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.

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on August 29, 2011, in Education and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. They may be criticizing Gardner even on NPR, but he’s still as trendy as ever in the world of education seminars.

    • I’m afraid you’re right, Wm Jas, and are likely to remain so about this subject for many years to come. It’s entrenched now.

      • Its the Kuhnian state of affairs; a scientist establishes some theory and then that theory dominates till another generation scientist, without an emotional attachment to the preceding theory, comes along with a more convincing and fully developed theory. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn develops and establishes the argument for the gap between epochal scientific revolutions to be sixty years, i.e. one generation.
        Goes on to show how objective science is in the ontological sense; bound in its anthropocentric episteme, which there is no way to transcend.

      • Its the Kuhnian state of affairs; a scientist establishes some theory and then that theory dominates till another generation scientist, without an emotional attachment to the preceding theory, comes along with a more convincing and fully developed theory. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn develops and establishes the argument for the gap between epochal scientific revolutions to be sixty years, i.e. one generation.
        Goes on to show how objective science is in the ontological sense; bound in its anthropocentric episteme, which there is no way to transcend.

        I discovered your blog through a common facebook friend, and I saw we have a lot of interests in common. You are doing some great work. I am writing a paper on the development of science from myth, it should be great if we could exchange observations and opinions in the near future. Keep up the good work!

  2. Benjamin David Steele

    I wrote a very long response to this post. However, it wasn’t just a response to the issue of multiple intelligences. I put it into a larger context of other issues I was thinking about.

    http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/08/30/re-education-research-exposes-the-theory-of-multiple-intelligences-as-singularly-stupid/

    • Hello Matt, fascinating article.
      so, this way of looking at learning isn’t the same as saying a child or person is talented in one thing or another is it?
      I think I’ll read Ben’s article and see if I’m singularly stupid! I know some people like that. They seem to be running for public office a lot these days don’t they? LOL

      • Hi, Pam. You’re right: The theory behind learning styles isn’t just saying some people are better at some things than others. It’s hitched to the idea of multiple intelligences, which has multiple holes in it. How much more realistic, and also evidence-based, it is to postulate a single, consistent type of intelligence across the human spectrum *with different preferred modes of engaging it*.

        Benjamin maintains a fine blog. You’ll surely fine more of interest there than you will by listening to the political propaganda polluting the airwaves these days. 🙂

    • As you know, I enjoyed your response, Benjamin. You started/extended a valuable conversation.

  3. “a single, consistent type of intelligence across the human spectrum *with different preferred modes of engaging it*”

    Maybe I don’t understand the sentence well. When you say ‘type of intelligence’ in your reply to pamela, I am just invited to ask “do you mean the multiple intelligences again?”.

    • I didn’t use the word “type” to indicate or connote one type among many, but to indicate that *there is only one type*. The words “type of” can be deleted from the sentence for clarity, if need be: “…a single, consistent intelligence across the human spectrum…”

  4. It astounds me that any teacher could argue the theory of multiple intelligence. Anyone who has spoken to more than two individuals know that no two people are alike and to expect them all understand a concept in the same manner is preposterous. In regards to the NPR article: I do not argue with Willingham that people also learn over time and with constant stimulation, nor do I think he should stop looking for “similarities” in the way in which people learn, but he has not made any break though in education when he ‘discovered’, “that when students pay closer attention, they learn better.” The whole intention of teaching to multiple intelligences is to reach more students so that the “pay closer attention”. There may not be neurological based evidence of this theory, but how can you argue the basic premise? It is common sense: students will be more inclined to learn if the is presentenced in a manner that makes more sense to them.

    • What’s needful here, Sarah, is to make the distinction between learning styles and multiple intelligences — something I didn’t sufficiently do in the post/article at hand. One can posit a single quality that’s consistent from individual to individual and across populations, and call this quality “intelligence” plain and simple — and I think there’s a much better case to be made for doing this than adopting Gardner’s now-trendy tack — while acknowledging that different people can, will, and do have innately preferred modes, avenues, or channels by which they take in information, learn things, and generally relate to the world. One intelligence with multiple channels of access and expression, each one constituting what we call a different learning style. That’s what we’re talking about. The thing is, the only reason we started thinking and talking in terms of learning styles to begin with, and the only reason, therefore, that it became the major-profit industry described in the NPR story, was because of the ideological popularity of Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory. So the distinction is something that’s really in need of being made and recognized.

  1. Pingback: Michael Phillipson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *