Multiple intelligences ain’t

Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences seems to occupy a special place in the pantheon of education memes. I was reminded of this when I read “Not Every Child Is Secretly a Genius” by Christopher Ferguson. Mr. Ferguson’s essay—it appears in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the news source of record for higher educators—politely explains that sustaining Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory is not a good idea.

Rational analyses of the MI evidence by Dan Willingham and Lynn Waterhouse have shown that there are problems with both the theory itself (e.g., most of the eight intelligences are highly correlated, meaning that they are likely measuring the same “thing” for the most part) and its application in education (e.g., methods based on MI do not lead to better outcomes).

Mr. Ferguson’s essay continues in that same tradition. He makes a strong case for his conclusion that “Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences was a great idea and worth investigating. It’s just not panning out.”

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. To be sure, there is much debate about Gardner’s theory in the literature, with contenders for and against. Nonetheless, empirical evidence has not been robust. While the theory sounds nice (perhaps because it sounds nice), it is more intuitive than empirical. In other words, the eight intelligences are based more on philosophy than on data.

However, despite it’s short-comings, it gets a lot of play. I fear that most of the students in my classes consider it meritorious. Worse, yet, probably the reason that they do is that many professors in schools and colleges of education promote MI. However, those who advocate using MI to guide education are going beyond not just the data but even the original idea. Educational applications of MI were not among Mr. Gardner’s recommendations for its use.

In 2005 I scanned the number of citations in a couple of academic research sources and found that disproportionally more articles about MI had appeared in the first five years of the 2000s than had appeared in the first 17 years after the publication of Mr. Gardner’s book. I suspect that a follow-up study would show the trend continues. Today, as a search of the Web will reveal, there are lots (that’s a technical term) of sites that mention MI. Bing and Google return 1.92 million and 647 thousand results, respectively.

I hope teacher educators will read Mr. Ferguson’s article and explain it to their students. It’s high time that we prepare our students to employ methods that are based on evidence rather than based on intuitive appeal.

Oh? I said that before? Well, it’s still worth repeating.

Here’s a link to Mr. Ferguson’s excellent paper from the Chronicle (free temporary subscription may be required). Check Mr. Willingham’s 2004 paper, “Reframing the Mind” from Education Next. Read Ms. Waterhouse’s 2006 paper, “Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review” from Educational Psychologist.
Also see my LD Blog post from 9 April 2005.

6 Responses to “Multiple intelligences ain’t”


  • I beg to differ. Put two kids through K-8 MI learning, and one graduated HS with full scholarship to FSU, other is in his last year there, and was invited to join the FSU High field Mag lab mentor program in AstroPhysics beyond it’s normal criteria (he will continue on in HS, which is a first), and the school noted top 8 charter schools in US, outscoring all county public schools on standardized testing. Is that evidence or just a feel good story, John? Me thinks not.

    • I’m glad those two kids did well. But, O.K., let’s differ.

      Would they have done (a) as well, (b) worse, or (c) better in some other environment? It’s not possible to know, ’cause we simply don’t have the data. Their outcomes are good anecdotes, as you noted.

      Alternatively, perhaps the educators in that environment are doing some really killer good stuff and (a) it is consistent with MI (their actions match their words) or (b) what they’re actually doing corresponds better with some other educational “theory.”

  • O, John, my Hero! jousting at very large dragons! I so agree and am so frustrated that at both my college and university there are WAY too many who do apply MI to K-12 teaching methods (as well as teaching our undergraduates to consider “LEARNING STYLES!!” when planning lessons,even in PE, for heavens sakes). One reason for the MI emphasis is that an art prof who studied with Gardner teaches in our ed program. I have gotten into much trouble for agruing against both ideas and asking for data-based evidence of either. Folks just shake their heads and sigh as they walk away from me —- students write comments about my very biased opinions in my evaluations. BUT I do teach in a dept where others agree with me and I/we will not give it up — may I borrow a sword?

    (sorry it took so long to get around to reading this— been having a summer vacation for first time since becoming college prof)

  • Here’s a tip that always worked for me back when I was a professor. When I would first begin discussing Gardner’s idea, I would take out a $50 bill, wave it around and put it in an envelope that I would then give to the department secretary. I told the class that I would instruct the secretary to give the $50 to the student who gave me a peer-reviewed article or juried confrence presentation that gave sound scientific evidence of Gardner’s notion.
    Of course, I never needed to give the money away.
    The big advantages however were that (a) it showed the students exactly where the burden of proof rightly belongs (with those making the claim for MI’s effectivness), and (b) those students motivated enough by the cash to go looking always reported back to the rest of the class their findings (or lack of), and this always had an impact on the rest of the students.
    Good luck.

    • Chris, thanks for the suggestion! Your $50 challenge would work with lots of different theories, of course. It reminds me of Will Talheimer’s “Learning Styles Challenge.”

      So, readers, what standards would you accept as “sound scientific evidence” of the utility of differentiating instruction on the basis of Multiple Intelligences?

  • Jo Hannah Afton is a liar. She has one daughter and one son.
    The daughter never got a scholarship and never attended college. The son isnt even going to a charter school anymore and never recieved an invitation from FSU.

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