MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCE THEORY

The problem with Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory and the Learning Styles Theory:

Over the past fifty years, Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligence has become unquestionable gospel within the education community. When I was in teachers college, it was taught as a central concept in every single class, and I have yet to take an AQ course in which it was not promoted by the instructor. In fact, the Ontario Government has mandated it as best practice in their policy document Growing Success. However, this same theory has been heavily criticized by proponents of evidence-based education and experts within the fields of pedagogical neurology and psychology. So why do current recommendations in teaching practice still cling to the idea? Arguably, because Gardner’s theory, at face value, appears to makes intuitive sense. Moreover, when teachers do implement Gardner’s theory successfully, it can create a confirmation bias. What advocates fail to realize, however, is that just because something works, does not mean it works better than everything else. While Gardner’s theory does hold some merits, it fails to hold up to scientific scrutiny and is not a time efficient strategy for improving learning results. 


The Neurology of Multiple Intelligence Theory

While it is indisputable that there are multiple intelligences, the intelligences identified by Gardner may not all be completely different intelligences, and there are presumably many other intelligences he has not identified.  When Gardner originally coined his theory in 1983, he identified 7 specific types of intelligences: interpersonal, intrapersonal, visual spatial, verbal linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, and musical rhythmic. He also, later, identified 2 other types of intelligences: naturalistic and existential (one's belief in God), only to later abandon (rightly so)  the concept of existential intelligence. While these identified intelligences do correspond well with the subjects taught in the western education system, they do not correspond specifically with the scientifically identified regions of brain. Neurologists, for example, only identify 6 key regions of the brain; moreover, most of the intelligences Gardner lists are controlled by the same area of the brain, namely, the frontal lobe. Language and math, for example, are both controlled by this region, which brings into doubt whether or not literary and mathematical intelligences are actually completely separate, especially when considering that both skill-sets involve different forms of abstraction. Furthermore, It was not by specifically neuro-scientific methods that Gardner settled on his seven intelligences, but rather through his own anecdotal experiences. Geneticists, on the other hand, have already uncovered over a thousand different genes associated with intelligence, which may suggest that there are far more than 7 types of intelligence. Realistically there is no scientific evidence to suggest that there are specifically 7, 9, or 8 different types of intelligence, as Gardner originally proposed.


Does Teaching to Multiple Intelligences Promote Student Learning?

Even if the specifics of Gardner’s theory were incorrect, it does raise the question of whether or not the broad application of his theory could still promote learning in the classroom. After all, the minutiae of his science might be less important than the practical implications of his general concept. And, generally speaking, the broad application of his theory does demonstrate positive benefits in the classroom, when studied. However, there are still legitimate concerns with its implementation. To be clear, even Gardner has raised concerns with how his theory has been implemented, most specifically because it is often confused with the Learning Styles Theory. While Gardner has argued that multiple intelligences exist and that teachers should try to teach to a variety of intelligences within a classroom, the Learning Styles Theory (which predates Gardner) argues that each student learns better when a teacher caters his or her instruction to the student’s specific learning strengths. For example, if a student has strong kinesthetic intelligence, a Learning Styles advocate would argue that the teacher should teach subjects like math to that student kinesthetically. While this idea sounds both constructive and engaging, in theory, it is incredibly impractical for a teacher to teach math via kinesthetic activities on a consistent basis. This method also violates the principle of specificity, and there is little to no scientific evidence validating such an approach. 


Proponents of the Learning Styles Theory will often use pseudo-scientific personality tests to assess a student’s learning style and then try to teach to the student based on the result. 

At the end of the day, if we want to take a research validated approach to teaching, we have to rely on the quantitative evidence. And the quantitative evidence for the implementation of Multiple Intelligence Theory has been extremely meager. In 2015, John Hattie’s meta study on the impact size of teaching factors put Learning Styles at 0.4, meaning that the implementation of Learning Styles, on average was a moderate yield strategy. While this sounds positive, as Hattie points out, the implementation of any pedagogy, in comparison to no specific pedagogy, almost always yields a positive result. In fact, the average effect size for any teaching study, is .40. According to Hattie’s meta study, there were literally dozens of teaching factors and pedagogies which showed a far greater improvement on student learning. In regard to the implementation of Learning Styles in the classroom, Hattie specifically states that “there is little to no evidence that it works.” 


Multiple Intelligence Theory and Confirmation Bias

Many Multiple Intelligence Theory advocates will tell you that they personally have tried implementing the theory and that it improved student learning. However, the problem with these anecdotes is that they do not tell us by how much student learning improved; they do not tell us if the students learned better because of the Learning Styles Theory or because their teacher went from using no strategy to using a strategy. Ultimately, one study or anecdote does not tell us if a teaching strategy is best practice, but rather whether or not one strategy is better than a specific other strategy. 


Multiple Intelligence Theory/ Learning Styles Theory and Growth Mindset

Some advocates might claim that a moderately effective pedagogy, might still be worth the effort. However, many professional psychologist have started to question whether or not the prevalence of these two theories could lead to more fixed mindsets. As we know from our Growth Mindset article, it is crucial for teachers to approach learning weaknesses with the question of how we can overcome learning weaknesses, not whether we can overcome them. The Multiple Intelligence Theory on the other hand has led some educators to to question whether or not we should consider catering to student strengths by removing subjects which students struggle with. Other proponents of theory have given students and teachers pseudo-scientific tests to determine students’ natural strengths/weakness and their natural learning styles. The problem with these tests, however, is that they can create self-fulfilling prophecies for both the student and the teacher, where both assume a student is doing poorly in a subject, because of a hypothetical neurological weakness. However, learning is such a complicated process that it is almost impossible to determine if it is nature or nurture that is responsible for a student doing poorly in a subject.


Concluding Thoughts on Multiple Intelligence Theory

At the end of the day, the Multiple Intelligence Theory, as it was written by Gardner, lacked scientific validity. Its popular implementation today, along with the Learning Styles Theory, is both impractical and statistically not useful. It violates the principle of specificity and promotes a fixed mindset. These theories, while holding some valid concepts, ultimately, do not yield enough results to be worth the time investment for teachers. 


If you are interested in hearing more about Multiple Intelligence Theory, check out our podcast on the topic. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/pedagogy-non-grata/id1440404959?mt=2 


 Written by: Nate Joseph

Last Edited: 5/12/2020


References: 

K, Cherry. (2018). Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from <https://www.verywellmind.com/gardners-theory-of-multiple-intelligences-2795161>

T, Hines. (2018). Anatomy of the Brain. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from <https://mayfieldclinic.com/pe-anatbrain.htm

Y, Terada. (2018). Multiple Intelligences: What Does the Research Say? Edutopia. Retrieved from <https://www.edutopia.org/multiple-intelligences-research

J, Hattie. (2015). Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. Visible Learning. 

S, Weale. (2017). Teachers must ditch 'neuromyth' of learning styles, say scientists. The Guardian. Retrieved from <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/13/teachers-neuromyth-learning-styles-scientists-neuroscience-education> 

Ontario Government. (2010). Growing Success. Ministry of Education. Retrieved from <http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/growsuccess.pdf>.  

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