Stupid use of multiple intelligences

Multiple Intelligences Theory, created by Howard Gardner, has been an education fad for 20 years now. Gardner lists eight types of intelligence with related careers.

• Linguistic: facility with verbal materials (writer, attorney).

• Logico-mathematical: the ability to use logical methods and to solve mathematical problems (mathematician, scientist).

• Spatial: the ability to use and manipulate space (sculptor,

• Musical: the ability to create, perform, and appreciate music (performer, composer).

• Bodily-kinesthetic: the ability to use one’s body (athlete, dancer).

• Interpersonal: the ability to understand others’ needs, intentions, and motivations (salesperson, politician).

• Intrapersonal: the ability to understand one’s own motivations and emotions (novelist, therapist with self-insight).

• Naturalist: the ability to recognize, identify, and classify flora and fauna or other classes of objects (naturalist, cook).

Teaching children to spell words using twigs and leaves is supposed to help children with high “naturalistic intelligence,” while “bodily-kinesthetic” brains are supposed to learn if they can stand for the vowels and sit for the consonants. (These ideas come from Thomas Armstrong’s Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom.)

In Education Next, Daniel T. Willingham, a University of Virginia psychology professor, critiques both the theory and its influence on education. If Gardner had described different “talents or “abilities,” nobody would have paid much attention, writes Willingham. The use of “intelligence” led educators to believe that all abilities are equal: Maybe Johnny can’t read or calculate, but he’s got great social and athletic “intelligence” to make up for it. Teachers now are encouraged to appeal to every “intelligence” on Gardner’s list in their lessons, which is exhausting, if nothing else.

Gardner himself doesn’t endorse most of the uses of his theory, but it seems to be out of his control.

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, Gardnerís 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.

Via Chris Correa.

About Joanne


  1. It’s another example of how categorization is used and misused. These “intelligences” could just as easily be called character traits: good at math, knows different trees or squirrels, talkative, shy, able to sit still for hours, what have you. What is desired is a well-rounded person, but the way to achieve that end becomes a convoluted process in gauging each aspect of a person and pigeonholing him into neat little categories.

    What’s needed is to let each child find his own “intelligences” by forcing him to explore and learn. The theorists in education (and millions of lazy parents and students) want to streamline the process so the least resistance is met. We’ve seen the results, and they are not pretty.

  2. I have had so many hours wasted by this ‘fad’. The district where I teach honestly wants to provide an education for their students. We are successful in doing that, but the administration cannot ignore the latest ‘fad’. What if it is successful and we did not buy into it? They cannot take that ‘risk’.

  3. Rita C. says:

    It’s an interesting way to think about how to present lessons, but that’s about it. I use the MI as a way to switch gears now and then to wake the kids up, but that’s about all it’s good for.

  4. Walter E. Wallis says:

    At least stuff llike this gives lineage to fill out the space between the ads in the Ed Mags.

  5. jeff wright says:

    Boy, if they’d had this when I was a kid, I could have just played ball all day—inasmuch I had a “high sports intelligence.” Unfortunately, neither my parents nor my teachers thought much of that idea. Even more unfortunately (and this is where reality comes crashing in), I wasn’t good enough to make the major leagues. Most of us aren’t—in sports, music, whatever. That’s why we have to be able to read and write.

    More new wave crap, all designed to dodge the three Rs bullet. Just what is wrong with learning what one needs to make it in the real world?

  6. Steve LaBonne says:

    The real question is why anyone was ever foolish enough to pay any attention to “educational psychologists” like Gardner. He has never had any respect from cognitive scientists who do genuine scientific research on learning; I’m told that among such people his name provokes eye-rolling.

  7. Mike McKeown says:

    The middle school my son attends prides itself on being sensitive to each student’s ‘individual learning style.’ Indeed, they once had all the students take a short test to determine their individual learning styles (can’t trust the SAT, but a short multiple choice on learning styles is OK).

    If those in charge really believed the multiple intelligences/individual learning styles hype, and their own words, these learning style tests would have been used to teach each child with a mix of styles appropriate to his or her ‘style.’

    Of course, this is not what happened. Instead, all children are now presented with lessons for all learning styles, all of which are graded.

    As a result, my son studies ecology, habitat and endangered species, the assignment for him, the panda (eats, shoots and leaves). What is he to do? Make a diorama of an enclosure for panda preservation project.

    In geography (social studies), they are studying China. He is assigned junks (the boats). Each student is to describe an exhibit on his or her topic at the ‘Beijing Museaum’ and to bring in something that could in that exhibit. So he draws pictures, in a Chinese style, of a junk. (In fairness, the other parts of this did require that he learn something about junks and what made them the most advanced water craft around for a substantial period of time). OTOH – drawing a junk, may have been fun, but was certainly relatively low on the learning scale.

    I’m sure others have similar stories of such lunacy.

  8. Diorama Learning! One parent told me that she does all of those art projects for her son and then gives him some real work to do.

    Also, don’t forget Nasal Intelligence.

    “Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum”

  9. I wonder…are the people who closed down the auto shop programs in NYC (which you wrote about the other day)the exact same kind of people who talk about “multiple intelligence?” It seems very likely.

    Spatial and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences evidently only count if they are exercised with paper mache or some such, not if they are exercised with metal.

  10. oliviacw says:

    Yeah, but dioramas and so forth have been around far longer than Gardner. While sometimes these assignments can be interesting or useful, I think most often they turn into busy work that show off how much time and money the parents have to spend on them. I think particularly of the California elementary school “build a mission” which has become commercialized. After studying the role of the Catholic missions in settling California, students can go into their local hobby and craft stores and purchase styrofoam mission models, little plastic wells, and all kinds of accessories (bells, pottery, twig brooms….). Given $75 and a glue gun, you can make a pretty spiffy mission with absolutely no thought whatsoever.

  11. A particularly egregious example of the “arts & crafts” genre..A Catholic high school teacher told me a story he heard from a public school counterpart. As part of their study of the Holocaust, students were supposed to pretend that they were Jews going into hiding from the Nazis, and were to pack a box with the things they needed to take with them. Probably gave the students the impression that it would be great fun, like camping or hide-and-seek.

    My friend said the first thing he would have packed was a Luger..probably wouldn’t have flown too well in public school.

  12. Steve Labonne,
    Gardner’s training is in neuropsychology, not educational psychology.

  13. Steve LaBonne says:

    He did some postdoctoral work on studying cognitive disabilities in brain-damaged patients, but his Ph.D. work was in “soft” developmental psychology, and the work that has made him famous is not based on anything resembling hard science.

  14. Lou Gots says:

    My observations on MI theory is pretty much along the lines of the above commenters. It’s all part of the pathetic fallacy, of course. General intelligence is a myth, and everybody is good at something. Johnny doesn’t have read, you see: he can always sing.
    The hilarious thing is that Gardner himself is quite transparent about his use of the word “intelligence” as a term of art, denoting, not cortical effeciency, but rather alternative “paths” of “gateways” to learning. He seems bemused that his ideas are so misconstrued, but he implies that he is laughing all the way to the bank.

  15. Adrian Quince says:

    The one thing that strikes me about this whole MI theory is how it’s used by educators. Assuming the theory is true, and assuming the role of the schools is to produce well-rounded individuals, isn’t playing to a student’s strongest intelligence a contradiction?

    Thinking back to the student above who was pigeonholed into interpreting everything artistically, what happens when he’s asked to write about something? It’s like someone who goes to the gym and only does bicep curls in his right arm being asked to run two miles. He’s got one highly developed right bicep, but he lacks the cardiovascular endurance and leg deveopment to complete the task. He’s not well-rounded.

    My point is, in any school where MIs are the dominant theory, would it not serve the students better to reinforce their non-dominant intelligences rather than simply playing to the dominant one?

  16. I don’t know of any school where MI is the dominant theory. Assuming that all teachers’ eyes are glazed over due to Gardnerism is just another example of bash-the-schools herd mentality.

    Besides, teachers are far too busy scrambling to meet NCLB mandates.

  17. Steve LaBonne says:

    How about giving us some specific examples of the scrambling you’re having to do to meet these mandates? I think getting down to specifics would be useful and instructive for those on all sides of the NCLB question.

