Multiple Intelligences theory by Gardner: myth, proven theory or philosophy?

After my first post on myths in education, I was wondering if there are other popular theories in education that are less sure at least. One that has been puzzling me for a while are the Multiple Intelligences by Gardner. Very popular in education, but is it correct? First of all, interestingly enough, it is Gardner hismself who complained about the many myths that exist about his theory:

“One myth that I personally find irritating is that an intelligence is the same as a learning style. Learning styles are claims about ways in which individuals purportedly approach everything they do. If you are planful, you are supposed to be planful about everything. If you are logical- sequential, you are supposed to be logical-sequential about everything. My own research and observations suggest that that’s a dubious assumption. But whether or not that’s true, learning styles are very different from multiple intelligences.

Multiple intelligences claims that we respond, individually, in different ways to different kinds of content, such as language or music or other people. This is very different from the notion of learning style.

You can say that a child is a visual learner, but that’s not a multiple intelligences way of talking about things. What I would say is, “Here is a child who very easily represents things spatially, and we can draw upon that strength if need be when we want to teach the child something new.”

Another widely believed myth is that, because we have seven or eight intelligences, we should create seven or eight tests to measure students’ strengths in each of those areas. That is a perversion of the theory. It’s re-creating the sin of the single intelligence quotient and just multiplying it by a larger number. I’m personally against assessment of intelligences unless such a measurement is used for a very specific learning purpose—we want to help a child understand her history or his mathematics better and, therefore, want to see what might be good entry points for that particular child.” (source)

Ok, what we do know now is that the different intelligences are not learning styles (good, because we know already that this would be a problem), but are they really ‘intelligences’?  I have been looking through many articles, but one of the best things I’ve found is an elaborated blogpost by Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. Do take your time to read it. If you don’t have the time, this is the conclusion:

“One may wonder how educators got so confused by Gardner’s theory. Why do they believe that intelligences are interchangeable or that all intelligences should be taught? The answer is traceable to the same thing that made the theory so successful: the naming of various abilities as intelligences.

Why, indeed, are we referring to musical, athletic, and interpersonal skills as intelligences? Gardner was certainly not the first psychologist to point out that humans have these abilities. Great intelligence researchers–Cyril Burt, Raymond Cattell, Louis Thurstone–discussed many human abilities, including aesthetic, athletic, musical, and so on. The difference was that they called them talents or abilities, whereas Gardner has renamed them intelligences. Gardner has pointed out on several occasions that the success of his book turned, in part, on this new label: “I am quite confident that if I had written a book called ‘Seven Talents’ it would not have received the attention that Frames of Mind received.” Educators who embraced the theory might well have been indifferent to a theory outlining different talents–who didn’t know that some kids are good musicians, some are good athletes, and they may not be the same kids?

Gardner protests that there is no reason to differentiate–he would say aggrandize–linguistic and logico-mathematical intelligences by giving them a different label; either label will do, but they should be the same. He has written, “Call them all ‘talents’ if you wish; or call them all ‘intelligences.’” By this Gardner means that the mind has many processing capabilities, of which those enabling linguistic, logical, and mathematical thought are just three examples. There is no compelling reason to “honor” them with a special name, in his view.

Gardner has ignored, however, the connotation of the term intelligence, which has led to confusion among his readers. The term intelligence has always connoted the kind of thinking skills that make one successful in school, perhaps because the first intelligence test was devised to predict likely success in school; if it was important in school, it was on the intelligence test. Readers made the natural assumption that Gardner’s new intelligences had roughly the same meaning and so drew the conclusion that if humans have a type of intelligence, then schools should teach it.

It is also understandable that readers believed that some of the intelligences must be at least partially interchangeable. No one would think that the musically talented child would necessarily be good at math. But refer to the child as possessing “high musical intelligence,” and it’s a short step to the upbeat idea that the mathematics deficit can be circumvented by the intelligence in another area–after all, both are intelligences.

In the end, Gardner’s theory is simply not all that helpful. For scientists, the theory of the mind is almost certainly incorrect. For educators, the daring applications forwarded by others in Gardner’s name (and of which he apparently disapproves) are unlikely to help students. Gardner’s applications are relatively uncontroversial, although hard data on their effects are lacking. The fact that the theory is an inaccurate description of the mind makes it likely that the more closely an application draws on the theory, the less likely the application is to be effective. All in all, educators would likely do well to turn their time and attention elsewhere.”

Ok, it’s a theory, but how about some empirical data? Well, Jeroen Janssen sent me this article by Lynn Waterhouse and there is a big chance some educators won’t like it… This is the abstract:

This article reviews evidence for multiple intelligences theory, the Mozart effect theory, and emotional intelligence theory and argues that despite their wide currency in education these theories lack adequate empirical support and should not be the basis for educational practice.
Each theory is compared to theory counterparts in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience that have better empirical support. The article considers possible reasons for the appeal of these 3 theories and concludes with a brief rationale for examining theories of cognition in the light of cognitive neuroscience research findings.

The last paragraph of the article still leaves a door slightly open:

“Enthusiasm for their application to classroom practice should be tempered by an awareness that their lack of sound empirical support makes it likely that their application will have little real power to enhance student learning beyond that stimulated by the initial excitement of something new.
Of course, future research may shed new light on these theories, and students, teachers, researchers, and theorists
should remain open to new evidence.”

My conclusion, it’s better to call MI a philosophy rather than a proven theory, and that we better would be talking about talents. This is not the same as a myth, but MI has the potential of becoming one if you take it all too seriously.


Filed under Education, Myths

10 responses to “Multiple Intelligences theory by Gardner: myth, proven theory or philosophy?

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  6. Tony

    If you all take it *TOO serious(ly)… good article otherwise

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  8. Wiebe Dijkstra

    Hi Pedro,

    The link to the article of Lynn isn’t working. You can find the pdf here:

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