Education research exposes the theory of multiple intelligences as singularly stupid
Oh, the delicious irony. Or rather the sweet savor of vindication. When I went through the Missouri teacher certification program from 2000 to 2001, the famous “theory of multiple intelligences” was all the rage. It was one of the philosophical and practical touchstones for training new teachers how to achieve maximum success in educating their students. Introduced by Harvard education professor Howard Gardner in 1983, it holds that there are different kinds of intelligence — as opposed to the previously reigning notion that the term “intelligence” refers to a single, consistent cognitive quality — and that traditional education and schooling only speaks to one or two of them, and that schools and teachers need to retarget not only their methods but their entire outlook, expectation, and overarching goals in order to account for this.
The trouble was and is that Gardner pretty much made the whole thing up. It’s backed by no evidence. This was whispered throughout the teacher training program at Missouri State University. So was the suspicion that the theory only became universally and enthusiastically embraced because it appeals to contemporary ideological prejudices. But that didn’t change the fact that we were all required to learn it and implement it in our practice lessons. Nor did it change the fact that I was required to attend more than one professional development training seminar about it when I worked for six years in a public high school. Personally, I thought it was kind of ridiculous. So did many of my colleagues.
As of today, the whisper of disagreement with this trendy education school orthodoxy has become a roar. When NPR covers something, you know it’s gone as mainstream as it can go (short of being mentioned on America’s Got Talent, that is):
We’ve all heard the theory that some students are visual learners, while others are auditory learners. And still other kids learn best when lessons involve movement. But should teachers target instruction based on perceptions of students’ strengths? … In fact, an entire industry has sprouted based on learning styles. There are workshops for teachers, products targeted at different learning styles and some schools that even evaluate students based on this theory. This prompted Doug Rohrer, a psychologist at the University of South Florida, to look more closely at the learning style theory. When he reviewed studies of learning styles, he found no scientific evidence backing up the idea. “We have not found evidence from a randomized control trial supporting any of these,” he says, “and until such evidence exists, we don’t recommend that they be used.” Willingham suggests it might be more useful to figure out similarities in how our brains learn, rather than differences.
Full story at NPR: “Think You’re an Auditory or Visual Learner? Scientists Say It’s Unlikely”
For context and further illumination, consider reading “Not Every Is Secretly a Genius,” published two years ago in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
The appealing elements of the theory [of multiple intelligences] are numerous. It’s “cool,” to start with: The list-like format has great attraction for introductory psychology and education classes. It also seems to jibe well with the common observation that individuals have particular talents. More important, especially for education, it implicitly (although perhaps unintentionally on Gardner’s part) promises that each child has strengths as well as weaknesses … Multiple intelligences put every child on an equal footing, granting the hope of identical value in an ostensible meritocracy. The theory fits well with a number of the assumptions that have dominated educational philosophy for years … The only problem, with all respect to Gardner: There probably is just a single intelligence or capacity to learn, not multiple ones devoted to independent tasks. To varying degrees, some individuals have this capacity, and others do not … [T]he eight intelligences are based more on philosophy than on data.
… A pedagogy designed to identify strong and weak areas of achievement is not a bad idea. But believing that such an approach rests on the existence of multiple intelligences has real risks … Students encouraged to explore their talents in dance or socializing may find themselves slammed against a wall of reality when expected to actually know how to do algebra or read a book in college … It’s time that we begin to work with the reality that we have, not the one we wish we had. To do otherwise would be just plain stupid.