects can be highlighted to open up new ways of working for the pupil.

Second, we see the unfortunate phenomenon of teachers taking a useful concept and trying to confine it into a rigid "system". The brain, learning and learning styles are infinitely complex and there is no magic "multiple intelligences" teaching method. The strict classification of pupils into a particular learning style is an example of this. It is not surprising that there is "a baffling array of theories about learning styles" and probably none of them is exactly correct, but at least Gardner's is relatively easy to understand and attempts to apply it often result in better teaching.

Last, there is the strange idea that evidence = statistics. As a former research scientist, I find quantitative research in education has very limited validity. There are simply too many variables in any learning situation.

For example Fran Abrams' says "quality instruction" is more effective than "individualisation". Leaving aside how you can define these terms in a scientifically consistent way, surely "quality instruction" would involve a variety of teaching methods, which would be a multiple intelligences approach and would therefore involve a degree of "individualisation".

The evidence that I take most notice of is what I see and hear myself. In my experience, sensible application of multiple intelligences theory has real benefits. Pupils with high kinaesthetic intelligence and low linguistic ability often fidget and misbehave when listening and are much more cooperative when actively doing something.

Like many other ideas, the theory of multiple intelligences can be very useful but may not work "straight out of the box". It requires teachers to research, observe, experiment and shape their own pedagogy as a result.

The neurological basis of Gardner's theory may be questioned by some other psychologists, but if it results in a model that works for the teacher in the classroom, who cares?

Dr AR Schmit

7 Grange Gardens, Llantwit Major, Vale of Glamorgan

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