The Link Between Learning Intelligence and Learning Styles
In this article I want to explore one of theories about how people learn, that of learning styles, and why it has become discredited. I am not going to explore the VAK approach or any other specific aspect on which learning styles is based. Instead I want to look at why it became so popular and why now, even though some try to discredit it, many still support it. I tend to come at issues from a different direction and this time it is no different. Although it may not appear initially as having much relevance to the issue at hand I want to start by asking a couple of questions.
What has astrology and the idea of learning styles in common?
Why astrology may promote the idea of learning styles.
Surely we cannot use a “pseudo-science” to understand how we learn. Bear with me whilst I explore a theory.
One of the first questions I faced as a teacher was why some students “got it, kept it and used it” and others did not. I am of course referring to knowledge and understanding. My first instinct was that I took something for granted, that there was a step in the learning process that I missed because “I got it” and that I needed to look at what I was teaching again to find “it”. I even asked experienced teachers if there was something missing in my understanding that I was not conveying to learners who did not get it. I was reassured there was not, but this did little to help those students who were struggling learning, retaining or using what I was teaching. From this point I have always been on the lookout for anything that helps explain how people learn and for ways of improving my teaching.
A number of theories and ideas have come forward concerning how people learn. Science has begun to offer insights of its own through Neuroscience. There is even this thing called “IQ” which has been around for some time. Learning styles and multiple intelligences are other theories about how we learn best and how to manage learning. 21st century skills have made an appearance on the stage of learning due in part to the advances in technology and Cognitive Psychologists may be disproving everything we presently hold true about learning. Nevertheless this only goes to show that there is an interest in how we learn and how to improve learning. We want to explain things and possibly offer a few labels. This is okay so long as we do not return to a description of a patient found in the register of an asylum in the late 19th century that labelled them “Born an idiot.”!
We want answers to the learning equation.
We like the idea of unpicking this particular problem in the same way as we would like to find a cure to cancer. Once we have an understanding of how learning works we can prescribe the course of treatment that will allow everyone, who wants to, to reach their full potential. We will be able to categorise or label people. We will be able to give all the “slow learners” a speedup treatment, all those who are always mentally jumping all over the place a slowdown treatment, and those who forget things a memory improving treatment.
The fundamental problem is…
To me this is the fundamental problem in exploring how people learn. We use ideas or theories to label people rather than to start a dialogue about the challenges they face in learning. My way of exploring this problem is by looking at how people respond to labels and why we appear to like them. Although on first glance it may be a strange association between astrology and learning but what can your horoscope have to do with your ability to learn? Let us start by looking at what they both have in common.
1) both astrology and learning styles are believed by some and discounted by others, they each have their supporters.
2) they both try to predict something, either the future or how learners will learn best.
3) they both result in the application of a label, either a star sign of the Zodiac or a learning style.
4) both appeal to our need for an identity or to belong to a group.
5) they both offer characteristics which we may find inwardly attractive. For example the perfectionism of Virgo or the ease at which a visual learner decodes charts.
6) they are both a good way to start a conversation. Many strangers have started out by asking, “What star sign are you?” in order to start a conversation and many teachers have wanted to know how learners learn best and asked what they find difficult about the lesson.
I would claim that the first five are distractions of the true value that any of the theories or ideas offer, especially learning styles, is that of starting a conversation. Does it matter if theories such as learning styles, brain based learning or multiple intelligences are more fiction than fact if it starts a conversation and is only used in that way? What we must do as teachers is to avoid labels, no matter how seductive they are.
A final example of why I believe the theory of learning styles found support in teaching.
The theory of learning styles appears to be right because learning is often presented as just being a function of memory. About taking in formation and retaining it for use later. Learning is more than just creating a memory or storing information. Perhaps we would understand why many teachers have, and continue to do so, supported the idea of learning styles if we see them as “learning cues“. I believe that we initially pay more attention to some forms of information than to others, they get our attention faster. As teachers know getting the attention of students is key to engagement and then the trick is to help them learn.
Why do we “pay attention”?
Getting your attention has been a key survival trait and one that persists today. Advertisers know this and use it to sell, well to first get our attention. The smell of freshly baked bread, the colours, and warmth of a summer day, the freshness of a spring morning, the tune that reminds you of your youth. You get the point.
I would claim that whatever our learning environment is we are pre-disposed to notice things according to our senses. Some favour one over the other, although all are at play. Perhaps the one that is favoured is part of a distant memory because it was more of a threat in whatever environment we found ourselves in. If the danger came first as a sound then we may favour taking notice of auditory clues. If the danger presented itself not through auditory clues but was stealthy and we needed to recognise a shape or shadow then we may favour visual clues. The same may be true for identifying or recognizing danger through tactile means, identifying a particular shape from another in order to avoid danger. Failing to acknowledge or pay attention could have resulted in an untimely end. Has evolution got something to do with what we pay attention to and how we respond in the first instance? Possibly, it has certainly been used to explain a great deal of other forms of human behaviour. The key from a teachers point of view is that once we have the attention of the learner we need to find ways of maintaining it. One such way is to recognise and celebrate achievement. Another is to show the learner how they can manage their own learning environment to meet their learning needs. This last strategy is the basis for my own theory that of a learning intelligence or LQ for short.
Learning Intelligence (LQ)
I define LQ as the ability of the learner to manage their learning environment to meet their learning needs.
Link to LQ concept graphic:
It may be that at an early age we pay attention to certain cues within our learning environment and these are then developed through preferred use, or because they are successful or they bring reward. This may ultimately lead to a dominance or preference interpreted as a “learning style”. In effect we are just paying attention to our environment in our preferred way. Our preference can change over time and can be influenced by technology, friendships, experiences, in fact many things. I believe it is important to a learner to be able to recognise and interact with their learning environment in a way that brings success. I also believe that when they do not then they build a negative picture of themselves as learners.
In many ways LQ is a construct made up of skills, attitudes, attributes, and behaviours. You can find over 20 articles exploring LQ both from the teacher’s perspective and that of the impact on the learner on my blog here at 4c3d.wordpress.com