Applying Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory to Merill’s Principles in Learning Design

A few quick connections…

Merill’s First Principle is that learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems. Gardner defines intelligence as ‘the ability to solve problems or create products that are valued within one or more cultural settings’. The first implication when these two views combine is to suggest that learning is promoted when an intelligence (or combination of intelligences) is being engaged.

The second implication here would be that just because a real-world problem has been set, the learner is not necessarily engaged unless the problem matches their intelligence ‘proclivities’. Or at least different learners may be engaged to differing degrees. An example here would be the sheer amount of logical puzzle-based tasks in language courses that generally vastly outnumber tasks requiring (or developing) verbal-linguistic skills. While they may engage the more logical-mathematically inclined learners, and help to engage them with the subject, they render much of the course as interesting to the learner as a crossword or sudoku puzzle. This is itself rather hit and miss in terms of learner appeal, but also clouds and confuses the presumable learning goal of using language communicatively with strategy to engage the learners the content.

The overriding implication may therefore be to create frameworks for users to approach and solve a task through a number of different ways – to personalize the problem somehow. This goal is more realizable given Merill’s definition of (or ambition for) a problem to be a ‘whole’, ‘authentic’ task which by definition should be approachable and solvable through a number of routes, activating and appealing to a range of intelligences rather than a specific one.
The Second Principle is one of activation: that learning is promoted when relevant previous experience is activated; that can be used as a foundation for new knowledge, and when learners can recall a structure that can be used to organize the new knowledge . Gardner’s theory provides a number of avenues for prior experience or knowledge to be brought to bear.
For example when asking a group to create a presentation, learners can be invited to consider previous experience through a number of entry points: models of representing statistics visually  (logical-mathematical and visual-spatial intelligences) , using plain English  (linguistic), appropriateness of music (musical), activating the intended audience (interpersonal), providing and comparing realia/real samples (naturalistic), contextualizing (existential), recommended note-taking or provision (intrapersonal) etc…
Care however should be taken, as Merill advises, to keep the learners targeted as irrelevant prior experience brought to the table could increase the cognitive load rather than individually contextualize it.

The Third Principle is that of demonstration. Here Merill actively recommends that multiple representations  are used for demonstrations and that multiple demonstrations are explicitly compared (with the caveat that multiple forms of media do not simultaneously compete). Approaching each iteration of a demonstration through contexts that engage a different blend of intelligences is an obvious extension of this.

Where multiple intelligences most clearly come into play is with the Fourth Principle – that of application: when learners are required to use their new knowledge or skill to solve problems.
This must surely be tied to the first principle in terms of the foundation of previous knowledge that has helped to activate the acquisition of the new. This is at the heart of Gardner’s definition – and would seem to me to be the key difference (and frequent confusion) between learning styles and multiple intelligences which is that while learning styles offer guidance to the presentation of content, multiple intelligences offer a greater framework for actual engagement of the student through task. This also fits into Merill’s corollary to the principle: that ‘learning is promoted when learners are required to solve a sequence of varied problems’.

Lastly, Merill’s Fifth Principle,of integration, speaks directly to Multiple-Intelligences Theory.  The principle states that learners are encouraged to integrate or transfer the new knowledge or skill into their everyday life and his corollary that ‘learning is promoted when learners can create, invent, and explore new ways to use their new knowledge or skill’. It is unlikely that a learner will ‘explore’ enthusiastically without a basis in that intelligence type, or will find ways to apply the new skill to area in which they are strong. This is very much behind the all-to ubiquitous phenomenon of learners passing the test (and even ‘getting’ the class) but failing to apply the learning. If a broader range of intelligences has been successfully catered for within a course there is more chance that the learners will have made the links to help them carry through the learning into the ‘real’ world.

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