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Geoff Johnson: Students need multiple ways to access information

Multiple intelligences theory has its limitations, but the main lesson is that we don’t all learn the same way
Providing students with multiple ways to access information will make lessons more engaging, writes Geoff Johnson, adding students will be more likely to retain information that's presented in different ways. MAX FISCHER VIA PEXELS

It’s always reassuring when what we thought we knew through simple observation is corroborated.

Case in point: I always figured that the kids I taught learned in different ways from each other. I could see, or thought I could see, that like me, some kids could not absorb information that was only spoken; they also needed the information in a form that could be read or seen in some other way.

So, like many of my colleagues, I was reassured when Howard Gardner, a researcher in cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, presented his multiple intelligences theory in 1983, a time when most psychologists and educators adhered to the idea of a broad-based measurable general intelligence.

In short, Gardner originally identified nine different kinds of “intelligences:” verbal-linguistic (think a career in law), logical mathematical (a scientist of some kind), bodily-kinaesthetic (a successful athlete), musical (a popular musician), visual-spatial (an architect or 2-D or 3-D artist), intrapersonal (someone who is self aware), interpersonal (people skills) and naturalistic (farmer or gardener).

Finally, Gardner hypothesized, there is existential intelligence, which enables some individuals (poets, novelists and philosophers) to be able to invoke deep contemplation about the meaning of life and human existence.

Later, other more specific kinds of intelligence were added, but those were the original nine basic intelligences Gardner identified.

Many teachers (including me at the time) came to believe that students learn better when they receive information tailored to their preferred learning styles, which, in turn, were determined by their “dominant intelligence.”

But that’s a neuromyth, according to Paul Howard Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol.

The brain’s interconnectivity makes such an assumption “unsound,” Jones argued, saying reviews of educational literature and controlled laboratory studies fail to support that approach to teaching.

In a study published in 2019, medical professors Polly Husmann and Valerie O’Loughlin of the Indiana School of Medicine found that many of their students attempted to adapt their study strategies to match what they believed were their learning styles.

But in analyzing the test scores of these students, researchers found no improvement. Instead, they found that traditional science education strategies — like viewing microscope slides — worked equally well for all students, whether they considered themselves linguistic or visual learners.

Husmann and O’Loughlin also advocated the value of learning through multiple modalities, which they considered an effective way to boost memory and understanding. Being overly reliant on a perceived dominant learning style, they suggested, is a recipe for learning less effectively.

Gardner himself agrees. In 2020, Gardner reminded educators that “there is no mention of the brain” in his original work, and that multiple intelligences is a “psychological theory, pure and simple”

So where does all this leave teachers, who are well aware that while kids are different from each other, the system lumps them all together in a classroom, as if there is no real difference in how they learn.

Gardener cautioned that “multiple intelligences should not, in and of itself, be an educational goal.”

Instead, educators should avoid a one-size-fits all approach to designing a lesson but should provide students with multiple ways to access information. Not only will lessons be more engaging, but students will be more likely to retain information that’s presented in different ways.

Above all, said Gardner, the primary aim of multiple intelligences theory was to “expand the traditional, narrow IQ concept of intelligence to the whole spectrum of brain computational powers, not to provide brain-based educational recommendations.”

The basic idea of MI theory, he added, is that “every individual has, at their disposal, a full intellectual profile of multiple intelligences … but the whole MI intelligence profile — [is] a spectrum of brain computational powers working in synergy.”

In other words, MI theory speculates that each individual actually combines several intelligences to tackle any given task.

The one other kind of intelligence that Gardner only vaguely referenced with “intrapersonal intelligence” was later explored further in 1995 by science journalist Daniel Goleman in his best-selling book Emotional Intelligence.

Goleman defined EI as the array of skills and characteristics that drive leadership performance through the ability to perceive, understand, control, and evaluate emotions.

I wonder if any of this explains why, although my neighbour does not play a musical instrument, he built his own house and while I can make music, I’ve never been able to drive a nail in straight. Mmmm..

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.

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