December 22, 2009

Are There Really Different Learning Styles?

[Article apapted via The Masculine Heart—this version includes new, updated information at the end.]

Over the last 30 years or so, many educational psychologists have tried to pin down why some kids are better learners than others, despite apparent equivalencies in overall intelligence. The initial research seemed to suggest that different kids have different learning styles, generally either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic (with boys often being considered more visual or kinesthetic than girls).

This idea was expanded by Howard Gardner into the theory of multiple intelligences. He posited eight different intelligences, which educators have taken to indicate different learning styles and built curriculums around.

In recent years, he has proposed five new intelligences (Five Minds for the Future) that are only just now emerging but will be essential in the coming decades.

  • The Disciplinary Mind: the mastery of
    major schools of thought, including
    science, mathematics, and history, and of
    at least one professional craft.

  • The Synthesizing Mind: the ability to
    integrate ideas from different disciplines
    or spheres into a coherent whole and to
    communicate that integration to others.

  • The Creating Mind: the capacity to
    uncover and clarify new problems,
    questions and phenomena.

  • The Respectful Mind: awareness of and
    appreciation for differences among
    human beings and human groups.

  • The Ethical Mind: fulfillment of one’s
    responsibilities as a worker and as a

These ideas make a certain amount of intuitive sense to a lot of people, and integral theory (Ken Wilber in particular) have taken these ideas as truths, despite the lack of solid research support for them. In my own work and experience, I have generally assumed them to be true as well.

One of the more noted criticisms has come from James Traub, in his New Republic article, “Multiple Intelligence Disorder: Howard Gardner’s campaign against logic.” Here is one long passage from this article:

Gardner failed to persuade his peers. George Miller, the esteemed psychologist credited with discovering the mechanisms by which short-term memory operates, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Gardner’s argument boiled down to “hunch and opinion.” And Gardner’s subsequent work has done very little to shift the balance of opinion. A recent issue of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law devoted to the study of intelligence contained virtually no reference to Gardner’s work. Most people who study intelligence view M.I. theory as rhetoric rather than science, and they’re divided on the virtues of the rhetoric. Steven Ceci, a developmental psychologist at Cornell, praises Gardner as “a wonderful communicator” who has publicized “a much more egalitarian view of intelligence.” But he points out that Gardner’s approach of constructing criteria and then running candidate intelligences through them, while suggestive, provides no hard evidence–no test results, for example–that his colleagues could evaluate. Ceci adds: “The neurological data show that the brain is modular, but that does not address the issue of whether all these things are correlated or not.” Track-and-field athletes, he notes, may have special gifts in one particular event, but they will score better than the average person on every event. Psychological tests show the same kind of correlations.

Gardner describes this conventional view of intelligence as Cartesian rather than Darwinian. Cartesians, he argues, see the mind in strictly rational and ahistorical terms. “The Darwinian view,” he says, “is that this is a crazy-quilt group of faculties that we have here, and they’ve dealt with survival over hundreds of thousands of years in very different environments. Literacy only existed twenty-five hundred years ago. What does it mean to develop a whole theory of intelligence that didn’t even exist three thousand years ago? Moreover, given that we now have computers that will do our rational behavior for us, it’s an open question what the intelligences are going to be that are valued fifty years from now. It might be artistic; it might be pointless kinds of things.” Why should we accept a definition of intelligence that “took a certain scholastic skill–what it meant to be a good bureaucrat a hundred years ago–and make that the quintessence of intelligence”?

But that is, in a way, precisely the problem with Gardner’s theory. Intelligence is not a crisp concept but a term of value–indeed, the ultimate term of value. Some in Gardner’s corner, like his mentor and colleague Jerome Bruner, say they wish Gardner had employed a more neutral term like “aptitude. ” But if Gardner hadn’t used “intelligence” he wouldn’t be the colossal figure he is today. Gardner does not shy away from the “political” dimension of his argument. “My claim that there are seven or eight Xs is not a value judgment,” he told me. “It’s my best reading of the biological and cultural data. But my decision to call them ‘intelligences’ is clearly picking a fight with a group that thought it, and it alone, could decide what intelligence was.”

One of Traub’s primary criticisms is that the popularity of MI Theory is not based on its validity, but rather, it is based on the egalitarian idea that everyone is different but equal – I might score well on measures of logic and verbal intelligence, but that does not make me “smarter” than Jane Doe who is very musically and interpersonally gifted. It is a theory that rejects hierarchies not directly, but covertly. It seems Gardner is not comfortable with the uses his theory has been put to, however.

