the politics of bringing learning styles and multiple intelligences into a classroom

The easiest way to pretend that you are paying attention to students and their needs as learners is to apply some foreclosed category of engagement. Throughout my entire schooling life, I have watched this happen. Isn’t this what subjects are? Foreclosed categories of engagement–with numbers, words, history, politics etc.?
Why should we say, when we are sitting in one room, that we are looking at history, and when we are sitting in another, literature? The American system with its liberal arts model goes some way to disbanding these categories, however, UK students arrive on their bachelor programmes committed to the idea that history and literature (my two examples, though obviously this extends across education) demand completely different modes of engagement, the one the realm of fact, the other the realm of interpretation.

An additional banding system is the division of learners into ‘aural’, ‘visual’ (‘reader/writer’) and ‘kinaesthetic’, as applied, so Sandra Leaton Gray suggests, by educators and educational establishments wishing to ‘self-identify as socially equittable’. When we categorise our learners into these domains we appear to attend to their individual needs. The same goes for the buzzword ‘student-led’ (mentioned in last week’s post); similarly for Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences’, terminology more commonly used in schools and FE, but doubtless trickling through to HEIs.  These terms are facets of an ostensibly learner-centred (another buzzword) approach.

As Gray alludes, it is critically constructive to think of these categories of engagement as variants on the ‘ability-banding’ we associate with IQ tests. IQ tests were first formalised in France in 1905. The IQ test is a timed test that varies according to age. Hence, this test serves to structure communities through two metrics of time: age and clock-time. How we fit into the cross-coordinates of clock-time and age determines how intelligent we are seen to be. This measure of ‘ability’, this metric of time, determines what category of engagement we will fall into throughout our academic life. Not only that, but the development of these time metrics in Europe and America by middle-class, white men, mean communities are at an advantage if they happen to be white American or European. Expanding on Gray’s reading, the formula goes: non-male//non-European/non-American//PoC = low IQ score = low set at school… Hence, the self-fulfilling cycle of ability-bands, in which non-European, non-American, PoC are caught, goes: low IQ = low set at school = low IQ = low set at school = low IQ…

Gordon Stobart (2014) suggests that we should do away with the idea of ‘ability’. He notes that ability-bands are self-fulfilling with students occupying low or high sets throughout their entire academic life with little mobility. In this sense the very idea of ‘ability’, in an educational context, is responsible for widening social gaps. Hence, while educational establishments employ terms such as ‘aural learners’, ‘multiple intelligences’ and ‘student-led/centred’, in a neoliberal thrust toward social equitability, these categories of engagement are in actual fact widening social gaps. They do so because they structure learners into fixed metrics of how they learn. The categories of visual and aural appear as just as limiting as the time metrics of age and clock-time.

In this respect, I cannot help but notice that these post-1970s modals, clasess and multiples of ‘intelligences’ still resemble the post-1950s metrics of IQ tests. The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), the most commonly used IQ test worldwide, was developed by the twentieth-century American psychologist David Wechsler in 1955. It models ‘global’ intelligence on verbal comprehension, rote learning or ‘working memory’, perceptual organisation and processing speed. The parallels between the class of learners into kinaesthetic, aural and visual are notable, when we run the diagrammatics together.

Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale

By Alecmconroy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Visual Auditory Kinesthetic
These learners will respond to and use phrases such as:

  • I see what you mean.
  • I get the picture.
  • What’s your view?
These learners will respond to and use phrases such as:

  • That rings a bell.
  • I hear what you’re saying.
  • That sounds OK to me.
These learners will respond to and use phrases such as:

  • That feels right.
  • How does that grab you?
  • Let me try.
Engage visual learners by using diagrams, charts and pictures. Engage auditory learners by stressing key words, and telling stories and anecdotes. Engage kinesthetic learners by including physical activities and “hands-on” tasks.


Presumably a full-scale learner (FSIQ) partakes in all VAR(K) learning modals. In other respects, there are suggestive overlaps between the value system of 50s model and this more contemporary rubric. The idea of ‘comprehension’ leads many modal responses, with learners saying ‘I see what you mean’, ‘I get the picture’, ‘that sounds OK to me’ and ‘That feels right’. Only two of the nine sample responses are questions. Picture completion and block design suggest an additional method of engaging visual learners. Digital symbol-coding and symbol searching, two computational terms from the 50s rubric, flood into this contemporary rubric through the suggestion of stressing ‘key words’, as if aural learners read as hypertext, with clickable words.

Learning styles and multiple intelligences are unnecessary typologies that threaten to limit students’ curiosity and imagination rather than strengthen these facets of learning. Bringing a typology of learning modals into a classroom threatens to structure that classroom into a system of ability-bands, where comprehension is valued over questioning. With these emphases, bringing the discourse of learning modals and multiple intelligences into the classroom refers that learning to twentieth-century IQ tests: intelligence-metrics that exclude, include, deprive and privilege learners according to race, gender and nationality.

Our universities need to stop teachers mindlessly deploying categories of engagement, including catch-all concepts about what sort of learner we are. Where categories of engagement seem to imply ability, they actually test how much your identity matches the normative codes of the test. Where categories of engagement seem to imply a mode of learning, these modals continue the project of structuring learners into an idea of intelligence standing on that racist, nationalistic and sexist history. Hence, categories of engagement cannot imply a socially equittable approach to education. And neither can these categories of engagement be dismissed as a lazy liberalism. Rather, in the neoliberal university categories of engagement embed social structures into pedagogical practice, maximising the normative terms of socioeconomic flourishing.


Gordon Stobart, The Expert Learner: Doing Away with the Myth of Ability (New York: Open University Press, 2014)


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