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Learning styles vs. multiple intelligences: Related, but not the same

Amanda ClarkDecember 8, 2019

Several students with teacher looking at laptop

Multiple intelligences and learning styles are terms that many educators use interchangeably. But did you know they’re different?

Educational theorist Howard Gardner (1993) spells out the difference between the theories this way:

“In MI theory, I begin with a human organism that responds (or fails to respond) to different kinds of contents in the world … Those who speak of learning styles are searching for approaches that ought to characterize all contents.”

Still puzzled? We hear you!

That’s why we’re jumping headfirst into the definitions and backgrounds of these sometimes confusing terms.

What are learning styles?

Google has a field day when you look up learning styles. As is the case with most complicated terminology, some of the definitions make sense and some don’t. Here are three explanations of learning styles that sit right:

  1. Teaching Expertise states that “Learning Styles (LS) can be defined as the way humans prefer to concentrate on, store, and remember new and difficult information.” OK, so far so good. That makes sense.
  1. Educational scholar Dorothy MacKeracher (2004, p. 71) describes learning styles as “the characteristic of cognitive, affective, social, and physiological behaviors that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment.”
  1. On the other hand, Brown University jumps more to the point and expresses that learning styles are how you process and comprehend information in learning situations.

Brown also breaks up learning styles into six categories (which we’ll revisit later):

  • Visual learning
  • Kinesthetic learning
  • Individual learning
  • Tactile learning
  • Auditory learning
  • Group learning

In short, learning styles have to do with an individual’s preferred way of learning — or, as Gardner put it, how students approach a task.

Who came up with the learning styles?

Many scholars point out that learning styles have been around since Carl Jung explored personality types in 1923 and separated them into the following:

  • Extraversion vs. introversion
  • Sensation vs. intuition
  • Thinking vs. feeling
  • Judging vs. perceiving

This led to the now-famous Myers Brigg personality test (which yes, could be it’s very own blog post).

But it was a New Zealand researcher Neil Flemming who discovered that certain teachers could reach every student if they catered to students’ learning styles. He came up with VARK in 1987, which stands for the four basic modalities of learning techniques: visual, aural, auditory, read/write, and kinesthetic. Yes, it’s slightly different from Brown’s interpretation above, but the general idea holds true that there are categorized, preferred ways to learn.

VARK states that learning is not so black and white and reminds us to “[r]emember [that] life (and work) are multimodal, so there are no hard and fast boundaries.”

On the other hand, Gardner’s 1983 Multiple Intelligence Theory aimed to breakdown learning abilities based on learning styles. According to Gardner, the notion of multiple intelligences “is a theoretical framework for defining/understanding/assessing/developing people’s different intelligence factors.”

One could argue that multiple intelligence theory focuses more on evaluating and understanding an individual’s intelligence than learning styles do. Gardner also emphasized that individuals possess each of these bits of intelligence, but it’s the degree to which each one exhibits that’s important to recognize.

*Note that critics of multiple intelligence theory point out that “intelligence” is not a clearly defined term. Instead, they base learning styles on biological and conditioned factors.

After sifting through various comparisons of these two terms, we found another description from the Teaching for Multiple Intelligences that stuck with us:

“[L]earning styles emphasize the different ways people think and feel as they solve problems, create products, and interact. The theory of multiple intelligences is an effort to understand how cultures and disciplines shape human potential.”

You’re not alone if you’re still finding the concept tricky to grasp, so let’s go a step further and breakdown each category.

But before we dig in, note that the notion of “learning” itself is not clear-cut, and we all possess aspects of all these styles and intelligences.

The 6 learning styles

Here’s a breakdown of learning styles:

1. Visual learning

Using one’s sense of sight to gather information.

Visual learning activities:

  • Following maps
  • Sketching diagrams
  • Watching videos

2. Group learning

Learning well in social settings, with a focus on collaboration and team-building skills.

