The Tangling of Multiple Intelligences Theory and Learning Style Theories

Multiple Intelligence Theory in ELT: Thorny Issues 3

The tangling of Multiple Intelligences Theory and Learning Style Theories

‘By the middle 1990s, I had noticed a number of misinterpretations of the theory, for example the confusion of intelligences with learning styles.’ (Gardner, 2003, p8)

While Multiple Intelligences Theory (MIT) has been applied to learning, it is not a theory about learning. Gardner describes an intelligence as ‘a biopsychological potential to process specific forms of information in certain kinds of ways…that allow them to solve problems or to fashion products.’ (Gardner, 2004, p29) As such, MIT focuses on the content and products (Silver et al, 1997) whereas learning styles theories, having generally emerged out of psychoanalysis rather than cognitive science, favour a focus on different approaches to the process of learning.

As to the correlation between learning styles theories and MIT, Gardner states, ‘The relation between my concept of intelligence and the various conceptions of style needs to be worked out empirically, on a style by style basis. And indeed there are many styles.’ (1999, p84)

There is a tendency within ELT to think of an intelligence as a learning style or preference. This not only fails to address the intelligence profiles of students (and perhaps just as crucially, teachers) but has frequently lead teachers to believe that they are teaching to intelligences when in fact they are far from it.

Though not currently evident in ELT, educational theorists is the US have perhaps gone far further than their counterparts elsewhere to synthesize MIT and learning styles theories, most notably Silver, Strong and Perini’s synthesis of their rendering of Myers’ (rendering of Jungian) personlity types to MI theory which is certainly worth a read (see So Each May Learn (2000) ASCD). They claim:

‘Without multiple intelligence theory, style is rather abstract, and it generally undervalues context. Without learning styles, multiple intelligence theory proves unable to describe different processes of thought and feeling. Each theory responds to the weaknesses of the other; together, they form an integrated picture of intelligence and difference.’ (Silver et al, 1997,p24)

Of particular relevance to the ELT classroom, their Learning Styles Inventory ‘assessment products’ clearly present specific student activities that will appeal to particular intelligences/types and manages to clearly identify concrete classroom activities within each intelligence that will involve the student in the content of that intelligence.

On the other hand, the most popular learning style approach in the UK stems from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (Bandler and Grindler , 1974). The ‘VAKOG’ approach seeks to stimulate the students’ preferred sensory style, whether visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory or gustatory. As the last two are rather harder to stimulate in the ELT classroom the theory, or perhaps strategy, commonly boils down to ‘VAK’.

Upon examination VAK tends to describe things that the teacher should do, rather than prescribe true student-based activities and this is the heart of the difference between VAK and MIT. Indeed the two theories have become confusingly tangled, frequently leading practitioners to blur the distinctions between students’ intelligences and their learning styles or preferences.

This is frequently in evidence in ELT materials:

‘In his second article on Multiple Intelligences, Jim Wingate looks at the effect of different learning styles on teaching’ (ETP, 1997, p1,p28)

‘…and cater for individual learning styles, ie. a Multiple Intelligences Teaching Approach.’ (A Fresco, SM Howell, 2003 p1)

‘… the existence of different learning styles, we can more successfully organize activities for our students according their orientation to learning, thus improving their education by concentrating on their multiple intelligences.’

(M Di Maio,2003,p2)

Curiously, Berman opens A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT Classroom with a discussion and test for learning styles with no apparent attempt to synthesize this with the otherwise engaging MI topic of the book. (Berman, 1998, p1)

Despite the inherent difference (VAK learning styles providing ideas for how a teacher should present rather than suggesting content related ‘products’) there are certain overlaps with MI:

It is hard to argue, for example, that particular visual LS techniques would not resonate with spatial intelligence (using charts, illustrations, flip charts , diagrams, envisioning) and that kinesthetic intelligence would not be stimulated by certain kinesthetic learning style techniques (getting students up and moving, tactile props, mime etc). However, while by no means decrying the effectiveness of VAK learning styles, such techniques are a drop in the ocean of MI theory which requires the students to be involved in the activity, using that intelligence to problem solve or produce, and not merely be stimulated by a pretty flashcard.

In addition, there is confusion between the auditory learning style and musical intelligence. The two should barely be connected. The auditory learning style would actually seem to have more in common with elements of verbal-linguistic intelligence: musical intelligence is not connected to listening to audio of people talking, nor with pronunciation activities.

Once again this confusion has arisen from the fact that MI was not, first and foremost, a learning theory. As we have seen, when it was applied to ELT, many practitioners seemed to have assumed that it worked in a similar way to the then more prevalent VAK styles, and the similarity of certain terminology certainly added to the confusion. They are, however, quite separate. While basic VAK techniques should be a natural part of a practitioner’s daily repertoire for presenting and engaging students, they are frequently not sufficient to satisfactorily activate and involve students’ main intelligences. A flashcard may certainly not go unnoticed by a student with strong spatial intelligence, but spatial intelligence is activated by enabling the student to explore a topic or task through spatial channels – comparing or creating visual or artistic representations, considering space, shape and movement etc. Just as a flashcard is easier to produce than a scheme of work that will engage spatially strong students, so is the application of VAK learning styles are easier to grasp than the application of MIT.

So within ELT, the VAK approach is much easier to conceptualize than MIT, and perhaps more instantly incorporated by teachers in schools with short courses and continuous enrolment. They are certainly more inclusive in a teacher’s improvisational repertoire for inclusion in the quick lesson plan, or mid-lesson choice of direction.

As such MIT may play more of a role at the syllabus-planning or materials-design level, and by teachers in assessing how to supplement pre-fabricated courses.

Where it is used by teachers in the specific lesson planning stage it must be used not as a way simply to attract the students’ attention, but as a way to involve the students at the level of activity within the content of the task. As such, a well planned integration of MIT into a syllabus may be central to ensuring the appeal and inclusivity of effective task-based language learning.


Berman, M (1998), A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT, Crown House

Gardner, H. (1999), Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H (2003), “Multiple Intelligences After Twenty Years”, Invited Address, American Educational Research Association

Gardner, H. (2004), Changing Minds. Harvard Business School Press

SM Howell, A Fresco (2003), Editorial, Lang Matters, 6:1-3

Silver, H; Richard, S; Perini,M (1997), “Integrating learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences, Educational Leadership”, 55:1:22-27

Wingate, M (1997), “Multiple Intelligences and Lesson Planning”, English Teaching Professional, 2:28-30

M Di Maio (2003), Lang Matters, 6:1-3


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