By: Maristela Petrovic-Dzerdz, EDC Instructional Designer

”Drop the term ‘styles.’ It will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students.” – Howard Gardner, The Washington Post Op-Ed, 2013.

In 1983, psychologist Howard Gardner proposed a new theory, of multiple intelligence. We have all run into this list: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal (he later added more types). Gardner recognized that we all have our stronger and weaker “intellectual capacities” (not all of which are tested in traditional “IQ tests”) and made us think more about ourselves as learners.

What Gardner apparently didn’t anticipate is that the world of education, always seeking for ways to improve student learning, would adopt this model and turn it into a theory of “learning styles.” The simple premise would be that if we teach students so that we accommodate their individual learning styles, then they will learn better. It sounds very intuitive and it quickly got adopted by a large audience. The simplicity is always attractive but this premise also gave a lot of headache to us teachers who now felt obliged to somehow a) find out what the “learning styles” of our students are, and b) accommodate them all. Simply put, it’s an almost impossible task for teachers of large classes, but maybe worth trying, if it works?

Each time I crossed paths with this theory (in my BEd studies, MEd studies and in my career as a teacher and instructional designer), it sparked a debate. In 2013, Professor Gardner, who now teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, discussed in The Washington Post his thoughts on the misinterpretation of MI Theory, specifically the confusion of multiple intelligences with learning styles. This came after numerous research apparently found no conclusive data about the positive impact of accommodating teaching and assessment to individual student “learning styles.” Some research actually showed that students learn better if they have to step outside of their “learning comfort zone.” Yet, many still argue that we all learn differently, and that this is what “learning styles” are about.

Learning preferences, attitudes or personalities are probably the terms we could be using instead. Students also have different levels of (temporary or permanent) abilities and we need to address them with universal design. If someone can’t hear well, or doesn’t speak language well and would benefit from video captions and notes, this is not because of their “learning style,” and neither is it their preference or attitude, but a necessity, based on the (lack thereof) current ability. The premise of universal design is that if we design for those in need, we will benefit everyone because all of us will, at some point, need some accommodations. For example, you might not be using a wheelchair but you will benefit from automatic doors if you are pushing a baby stroller or pulling a heavy luggage.

It is surely important to be cognizant of the fact that our students are different in many ways, which will impact their learning success, including, for example, pre-requisite knowledge and meta-cognitive skills. Teaching so that we adjust the modality based on what is being taught, and the context in which it is being taught, teaching difficult concepts using a variety of examples, taking into account students’ preconceptions and pre-requisite knowledge, providing some flexibility in assessment so that students feel “in charge” of their learning and being sensitive towards students’ attitudes will surely improve the learning environment for all.

Whatever our personal attitudes and beliefs on this topic are, it is worth reading Gardner’s statement published by The Washington Post in order to, as he puts it, “set the record straight” regarding his own theory and beliefs. While he urges for further research, stating that the “absence of evidence does not prove non-existence of a phenomenon; it signals to educational researchers: back to the drawing boards,” at the end of his post he provides a clear lesson for educators:“Drop the term ‘styles.’ It will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students.”

If we want to improve student learning, do you think that we should, for now, put this term to rest, and use others that better describe the complexities of teaching and learning?

This blog post was originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse in March 2015.