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.