Here we come to the heart of the problem with multiple intelligences–not as theory, but as practice. M.I. theory has proved powerful not because it’s true but because it chimes with the values and presuppositions of the school world and of the larger culture. When theories escape into the world, they get used in ways that their inventors could scarcely have predicted or even approved. Gardner hasn’t been quite sure where his responsibility lies in such matters. He told me that he cannot be the “policeman” of the world he set into motion, though he has, increasingly, been its poster boy. Gardner has begun to speak out against some of the more extreme uses of his theory, and critics like educational historian Diane Ravitch have urged him to do more. When I showed Gardner copies of some of the exercises in Celebrating Multiple Intelligences, he scrutinized them carefully, frowned, and said, ” The only answer I can give to this is: I would certainly not want to be in a school where a lot of time was spent doing these things.”

To see how these ideas are put into practice in one of the more noted MI-based schools, Traub then visited the Key Learning Center:

In the middle of this past school year, I spent a day at the Key Learning Center in Indianapolis, probably the most famous of the M.I. schools. I had expected Key to be one of those schools where kids learn everything in seven or eight ways, jumping up and down in math class and singing their way through English. In fact, the math and science classes I sat in on looked perfectly familiar. Still, M.I.’s influence was as conspicuous as the drawings of the intelligences that line the entrance corridor. Every student spends as much time on music and art as English or social studies. Students are not graded. They receive, instead, “pupil progress reports” in which their academic improvement, their level of motivation, and their “performance along the developmental continuum” are measured in terms that can’t be plotted on invidious bell curves.


The school did have a few semi-farcical touches. There was a “flow” room designed to foster the state of unselfconscious engagement that people attain at moments of peak creativity–a practice that rested on a theory devised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist who works closely with Gardner. Kids were playing computer games, “Parcheesi,” or “Guess Who?”–the kind of activities I’m happy to have my seven-year-old do at home but wouldn’t expect to be part of a curriculum. But the Key school was not absurd in the way that educational traditionalists imagine. It was a serious-minded place, and the kids I met seemed enthusiastic and engaged. On the other hand, if they were engaged in deep understanding, I must have missed it. The eighth-grade ” linguistics” class I sat in on read through a passage in Life On The Mississippi without getting within hailing distance of its meaning. The school’s ambitions almost seemed to be elsewhere–in fostering a sense of personal maturity, in a genuine commitment to music, in making the children conscious of their own strengths.

What the Key school is arguably about is the fostering of a new kind of child and thus of a new kind of person–less linear and more “well-rounded,” less competitive and more cooperative. This is a monumental ambition, but it’s actually not far from Gardner’s own vision.

This all sounds great to me.

When I was first tested for then admitted into a talented and gifted (TAG) program when I was nine years old, the tests were standard verbal/logical intelligence tests. Later in the program, we began to get new peers, some who were not as highly scored on those tests, but who clearly exhibited genius intelligence in arts or music or some other of the eight intelligences. The diversity was welcome and exciting.

Even from Traub’s skeptical mind, it seems as though the Key Learning Center is producing more well-rounded and mature students. That can only be a good thing. I would certainly have thrived in that environment as a student.

On the other hand, people are now starting to subject the idea of learning styles to more rigorous testing, which is also a good thing. If we are going to employ these ideas, we should be sure that (1) they are valid, and (2) we are doing so in the way that best fosters learning.

This whole post began as a result of a new piece of research that suggests there may not actually be a visual and auditory learning style after all.

The wide appeal of the idea that some students will learn better when material is presented visually and that others will learn better when the material is presented verbally, or even in some other way, is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and teaching guides available for purchase and used in schools. But does scientific research really support the existence of different learning styles, or the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style?

Unfortunately, the answer is no, according to a major new report published this month in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The report, authored by a team of eminent researchers in the psychology of learning—Hal Pashler (University of San Diego), Mark McDaniel (Washington University in St. Louis), Doug Rohrer (University of South Florida), and Robert Bjork (University of California, Los Angeles)—reviews the existing literature on learning styles and finds that although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners (such as “auditory learners” and “visual learners”), those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.

Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. Any experiment designed to test the learning-styles hypothesis would need to classify learners into categories and then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods, and the participants would need to take the same test at the end of the experiment. If there is truth to the idea that learning styles and teaching styles should mesh, then learners with a given style, say visual-spatial, should learn better with instruction that meshes with that style. The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design. Of those that did, some provided evidence flatly contradictory to this meshing hypothesis, and the few findings in line with the meshing idea did not assess popular learning-style schemes.