    By the way, is pointing out, for exaample, the willful stupidity, at the students’ expense, of the Madison school district’s administration (next post up) also an example of “bash-the-schools herd mentality”? Should we just give them a free pass as they continue to damage kids in defiance of the evidence that’s right before their eyes? When in your opinion is it OK to hold schools accountable for non-performance without falling into the “bash-the-schools herd mentality”? Do we always have to give them a free pass no matter what, in order to avoid this dreaded accusation?

  18. Rita C. says:

    You’re bashing when you make instant negative assumptions about what schools are doing based on a 4 paragraph article. Now, I don’t care one way or another about Gardner, but it seems like you do and I doubt you’ve ever read the man or taught anything based on his theory.

    If you’re criticizing something that you have enough facts to know what is really going on, then that’s fair.

    Scrambling example: I’ve sat through countless inservices this year for NCLB. I can quote statistics off the top of my head. I can GATHER data that will make your head reel (notebooks full). I’ve read six books on African American achievement, experimented in the classroom, held innumerable hallway conferences, tutored students after school, implemented 10 specific suggestions from a paid consultant, taught lesson after lesson geared specifically to our high-stakes state test… and jeez, I can’t remember what all else. I won’t know if any of it will pay off until the testing next year after my students have been away from me for almost a year, and won’t see the results until the sophomores I taught this year are getting ready to graduate.

  19. “You’re bashing when you make instant negative assumptions about what schools are doing based on a 4 paragraph article.”

    Thank you, Rita, for explaining it more eloquently than my admittedly tired and end-of-school-year addled brain could.

    And I’ve got more NCLB scrambling examples:

    1. I’m on our district’s standards-based report card committee. In the next few years, grades will no longer be reported out as A, B, C, etc. Students will receive a list of standards taught that quarter and a list of related scores. (Readers should note that many of our district’s *parents* do not like this new format.)

    2. Curriculum standards (as per NCLB) must now be posted in every class.

    3. Curriculum must be redesigned to match both the standards and the state testing. This means workshops and meetings.

    4. After-school tutorials, added reading and math intervention classes. Reduced elective classes.

    5. Workshops and meetings spent brainstorming strategies to raise the test scores of low-scoring populations. (Gifted kids have become educational flotsam in the frenzy to avoid being labeled “underperforming”. )

    This year alone I’ve spent hours after school in one-on-one tutorials with at-risk kids, and though it’s been rewarding, it’s been exhausting, too. Despite the reading and writing practice, I’m not sure if I’ve helped. The parents often expect me to “fix” their child, which means little or no support at home. It’s very, very difficult to fight an environment where, say, the dad’s a white supremacist ex-con who barely reads past second grade. But we do what we can.

    And I’m not asking people to have a blind eye toward bad educational practice, Steve, but neither am I asking for foul-weather lenses. You seem overly interested in extrapolating chicken little scenarios whenever an article reaffirms your already-negative view, so have at it. Four paragraph articles are apparently all it takes.

  20. Rita C. says:

    Missouri just issued grade-level standards for my subject area, so next year we’ll be re-aligning our curriculum to it. It’s insanely detailed. We probably won’t be changing that much of what we teach, but we’re required by law to have a curriculum guide that matches up. I’m not looking forward to the hours that is going to eat up. I’ll probably do much of it for the course I primarily teach over the summer.

    Having the standards in the classroom is pretty handy. When the kids whine “Why do we have to read books?” I just point to the poster and recite Standard 1.1. Then their eyes glaze over and they figure whatever we’re reading is better than that thing.

  21. Steve LaBonne says:

    As I suspected, much of that scrambling (silly workshops, etc.) has _nothing_ to do with what’s actually needed to meet the requirements of NCLB, but rather is the result of BS bureaucratic ass-covering by your administrations. I don’t blame you for being pissed off by that, but please direct your anger towards the appropriate target- which is not the NCLB act. And as the Madison story illustrates, a lot of the problems that people are now “scrambling” to fix are self-inflicted, having been caused by curricular malpractice. NCLB is simply the messenger that brings the bad news, and should not be shot simply because so many adminstrators (notice, I did _not_ say “teachers”) are unable to respond intelligently to the bad news.

  22. Steve,

    I wish teachers could blame what you call “silly workshops” on administrative ass covering. But that’s not correct. Standards, workshops, and the new reporting formats have everything to do with NCLB. Please go to this website and click around:

    You’ll be surprised.