Group learning activities:

  • Team building activities like those on a ropes course, human alphabet, and group sit
  • Group projects such as literature posters or presentations
  • Group discussions, formally or informally

3. Kinesthetic learning

Learning takes place physically with movement, expressions, and one’s sense of touch.

Kinesthetic learning activities:

  • Simulation games like Predator Prey
  • Field trips or other outdoor activities
  • Board games and other manipulatives

4. Individual learning

Learning alone as opposed to in a group, with greater focus on self-study. This learning style connects with intrapersonal multiple intelligence.

Individual learning activities:

5. Tactile learning

Hands-on learning. This relates to kinesthetic intelligence and even nature intelligence. 

Tactile learning activities:

  • Building 3D models
  • Attending and/or presenting at a science fair
  • Measuring items in the classroom

6. Auditory learning

Learning through hearing. Related to linguistic intelligence and musical intelligence.

Auditory learning activities:

  • Listening to nursery rhymes
  • Writing song lyrics, or even singing
  • Creating or listening to podcasts

The 9 intelligence categories

Now that you’re more familiar with learning styles, let’s offer some explanations for multiple intelligences. Most scholars break up the multiple intelligences into nine categories (because they added the existentialist one recently).

Although related to learning styles, multiple intelligences focus more on intellectual abilities. On the other hand, learning styles emphasize preferences or how a person likes to approach their learning. As you read the descriptions below, you should sense the overlap.

1. Spatial-visual intelligence

Students with this trait have an uncanny ability to visualize things. Whether it be manipulating 3D objects or finding the quickest route on a roadmap, this intelligence goes hand in hand with the visual learning style. It’s how you store visually learned information in your memory.

2. Verbal-linguistic intelligence

Do you know those students who get excited about writing stories and public speaking? They favor verbal-linguistic learning. They probably love words, spoken and written. And they relish word sounds, meanings, etc. These students also tend to listen attentively.

3. Musical intelligence 

People who exhibit musical intelligence learn in an auditory way and have an ear for rhythm. Instead of favoring words or images, musical learners prefer sounds.

4. Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence

How you obtain information through moving as well as how you control your body/fine motor skills. In short, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence involves learning through movement.

5. Naturalist intelligence 

Learning best outdoors. People who are curious about their natural world, animals, and plants exhibit naturalist intelligence.

6. Interpersonal intelligence

People in this category are social and empathetic, which allows them to intuitively sense others’ needs. They can read the moods of others and relate to their peers. They’re also often strong communicators.

7. Intrapersonal intelligence

On the other end, intrapersonal intelligence focuses more inwardly than out. These learners ten to be highly reflective and thoughtful within their own minds. They also may be highly in tune with their own strengths and weaknesses.

8. Logical-mathematical intelligence

People who love analyzing problems and reaching a logical solution fall in this category. They have strong reasoning skills, typically excel at standardized tests, and are keen on identifying patterns.

9. Existential intelligence

What’s the meaning of life? What is beauty? How do you define art? These are all big questions that characterize existentialist intelligence. These deep thinkers with philosophic minds are always trying to understand the world around them.

The take-away

Familiarity with multiple avenues of learning will benefit you and your students. Stacking your teacher arsenal with knowledge on learning styles and multiple intelligence theory will help you reach all your students and not just a select few.

Remember that all learners have unique strengths and weaknesses, and a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching doesn’t cater to a student’s individualism. By familiarizing yourself with multiple intelligence theory and the different learning styles, you’ll be able to tap into all your students’ strengths.

One final thought

How do you learn? Visually? Linguistically? Spatially?

In addition to implementing these sweet teaching techniques into your curriculum, when you reflect on your own learning styles and multiple intelligences, you’ll be one step closer to understanding those around you! 

Photo: Google Edu

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Better middle school PBIS begins with better implementations

Download your free PBIS implementation guide to access best practices and an implementation checklist to build a better program in your middle school.

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Better middle school PBIS begins with better implementations