No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. Most have no doubt been created with students’ best interests in mind, and to create more suitable environments for learning. But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.

This would seem to have some impact on Gardner’s model as well – although we will need more research directed specifically at his ideas to confirm that.

Read the rest of the original post.


Since posting my original article, The Chronicle of Higher Education has also weighed in on this issue. As one might expect, they have taken a more in-depth look at the issue of learning styles than has the mainstream media, and even some of the psychology blogs.

Here is what they have to say after providing a solid explanation of the research conducted by Hal Pashler, et al:

What this means for instructors, Mr. Pashler says, is that they should not waste any time or energy trying to determine the composition of learning styles in their classrooms. (Are 50 percent of my students visual learners? Are 20 percent of them kinesthetic learners?)

Instead, teachers should worry about matching their instruction to the content they are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussions.

If the matching hypothesis is not well supported, then why do so many learning-styles studies show positive effects? Hundreds of studies that do not meet Mr. Pashler’s stringent criteria for experimental design suggest—at least loosely—that students do better when instructors are trained in learning-styles theory.

One possibility is that the mere act of learning about learning styles prompts teachers to pay more attention to the kinds of instruction they are delivering. An instructor who attends a learning-styles seminar might start to offer a broader mixture of lectures, discussions, and laboratory work—and that variety of instruction might turn out to be better for all students, irrespective of any “matching.”

“Even though the learning-style idea might not work,” says Richard E. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “it might encourage teachers to think about how their students learn and what would be the best instructional methods for a particular lesson.”

In other words, learning-styles seminars might be effective, but not for the reasons that their designers believe.

Mr. Mayer helped lead a study six years ago that failed to find any relationship between instructional styles and the performance of “verbalizer” and “visualizer” students. He believes that Mr. Pashler and his colleagues have done strong work in debunking the matching hypothesis.

It would seem, then, that the new study has some validity. Further, it appears that is not the learning style of the students that matters most but, rather, the diversity of styles offered by the teachers that has the greatest impact on how students learn.

As an example of this, I want to offer a personal example that just happened this morning. Back in high school, when I was trying to learn calculus I had a horrible time with it and decided that no matter what my SAT scores might suggest, I was not a math person. I was discussing this research this morning with one of my clients who had spent many years as a math teacher. She explained how she taught calculus with a quick little diagram on a piece of paper. It made sense to me in ways it never did when I was supposed to be learning it in high school.

Teaching style, it seems to me, is the key. But only in as much as there is diversity in the ways each topic is taught.

I want to conclude this update with a bit more from the Chronicle article. At the end of their piece, they offer some evidence that Mr. Pashler and his fellow researchers did not adequately review the literature.

Mr. Sternberg of Tufts (and a former longtime professor of psychology at Yale University), says in his e-mail message that while he holds Mr. Pashler and his colleagues in high esteem, he believes they did a poor job here.

Several of the most-cited researchers on learning styles, Mr. Sternberg points out, do not appear in the paper’s bibliography. “The authors draw negative conclusions about a field they fail adequately to review,” Mr. Sternberg says.

Mr. Sternberg and several colleagues have worked intensively on models of learning styles for more than a decade. In 1999, he and three co-authors published a paper in the European Journal of Psychological Assessment that found that students who were strongly oriented toward “analytical,” “creative,” or “practical” intelligence did better if they were taught by instructors who matched their strength. (In their paper, Mr. Pashler and his colleagues cite Mr. Sternberg’s 1999 study as the only well-designed experiment to have found such a pattern—though they add that the study “has peculiar features that make us view it as providing only tenuous evidence.”)

Susan M. Rundle, a learning-styles consultant who is working with instructors at Alabama A&M University, also says that the research base is much stronger than Mr. Pashler and his colleagues believe. And she adds that the paper’s focus on the “matching hypothesis” is somewhat beside the point.

“In my work in higher education, I’ve found that it’s difficult to get professors to match their instruction to their students,” says Ms. Rundle, who is president of Performance Concepts International, which promotes a learning-styles model developed by Kenneth J. Dunn, a professor of education at City University of New York’s Queens College, and the late Rita Dunn, who taught for many years at St. John’s University, in Queens.

“What we do try to get professors to do,” Ms. Rundle says, “and where we’ve been successful, is to become aware of their own learning style and how that affects the way they teach. What are some things that they can do in the classroom other than just lecturing?”

So, we are left with a bit of uncertainty. On the whole, however, we likely need to create more integrated teaching styles, and become more conscious of the ways teachers are employing their own biases in the classroom. I suspect we will be seeing more research on this in the near future.

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