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Learning styles: Too good to be true?

Spoiler: Yes, it probably is. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Learning styles are the idea that because of a person's neurological make-up or personality, they will interact with new information best in a certain format. In other words, a naturally analytical person will react to new information best if presented in an analytical way, rather than in a more creative or abstract way. Likewise, someone more naturally artistic will learn best if their studies are centered around creative ways of introducing the material.

That is an overly simplified way to describe complex theories, but that's generally how the educational public has taken these ideas and run with them. We've all likely heard of the left brain/right brain theory of learning and personality. Several other frameworks have emerged over the years to describe how scientists tried to nail down how we learn. I'm focusing on the one I've heard the most about, which is the eight styles of learning or multiple intelligences proposed by Howard Gardner in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Gardner was a Harvard professor in psychology until his retirement in 2019. He spent his life studying learning and intelligence, and almost more than any other idea in educational psychology, his theory of multiple intelligences totally changed the landscape in American education. His ideas are still widely disseminated and argued over, and you can easily find blogs, articles, and critiques all over the internet as we collectively wrestle with his theory. In fact, Gardner himself was a bit uneasy about how his ideas were used in educational circles, but there's no denying it has been a major factor in curriculum development and practice in schools.

Again, in a very simplistic overgeneralization, Gardner's theory suggests that intelligence isn't a single thing, but that each person is intelligent in a dominant way. And if we tap into that person's natural dominant intelligence, they will learn better. If those dominant intelligences are ignored, a person's learning suffers. There's a whole lotta nuance missing from that summary, but it's enough to get us started. You can see in the graphic above the eight intelligences that Gardner proposed. (He originally only had seven, but added naturalistic in 1995.)

Gardner's ideas really took hold in many educational circles, and changed the way many American schools executed curriculum. (I'm only speaking of American schools here, because that's what I have experience with. If you're outside of the U.S., I'd be super interested in hearing your perspective on this!) Where education had primarily been lecture style, even for younger kiddos, for decades, educators moved to increase things like music in the regular classroom, outside time, manipulatives for math, and other kinds of strategies to allow learners to interact with the material being taught. Assessments were changed to take into account that not all students demonstrate their learning through written tests, but in ways that coincided with their dominant intelligences. Generally, I think this is great! Kids do learn better, in my opinion, when they have multiple ways to encounter the topic at hand. And I think the attraction in this theory is that learning can be fun and multi-faceted, and not just presented in one way. Humans and their brains are complex, so boiling learning down to a single mode of delivery doesn't make sense to me.

But there are problems with this theory. While Gardner spent his career studying this, generally there has not been a great deal of empirical testing of the theory, which means it remains largely a big guess and not fact. Neuroscientists have also criticized the theory, saying that it doesn't fit the way the brain actually works.

Brains are complex, and the way we are intelligent, or how we learn, is so vastly complex that nailing it down into a single way of thinking is likely way down the road for us. We need many more years of study to really get it. But still, thinking with the framework of multiple intelligences, I think, can be a useful way to present new material to students.

How could we use the idea of multiple intelligences or learning styles in the voice studio? Lots of ways! Here are just a few of my own ideas. I'd love to hear yours!

Musical: This one is kind of a gimme, considering we are literally doing music together in the studio. However, some aspects of music are still difficult for some students. Listening to various recordings of the same song or the same style can teach us to recognize patterns in the music and the way things are performed.

Kinesthetic: Marching, beating drums in rhythm or to the beat, and clapping are all ways to add a movement element to the lesson.

Interpersonal: The relationship between you and your student needs to be one of trust and mutual respect, and if this is a challenge for you or your student, doing things like spending time chatting with each other or asking questions about how you each are effected by the song can build your interpersonal relationship.

Verbal: Expressing ourselves through singing is both musical and linguistic. Asking your student to put the lyrics into their own words, or even writing their own songs, can introduce a verbal or written element to your lessons.

Mathematical: This one is also a gimme, because music is inherently mathematical. Counting is of course a way to bring math and logic into their singing.

Naturalistic: I'll admit this one is a bit of a stretch here, but talking about how sound waves interact in the open air can be really helpful. After all, how many of us have sung the national anthem before a ball game out in the open air and been super surprised at how the acoustics were vastly different. Sound waves in air, and in water, and in solid surfaces, are all natural phenomena. It could be fun to explore this with a student.

Intrapersonal: Connecting with a song can make a performance more authentic. Asking lots of questions about how your student feels about the lyrics can help them put words to their own feelings and help them express themselves in a real and deep way.

Spatial: Using manipulatives to write out rhythms, or a white board to draw the patterns or melody of a song, or even discussing the form of a song, can all be ways to interact with spatial learning.

Again, brains are complex, and I think by interacting with music in many different ways, we can not only give our students the best chance to really learn well, we can introduce them to ideas in different ways that make them think and respond. For so long music learning has been centered around the master-apprentice method, and that is still valid and useful, but we as the music masters have so many more ways we can collaborate in our students' learning. I hope we'll take the chance and run with it!


By Sajaganesandip - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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