Twenty things in twenty years part eleven: we’ve been in thrall to the cults of Learning Styles, NLP and Multiple Intelligences for way too long.

It never ceases to both depress and astound me when I see quite how many conference talks, articles, books and courses on Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences are still out there in mainstream ELT. Philip Kerr recently alerted me to an activity in a new book on learning styles that was supposedly aimed at students with a ‘kinaesthetic emotional learning style’. In it, teachers are encouraged to get their students to lie on huge sheets of paper that have been placed on the floor. Their outlines are then drawn onto the paper and positive adjectives written inside each shape. Finally, this is all somehow presented to the class. The book helpfully explains that although the focus is on kinaesthetic motional learners, visual learners are also catered for by looking at each other’s bodies (!!), the explaining is auditory, the drawing round people global, and so on.

A few days later, I came across a copy of the IATEFL Voices magazine, which included a piece on how LEGO in the classroom “caters for all learning styles”! You really don’t have to look far for further examples of this kind of thing for the sad fact of the matter is that this pernicious discourse has infiltrated the profession. To give but one more example, the last time I was at a physical IATEFL conference a couple of years back, I got talking to a Saudi teacher who provided a classic example of how this all too easily ends up becoming about badges of identity and a personal sense of self. She confidently informed me that the vast majority of Saudi learners were ‘oral / aural’ learners and when I enquired how they’d then go about getting the 6.5 in the IELTS writing and reading sections that so many seem to need, she looked almost shocked.

The well-known EFL Magazine offers readers a chance to find out more about NLP and its use in the classroom, while Macmillan’s One Stop English site is happy to give space to further dubious claims about NLP’s supposed relevance to EFL teachers. The Teaching English site, brought to you by the British Council, who modestly claim to be “the world’s English teaching experts”, gives space to positive overviews of NLP and different kinds of multiple intelligences. Cambridge University Press put out a book specifically outlining activities designed to teach multiple intelligences in EFL. In addition, unsurprisingly, many of the products selling these approaches come with bold claims. The sub-heading on this book by I. C. Robledo’s self-help guide captures the general mood quite well.

Let’s be clear about this for once and for all. These ideas are nothing more than pseudo-science and the vast majority of discussion of them is based on neuromyths. When it comes to the idea of visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learning styles, the science shows that (a) it very much depends on what you’re learning and (b) everything is inter-connected. Sure, some learners may express preferences regarding how they like to learn. Some students prefer listening to reading, for example. However, as research has shown, this doesn’t mean that this is necessarily how these learners actually learn best. Even if you’re still clinging on to the idea that somehow we should ‘teach to students’ learning styles’, though, how do you plan to help self-proclaimed auditory learners read better? And what if five different students in your academic writing group all claim to have different ‘learning styles’? Good luck putting together a scheme of work to help them write better undergraduate essays! In reality, of course, all classrooms regularly include a mix of reading, writing, speaking, listening and moving around – and let’s face it, students wanting to learn to speak better probably need to do plenty of speaking . . . alongside some listening!

Multiple Intelligences, the concept coined by Gardner back in 1983, has been totally discredited. Intelligence actually stems from frontal cortex and we apply this intelligence to different tasks such as music, language, logic, and so on. Our brains do not not possess multiple intelligences.

Even the old left brain-right brain construct so beloved of coursebook writers is a myth. Neuroscientists have shown most tasks involve both sides working together, and when it comes to working with and learning languages, the brain has been shown time and time again to work with both hemispheres.

As for NLP, Russ Mayne, who’s done a lot to help debunk many of these myths in ELT, has written very persuasively about the total lack of a research base for the claims made by those selling NLP courses and products into the ELT field, as can be seen in the great article that starts on page 50 of this journal.

Surely it’s time for us as a profession to stand up to pseudo-science – and ditch the gobbledygook for once and for all. Time spent focusing on or worrying about theories that have not been proven to work is time we could be using to focus on other more theoretically valid areas. In short, it’s time stolen from both our own and our students’ lives.

To finish off, I should just say that a good place to start getting better informed about these thorny issues is in a wonderful new book called An Introduction to Evidence-Based Teaching in the English Language Classroom. It’s well worth checking out.

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11 Responses

  1. A fantastic bit of debunking. Unbelievable that there’s still so much of this nonsense around.

    I think a lot of it appeals to the urge to be able to categorize things so easily and neatly. As humans, and even more, as professionals, this is incredibly tempting. It can make us sound authoritative without having to dive too deep into the subject matter.

    Great work and hope loads of people share this.

    Go ahead people! Share it! 🙂

  2. Martin Hajek says:

    Great article! This issue demonstrates how easy it is for some ideas to spread within an industry even though they aren’t based on evidence.

    Let’s not forget that learning styles used to be part of CELTA/Delta courses. It was changed to learning preferences a few years ago, but references to learning styles can still be found in some materials. Acording to the Cambridge Framework Competency Statements, an expert teacher ‘has a sophisticated understanding of concepts such as intercultural competence, learning styles, multiple intelligences, learning strategies, special needs, affect and differences in types of learners and teaching contexts, and regularly uses most of the key terms.’ Source: https://www.cambridgeenglish.org/Images/172992-full-level-descriptors-cambridge-english-teaching-framework.pdf

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thanks for this, Martin. Yeah, it’s sobering to see quite how fast these ideas can spread when well marketed (and monestised!).
      One of the many reasons why I’m suspicious of Cambridge and of the CELTA / DELTA models in particular, yeah.

  3. In his very interesting book ‘Think Again’ Organisational Psychologist Adam Grant refers to all these pseudo-scientific theories as ‘Idea Cults’. Here are some quotes:
    ‘From time to time I’ve run into idea cults – groups that stir up a batch of oversimplified intellectual Kool-Aid and recruit followers to serve it widely’ (p. 177)
    ‘In education, there are idea cults around learning styles – the notion that instruction should be tailored to each student’s preference for learning through A, V or K modes’ (p. 177)
    And here is the best bit: ‘If you find yourself saying X is always good or Y is never bad, you may be a member of an idea cult’… (p. 177)
    [I think you will find this book interesting – I know you like to read things which go beyond ELT (NB: If you happen to have come across any other good titles, plz share…) ]

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Thabnks for that Nick. That sounds right up my street.
      I’ve added it to the (never-ending) list!

      • It’s always good to have a few extra titles that you know are worth reading […you never know when the next virus might strike! 🙂 ] . I’ll send you a list of my favourites on FB. Chances are you have read most of them, but there may still be a few you have not heard of…

  4. Bob Hale says:

    When I used to do teacher training as part of one session I did a quick review of these and other theories send techniques. After explaining what each one was and the differences between them I went on to list the similarities. 1. They are usually based on one persons idea of how language learning might work. 2. Empirical studies rarely if ever show that they have any positive effect. 3. They are often used to sell unnecessary “teaching aids”. 4. They have repeatedly and comprehensively been debunked. The surprised responses of the teachers I was training were matched only by the shocked disapproval of my colleagues and bosses. I was always prepared for an argument on it and with facts on my side usually won. We should all keep on fighting against these fads and fancies.

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      That’s proper teacher educatin right there, Bob.
      Good stuff – and your observations / additions are obviously spot on.
      (3) is a particular bugbear!

  5. Amy says:

    Now that you’ve shown us what doesn’t work, can you give some ideas of what actually does work?

    • Hugh Dellar says:

      Well, that’s a big question. We’ve written a whole book on that called TEACHING LEXICALLY and there are tons of other posts here about what we believe does make for effective teaching.

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