Using Psychology to Get the Best out of Learners

September 2011

If you have read some of my tweets and ideas on language teaching you may have noticed that I am very dismissive of learning styles and multiple intelligences theory. I see them as fabricated, overly-simplistic, non-falsifiable folly, not to mention being unfair on learners who really need to apply themselves to facets of their ability in which they are weakest, rather than be limited to playing within their strengths. To me MI Theory is basically more snake oil dreamt up by academia and perpetuated by less-than-sceptical educators.

Howard Gardner’s own definition of intelligence has changed so much from his original hypothesis that it’s difficult to know where he stands. I mean how many intelligences are there supposed to be? Thirteen and a half? It’s as arbitrary as his previous numbers. When you look at it empirically, it’s hard to believe that people still persist in giving the theory any credibility. There is no evidence for it.

Ying Yang
Harmony & Diversity: two buzzwords of eastern and western social propaganda which essentially mean the same thing — unity as a whole.


Recognising heterogeneity is certainly an enlightened view of your classroom, but if this mentality is taken to an extreme it becomes impractical and directionless. The homogeneity of examinations and of achievement in life in general, means that people have to be taught to understand that something which is personally difficult for them, is certainly achievable through practice and commitment. Disadvantages are almost a prerequisite to success.

I mentioned in the last post about learning disabilities not being recognised in China and left-handedness is a good example. For some somewhat sick and conformist reasons, left-handed children have always been made to write with their right hands. This kind of wholesale and subjective perpetuation of ignorance and authoritarianism takes homogeneity to the extreme.

So where is the balance? I believe there are psychological preferences that do exist and are worthy of note to language teachers. An individual’s personality is a complex mix of nature and nurture, the procedural and the declarative, and a person’s natural aptitude, habits, curiosity, memory, maturity, attitude, day of the week, time of the month, ad hoc external circumstances, etc. all contribute to his/her level of motivation and interest, which in turn may reaffirm these qualities in a virtuous circle of ongoing behaviour.

The most observable of psychological preferences to me is the perhaps old fashioned but highly observable distinction between field dependent and field independent learners. Now that we are just past the beginning of term, we are in a good position to judge the personalities of the people in our class and engineer a complementary dynamic via this framework. Next time you’re in class, try to consciously split your students into the following groups and notice the differences in how they perform.

Male vs. Female

Introverts vs. Extroverts

Detail focussed vs. Big picture focussed

Solitary comfortable vs. Group comfortable

Grammatical competence vs. Fluency competence

Once you have experimented and observed this, you can separate out the students into who you feel lie mostly to the left (field independent), those you feel lie mostly to the right (field dependent) and put in the centre those who perform as all-rounders.

This now gives you a good platform for placing students with members of the opposite group, not just for pairwork and groupwork activities but for the duration of the semester. By pairing students with those of diametrically opposed cognitive styles they can benefit from each others’ strengths and assist each others’ weaknesses, developing a synergy which might normally be overlooked, leading to the polarisation and failure of certain students.

It is part of our job to recognise that each individual is slightly different and brings different needs to the class at different times. Our greatest role therefore is to manipulate the class dynamic while attempting to fuse genuinely engaging content with an emphasis on expectations in the outside world. If we can keep these balls in the air, then we can keep our students altogether inspired.