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Wise Use of 'Learning Styles'


Q. Our school is heavily into "multiple intelligences," the idea that you should use a child's natural talent in one area to strengthen him in another area. They also say that some children learn better by listening than by reading, so they listen to books on tape instead of reading for themselves, and that some children learn better with hands-on projects and in group interaction and discussion, so those children don't have to be "stuck" in the solitary scholarship "rut," either. It makes sense to say different children learn different ways. But is that theory important enough to build an entire school around?


No. Identifying a child's strengths and predilections is a smart thing to do, and good teachers have always done that. But there's no scientific justification for what you describe, and yet so many schools are doing it. Categorizing children's personality traits, and designing curriculum around them, is an overall counter-productive, time-wasting practice. There's no scientific evidence proving that one child is "left-brained" while another is "right-brained," or that a certain child can only learn by touching something or watching it move.


Letting a child draw a cartoon instead of writing a book report, do a skit about math instead of a page of math problems, or perform a modern dance about another culture instead of reading a book about it, is only mildly and occasionally helpful, and veers more toward the "hogwash" end of the educational spectrum.


Authorities including Baroness Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institute and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, and Frank Coffield, a professor at London University's Institute of Education, dismiss "learning styles" as "nonsense" and urge educators to stick to time-tested, traditional curriculum and instructional practices, which may indeed involve a student's five senses, but focus on the reading and math abilities that parents and taxpayers want developed in children.

The theory's originator, Howard Gardner, did point out useful contrasts in different talents that different students have in his book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Basic Books, 1983). The book is based on theories of brain development. But even he has been careful to say that it's only a theory, which shouldn't be applied to the classroom like a formula.


And science has yet to find any tangible evidence that children's brains are, indeed, different - and need to be taught differently -- in the way that some educators are surmising. Unfortunately, educators have picked up on the theory in inservice workshops, and run with it quite a bit too far, as you describe.


Gardner pinpointed these specific "intelligences":











So many educators jumped onto this bandwagon in the name of "celebrating diversity" that the most cost-effective learning styles - the first two, based on communication and logical thinking - have fallen by the wayside in favor of some of the more tangential "learning styles." It's the educational equivalent of "majoring in the minors."


That's why we're assigning artwork in math class, letting kids build model houses instead of researching architecture and construction, and making history students act out skits instead of writing scholarly papers.


But, pundits point out, why stop there? Why not also design curriculum and instruction around students with "olfactory intelligence"? Then you can (ba-bum crash!) smell to spell! Yeah, right! Why shouldn't your sense of humor (because of your high degree of "interpersonal intelligence") add points to your "D" on a chemistry test, and give you an "A" if you can make your teacher laugh about how dumb you were not to have studied?


The point is, Gardner's theory is not correct in the first place. There's no scientific evidence, including neurological, to back him up. He has delineated tendencies in individual ways we use our intelligence, that's all. Recognizing that is good as a "dessert," but not as a "main course" on the learning menu.


But many educators don't know that, and are minimizing the two basic skills of academics - verbal and mathematic - to play up the nontraditional, "fun" ones.


Parents need to remind them that there's no substitute for literacy and numeracy, no matter how well you dance and sing. It's a cruel disservice to all students to ignore their weaknesses, especially if they're weak in reading and math, just to make them "feel good."


Homework: There's a good analysis on There's also a good book about legitimate use of a child's strengths in the education process: The Way They Learn: How to Discover and Teach to Your Child's Strengths, by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias.


By Susan Darst Williams Ages & Stages 125 2008


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