  23. Steve LaBonne says:

    I saw there exactly what I expected to see- requirements that schools have well-defined academic standards and the means for assessing whther studetns are meeting them. (Where are the requirements for Mickey Mouse seminars and consultants?) To the extent that any school system didn’t have those things before NCLB, it wasn’t doing its job. Your administrators evidently still don’t know how to do their jobs or they wouldn’t be making such heavy weather of the most basic functions of a school. And _that_ is exactly why NCLB is needed.

  24. Steve LaBonne says:

    By the way, virtually every profession accountable to the public is constrained to follow some set of standards. Here are the ones I have to meet in running a forensic DNA lab:
    Can it be a pain to maintain all the required documentation, and to submit to annual audits (which every other year have to be done by someone outside the lab, with their report being forwarded to the FBI)? Sure. Do I object? Hell no, because these are standards I _should_ be expected to meet, and to be able to prove I meet.

  25. You’re contradicting yourself. You state that the training workshops and standards-based accountability have nothing to do with meeting the requirements of NCLB, and now you backpedal and say well, we *should* have standards because everyone does.


    My point is this. Read NCLB Section 1112 regarding Local Education Agency plans, and you’ll see the following:

    ” A description of high-quality student academic assessments that are in addition to the academic assessments described in the State Plan under section 1111(b)(3), yadda:

    a) determine the success of students in meeting the State student academic achievement standards and provide information to teachers, parents, and students on the progress being made toward meeting _student academic achievement standards_”


    So our district’s “scrambling” has *everything* to do with meeting NCLB mandates. It does help to know what you’re talking about before you rant.

  26. Steve LaBonne says:

    And again I say, if you think that setting academic standards and measuring whether students are meeting them (and letting parents know the results of teat assessment) is some alien thing imposed on you that has nothing to do with your job, I can only shake my head in wonderment. If the schools had been meeting this _core function of any school_ all along, there would be no need to “scramble” now. Nor is there anything in your latest post that indicates a need to “scramble” or any requirement for some of the kind of “scrambling” you’ve decribed- again, it’s just saying, define the standards and assess how the students are doing in meeting them. What is your problem with that? You’re not making sense. And once more, if your adminsitration is making you run around doing non-productive things which are _claimed_ to be required by NCLB, the fault lies with them, not with NCLB.

  27. Rita C. says:

    You don’t understand what’s going on, Steve. It’s not that new programs are going to be set up or new classes formed. We’re just going to chase our tails making the paperwork match up. We have standards, assessments, etc. They just have all the wrong numbers assigned to them now. So we have to play the paper game of getting it all to match up. And we’re not suffering from a lack of standardized tests out there. We’ve got Terra Nova, the CAT, our individual state tests, SAT’s, ACT’s and whatever else Princeton and ETS can come up with to line their pockets (because standardized testing is extremely profitable – price out anything having to do with education one of these days — very, very expensive).

  28. Steve LaBonne says:

    No particular set of “numbers”, let alone such a large barrage of tests, is required by NCLB. Somebody, whether it be your administration or your state bureaucrats, has been selling you a bill of goods if they told you otherwise. It’s possible that what you’re going through is a one-time process to bring your practices into sync with your state’s (new?) standards and assessments. NCLB basically just requires that there _be_ standards and assessments and that the progress of various student subpopulations towards meeting those standards be monitored; the states set their own rules for doing so, subject only to a very generalized set of requirements. That’s about as permissive a “mandate” as there could be, and it simply amounts to insisting that schools do what they should have been doing all along. Intelligent school officials recognize this and don’t imagine that shooting the messenger will make the bad news go away:

  29. Rita C. says:

    You’re right, Steve. I’m sure you know my job far better than I do. After all, you read what journalists say about it.

  30. Steve LaBonne says:

    I’m not commenting on your job Rita- obviously you’re the expert on what your administration is telling you to do. What I’m saying (having read NCLB and serious studies on it, not just newspaper stories which have been generally incompetent as noted in one of Joanne’s recent posts) is, if they’re also telling you that most of it is required by NCLB, they’re either confused or lying. (School administrators would _never_ engage in bureaucratic ass-covering, now would they?) And that’s a fact easily verifed by anybody who takes the trouble to look at what NCLB actually says.

