Class divisions

Who benefits from the 'personalised learning' strategy of dividing school pupils into sub-sets?

Helene Guldberg

Topics Culture

In its five-year plan for education, unveiled in early July 2004, the UK government put great emphasis on the need for ‘personalised learning’. According to the school standards minister David Miliband, a greater awareness of personal learning styles will give students a ‘voice’ and help them to shape and create their own education.

There is a thriving industry that markets personal learning styles courses, inventories and instruments. More and more schools and local education authorities are adopting programmes which assert the need to adapt teaching methods according to individual students’ styles and preferences.

Why has ‘personalised learning’ become so fashionable? A report by the Learning and Skills Research Centre (LSRC) suggests that much of its appeal is that it seems to offer simple solutions to complex problems. LSRC argues that ‘in an audit culture where professionals and institutions are held responsible for the attainment and behaviour of their students, it is little wonder that teachers and managers are prepared to try new techniques which claim to help them reach their targets more easily’ (1).

Can the popularity of personalised learning be explained by the fact that it appears to provide a quick-fix solution to the fundamental challenge of improving education – or is there a theoretical basis to the demands for these new teaching methods? And where is the empirical evidence for the efficacy of personalised learning?

Most of the proponents of personalised learning build, to a greater or lesser extent, on Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI). Gardner argues that, in order to achieve specific educational goals, teachers need to recognise that individuals mentally represent the world in quite different ways. His theory has had a significant impact on education debates since he first outlined it in his influential book Frames of Mind (1983) and later updated it in Intelligence Reframed (1999).

Rather than subscribing to the idea of one general, ‘narrowly cognitive’ intelligence, Gardner argues for the existence of at least eight intelligences. These are: linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences (both typically valued in school); musical intelligence (skills in the performance, composition and appreciation of musical patterns); bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence (the use of one’s whole body or parts of the body to solve problems or fashion products); spatial intelligence (the potential to recognise or manipulate the patterns of wide space); interpersonal intelligence (a capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people); intrapersonal intelligence (self-reflection); naturalist intelligence (expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species – the flora or fauna – of our environment); and, finally, existential intelligence (concern with ‘ultimate issues’).

There is, of course, an intuitive appeal to the idea that children learn in different ways. Most teachers recognise that pupils vary in the speed and manner in which they grasp new ideas and acquire skills. So are advocates of personalised learning therefore attacking a straw man? After all, they put the case for personalised learning by caricaturing how teachers teach, and arguing that we need to get away from the idea that there is ‘one way to learn, the right way, and either kids will learn it or it’s too bad’ (2). But since when did teachers believe that there is only one, right way to learn?

Of course, children have different strengths and weaknesses, and teachers have always had to adapt their teaching accordingly. But do we really want to solidify and accentuate differences? Do we want to label pupils, for instance, as ‘concrete’ or ‘abstract’ learners? By categorising pupils, are we not in danger of restricting rather than enhancing their learning?

Knowsley Council in Merseyside carried out an audit of the learning styles of its pupils earlier in 2004, and concluded that 69 per cent were ‘kinaesthetic learners’ (that is, they learn best through physical activity), 22 per cent were ‘auditory learners’, and nine per cent ‘visual learners’. Teaching was adapted accordingly – with the introduction of more role-playing during lessons and opportunities for greater movement within the classroom. But by adapting to the categorisation of pupils as ‘doers’ rather than ‘thinkers’, could Knowsley not be accused of giving up on the pupils’ academic abilities?

Professor Frank Coffield of London’s Institute of Education warns that people who use learning styles instruments ‘may come to think in stereotypes – for instance, by tending to label vocational students as if they are all “non-reflective”, “activity-based” learners’ (3).

So what does theory and research tell us about the basis for categorising children as specific types of learners? The experimental evidence and conceptual basis for the existence of specific intelligences is weak. Gardner claims that experimental psychology tasks support his MI theory: psychologists have claimed to be able to observe how particular operations are related by observing how smoothly we can carry out two different tasks simultaneously. We can walk and talk at the same time because these tasks involve different ‘intelligences’, Gardner argues. But we would find it difficult to talk and carry out a crossword at the same time as the two manifestations of ‘linguistic intelligence’ are, in this case, competing.

However, Gardner’s first example is of an automated unconscious task (walking) carried out alongside a task that, in most instances, involves conscious thought (talking). If we are learning a challenging physical task before it is automated – a dance or a sport or how to drive – we find it difficult to converse at the same time. Once behaviour becomes automated, and no longer requires conscious preparation and monitoring, we are able to do it alongside more demanding tasks. It is therefore equally plausible that the deciding factor is not the type of ‘intelligence’ but the extent of automation.

Perry D Klein, assistant professor of education at the University of Western Ontario, also points to empirical weaknesses in Gardner’s work. Gardner draws on knowledge of geniuses, prodigies and ‘idiot savants’ to support his theory, claiming that these are all examples of individuals excelling in one of several intelligences. However, as Klein points out, Gardner does not show that they excel throughout that one ‘intelligence’. Instead they tend to excel in some smaller subset of the ‘intelligence’: so chess masters, for instance, are found to be no better than others at other spatial tasks.

It is still uncertain whether MI theory provides a useful conceptual framework for understanding the human mind. Klein dismisses MI theory as conceptually weak, pointing out that it is ultimately tautological. He argues that ‘the definition of bodily kinaesthetic intelligence is virtually a definition of dance, so the explanation says, in effect, that Michael is a good dancer because he is a good dancer’ (4).

Gardner correctly argues that we need to go beyond the definition of intelligence provided by Harvard psychologist Edward Boring in the 1920s, which said that ‘intelligence is what intelligence tests measure’. But surely it is not that groundbreaking to go beyond presenting intelligence as one single entity to presenting it as eight or more separate entities?

Gardner has a lot in common with the discredited IQ theorists he criticises. MI theory is based on the idea of pre-programmed modules in the brain that predispose us to learn in particular ways. As a model of intelligence it is too static and one-dimensional to deepen our understanding of the conscious human mind.

There are no simple formulae for understanding the human mind and how it develops. Simplistic models of intelligence will not help us uncover how the creative, flexible and imaginative thinking that characterises humans emerges in the course of development. Rather than trying to categorise our thinking – in the way Gardner does – we need to recognise the highly flexible nature of the human mind, which is continually transformed by breakthroughs in ways of thinking.

But despite the limitations of MI theory as a model of human intelligence, perhaps it can give us some insights into how to improve education? What is the evidence for the efficacy of ‘personalised learning’ programmes? An extensive review of the literature on learning styles by the Learning and Skills Research Centre shows that the evidence is sorely lacking (5). LSRC concluded that there is ‘a serious failure of accumulated theoretical coherence and an absence of well-grounded findings, tested through application’. It goes on: ‘Learning styles researchers do not speak with one voice… there’s a dearth of rigorously controlled experiments and of longitudinal studies to test the claims made by the advocates.’

Despite this lack of evidence for the efficacy of personalised learning programmes, a thriving industry continues to offer advice and programmes to teachers.

Helene Guldberg has a PhD in developmental psychology and is an associate lecturer in child development at the Open University.

(1) Should we be using learning styles? (.pdf), Learning and Skills Research Centre

(2) ‘Conversations with Howard Gardner’, The Herald, 10 Oct 1998

(3) TES, 21 May 2004

(4) Taking sides: clashing views on controversial issues in educational psychology, Part 2, Issue 10

(5) Should we be using learning styles? (.pdf), Learning and Skills Research Centre

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Topics Culture