Friday, October 06, 2006

The Multiple Intelligences Trojan Horse

I've been doing some research on various educational texts online, and I keep coming back to Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI). For an explanation of this educational theory, proposed by Harvard prof Gardner in 1983, see this website. Originally there were seven different kinds of intelligence, from linguistic to interpersonal. I believe we're now up to nine different kinds of intelligence, from "naturalist" (being especially sensitive to nature) to existential (asking deep questions about the meaning of life). You can find a chart of all these intelligences here.

The idea is that traditional schooling has focused too much on kids with logical and linguistic talents. But everyone has some dominant intelligence; teachers just have to find the right way to reach the kids. So while some kids might get fractions from a demonstration on the chalkboard, others might prefer to stack blocks of different sizes, and still others might prefer to look at a snail shell.

As an idea, there's nothing wrong with this theory. Certainly, some children are absolutely brilliant when it comes to dealing with other people, or playing sports. These skills will serve you well in life. There's also nothing wrong with the implication that all kids can learn, we just need to figure out what makes them tick.

Unfortunately, though, in reality, the theory of MI has often been used to slam educators and others who focus on gifted education as close-minded. We focus too much on IQ, which largely measures logical and linguistic intelligences. If there are nine intelligences (and who knows, why not more?), then all children can be gifted. And if all children are gifted, what's the point of gifted education? Rather than sequester the highest IQ children off from others, where they'll learn math at an accelerated pace, classrooms should embrace MI, recognizing that all the kids are learning equally, just in their own ways.

This is a problem because gifted education isn't terribly popular among the educational powers that be. It doesn't take much for a school system to decide that gifted education doesn't fit the right philosophy. So MI has become a Trojan Horse for undermining gifted education. I guess theorizing from Harvard, it's easy to forget the boredom bright children feel when they're forced to learn about, say, the former Soviet Socialist Republics by coloring a map of them. Maybe that's nurturing artistic intelligence. Or maybe it's lazy teaching with a gloss of theory put on top. Sure, all kids can learn. But boring bright kids does nothing to help the others.


Catana said...

There's just a wee bit of irony in Gardner's addition of two "intelligences" to the original seven. In Chapter One of the first edition, he summarized various attempts to categorize intelligence, and seemed proud that he had boiled it down to just seven, in contrast to schemes that had dozens or more.

And it's noteworthy that while his theory is popular in educational circles, it's been pretty much dismissed by research psychologists. I read it almost as soon as it came out, when I had far less background in both psychology and giftedness than I have now, but saw many, many flaws in his thinking. The book became popular not because of any scientific validity, but because it supports the egalitarian trend in education.

Anonymous said...


The theory of multiple intelligences really dilutes the understanding of the needs of gifted children. We got hung up with this idea when we first realized that our children were intellectually gifted. This delayed the school fix that we eventually found for them.

I’m still confused about how valid the theories of different learning styles and the right-brain versus left-brain dominance are. Are these on the same continuum with the multiple intelligences or separate theories in education. How well accepted are they amongst traditional (logical and linguistic) gifted experts?

I hope you don’t mind the questions.

Ann said...

One of the things that has always bothered me about gifted education is that it's supposed to allow children to think and discover "out of the box." But then educators create new boxes, invent labels for the boxes, and carefully choose boxes into which they stuff the children. The "discovery" of the boxes is treated like an important event and the jargon that goes with it is elevated to the level of expression of scientific fact that must be carefully studied, or else even a good teacher might not do what's best for the child.

Heavens! How did anyone ever have a satisfying learning experience before Gardner discovered those categories?

Of course, it's important to recognize types of abilities, but I get really tired of the tyranny of categories and trendy "facts."

Evan Adams said...

My experiences has been that kids who test as gifted a) do excel specifically in linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, and b) tend to either score high in almost every other category of intelligence, or be able to use the ones they do have as workarounds for the ones they don't. If you're not very good at bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, you can still excel at certain sports if you can figure out how to compensate with some combination of musical-rhythmic, visual-spacial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligence. For example, I do well with parkour because the basic question is always "Can I do that/how can I do that?" so knowing what your're, even if that's limited, and being able to judge distances, angles, etc. correctly is just as important as being able to get your body to do tricky things.