  31. So all the state and locally funded curricular and systemic change our district has done over the last coupla years *hasn’t* been required by NCLB? You mean, after all your rants about how lousy schools are, we didn’t have to change anything at all?

    Wow, Steve, I’m impressed. You know much more than our superintendent and school board. I wonder what they’ve been reading?

  32. Steve LaBonne says:

    That’s right, Susie. It hasn’t. What NCLB requires is to set real academic standards and have real assessments of the progress _all_ students are making towards meeting them. If your school needs to make radical changes in how it does things in order to meet what, once again, are core expectations that _the schools always should have been meeting_, then it wasn’t doing its job before and it’s pretty sad that a new law was needed to force it to do so. If many of the activities you’re being made to do are not actually productive toward these ends, blame the people who are making you do them, not NCLB. Once more, NCLB only says you must _have_ standards and assessments but leaves to the states all the details of how to implement them. I’m shocked that you still don’t understand that, since you yourself posted a link to a presentation which makes that very clear. Maybe you should go back and actually read it?

    And once more time, with federal money come accountabilty strings. For you, for me, for anybody else whose employer accepts federal grants. It’s not as though the public schools are being singled out here.

  33. Steve, I’ll thank you not to put down my colleagues in administration about whom you know absolutely nothing. I don’t accept divisiveness in my work place, and I hope you don’t in yours, either.

    I’d like an example of a school system anywhere in the world and at any point in history that educates every single child — every single child mind you — to a set of similar standards as we are trying to set.

  34. Steve LaBonne says:

    Many countries come a lot closer to that goal than we do. The international comparisons supporting that statement have been widely publicized for years. Recognition of the problem goes at least as far back as “A Nation At Risk” yet little if any progress has been made in the intervening years.

    Thanks for inadvertantly supporting NCLB, however, by showing just how badly public school people needed to be jolted out of their complacency by something like it.

  35. Steve LaBonne says:

    P.S. I again recommend
    for examples of _constructive_ reponses from a school that received the bad news that it was “in need of improvement”.

    And again, in a comparison between Missouri and Kansas (which to its discredit,lowered its standards and consequently had many fewer schools on the non-AYP list than Missouri) this story documents the point I have repeatedly made that the _states_, not NCLB, are responsible for the details of standards and assessments. If you feel something genuinely unreasonable is being asked of you, your state education department is the place to start looking for answers.

  36. Rita C. says:

    Steve, I’m not interested in “many countries.” I’m interested in specifics.

    And by the way, the “scrambling” is a constructive response to being labeled failing. We’re a proud district, we’re one of the best districts in the state, and we intensely dislike that label. It’s unfair and we don’t deserve to be called a failure when a huge percentage of our kids, including minority kids, go on to 4-year colleges (the top kids go to the best schools in the country). We don’t deserve that label because we take several hundred kids from the city schools and try to work with them — kids we do not need to take and who are woefully behind their peers who have grown up in our district. I had a half dozen come in this year and then take the state test. Of course I worked very hard with them, of course I did my best, but I’m not an idiot. I know they didn’t score in the proficient range, even if they did make quite a bit of progress. They’re going to show a gap between white kids and black kids, and voila, we’re a failing school district.

    Look, we know our minority kids don’t do as well academically and we’ve been working on that problem for a long time. We don’t need a federal mandate to tell us that. We don’t know why. It’s not because of tracking. It’s not because of discrimination. It’s not even because of economics. We’ve spent thousands of taxpayer dollars and hundreds of staff hours trying to figure out why and how to fix it. I have read a half dozen books and have more sitting on my stack for the summer. I have had my black kids come up and hug me and tell me they know how much I care about their education and how much they appreciate it. These kids will work harder for me than other teachers, but it’s not as hard as they should be working. I have put my heart and soul into these kids, and they still fail my class. Try that some time, Steve. Put everything you’ve got into 140 kids for 9 months and see how you feel about the failures. I go home and cry about them. I’m not a dumb person, but I can’t figure it out. I love that you are informed about what is happening in education, but I think you miss the humanity in the equation, you really do.