Multiple Intelligence Theory
In 1983, American psychologist Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences was published. Prior to this, the popular view of intelligence was that a single type of intelligence existed and that this could be reliably measured with IQ, or other, tests. Outside of those professionally engaged in the field of education, this is not a view that has completely disappeared.
Within education, the idea that multiple intelligences exist was pounced on by educational psychologists, teachers and teacher trainers. Some saw the potential to expand Gardner’s original 8 intelligences, while teachers began to recognise potential intelligence in students that wouldn’t be considered traditionally intelligent. However, despite the enthusiasm for multiple intelligences to be true, in more recent years the theory has been heavily criticised.
In this post you will therefore consider what multiple intelligence theory is and which intelligences have been claimed to exist, the reasons why it became such a hit among teachers and the criticisms or disadvantages of multiple intelligence theory.
Put the following people in order of intelligence.
- Muhammed Ali
- Mark Zuckerberg
- Kanye West
- Barack Obama
- Nicole Kidman
There is no definitively correct answer to this question. We might look towards a traditional measure of intelligence such as IQ. In this case the correct order (according to internet searches) is Barack Obama (155), Mark Zuckerberg (152), Nicole Kidman (132), Kanye West (115), Mohammed Ali (78). However, IQ tests are often criticised for a number of reasons including cultural bias and, more importantly for our purposes, being too narrow in their testing of intelligence. These are 5 people who have achieved success over an extended time despite their differences in traditional intelligence.
Look at the puzzles below. Choose one and solve it.
My 1st is in bug but not in rug. My 2nd is in please but not in peas. My 3rd is in shut but not in shot. My 4th is in one but not in two.
When you find me, I will be sad.
Your two best friends are very unhappy. They both like you very much but they don’t like each other.
How can you help them?
What number will x be?
1 3 7 15 31 x
The puzzles above represent three types of intelligence proposed by multiple intelligence theory. It is suggested that your choice indicates a preference for that intelligence, whether it is linguistic, interpersonal or logical-mathematical.
What Intelligences are there?
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
If we accept the proposition that there are multiple intelligences, then the logical next questions are “how many” and “what are they?” Gardner originally proposed eight, but has since added to this list to bring it to ten:
- Spatial-Visual or Visual-Spatial
- Linguistic or Verbal-Linguistic
Look at the definitions below. Which intelligence are they describing? Which two are not described?
(a) Controlling the body and handling objects.
(b) Being sensitive and responding to the feelings of others.
(c) Being sensitive to the words and sounds of language.
(d) Understanding our own feelings and controlling our own behaviour.
(e) Recognizing and classifying flora and fauna.
(f) Hearing and making sounds and rhythm in music.
(g) Understanding the visual world and responding well to it.
(h) Seeing number patterns and following an argument.
a – Bodily-Kinesthetic
b – Interpersonal
c – Linguistic
d – Intrapersonal
e – Naturalistic
f – Musical
g – Spatial-Visual
h – Logical-Mathematical
Existential and Teaching-Pedagogical intelligences have not been defined here. Gardner argues that there is evidence to support them; however the other eight are more frequently asserted.
Which are you?
Take the quiz below to find out what mix of intelligences you have. Are your results as you expected?
Implications for the Classroom
If we accept multiple intelligence theory, then (as devoted educators) we should want to incorporate this knowledge into our teaching.
Look at the following activities. Which of Gardner’s intelligences is each one likely to suit best?
(1) Providing self-reflection time to identify what students have learned.
(3) Having students throw a ball to each other while asking and answering questions.
(5) Having students discuss what they got up to on the weekend.
(7) Giving students a rule and having them apply it to examples.
(2) Teaching stressed syllables by tapping the rhythm of a sentence on the desk.
(4) Presenting new vocabulary using a set of pictures or through a diagram.
(6) Writing poetry or solving word puzzles e.g. crosswords.
(8) Sorting or classifying different fruits and vegetables.
Why was Multiple Intelligent Popular?
As mentioned earlier, multiple intelligence theory was initially seized upon in education. There were a couple of reasons for this.
Firstly, as a form of confirmation bias, many teachers will have observed low-achieving students who seem to fit this analysis. In other words, students who were not considered intelligent by traditional methods would very often have some other ability in an area that fits one of Gardner’s alternative intelligences. For example, a teen boy that did poorly in academic subjects may have been deemed to excel at sports (bodily-kinesthetic). This conclusion may have been reached in spite of a lack of actual ability in sport if the student was simply more enthusiastic about playing sport than studying, or whose athletic prowess stemmed purely from being more physically developed than the remainder of their year group.
While some students were shoe-horned into possessing high levels of particular intelligences, those who showed no discernable intelligence could easily be accounted for as either:
- students who are not currently exploiting their best intelligences; or
- students with a general profile of intelligence in which no particular category dominates.
Secondly, multiple intelligence theory does send a positive message to students, employers and the public at large. Prior to this idea, many students were undoubtedly written off by teachers for their lack of ability under a traditional view of intelligence. Correct or not, multiple intelligence theory has gone a long way to encouraging teachers to recognise the individual abilities, talents and skills of each student. The result is that more students feel motivated and engaged in the learning process because they believe they are capable of achieving. Similarly, employers rarely consider IQ scores relevant and increasingly look at qualities, skills and abilities on at least an equal footing with academic attainment.
Finally, realising that they can better engage students, teachers are keen to exploit individual learner preferences. Multiple intelligence theory provides just one framework for identifying a variety of ways to approach the same particular learning point which ensures variety in their lessons.
Criticisms of Multiple Intelligence Theory
Despite its popularity with educators, multiple intelligence theory has been heavily criticised for a number of reasons.
The biggest problem is perhaps the lack of any clear empirical evidence of multiple intelligences. Gardner asserts that the theory is validated by the review of a large number of empirical studies when developing the theory. However, as Waterhouse (2006) points out, the process of validating a theory is distinct from that of generating it.
Further, Waterhouse argues that the decision by Gardner to not provide more than a general description of the intelligences has prevented researchers from testing them.
In addition to a lack of evidence, Waterhouse also asserts that there is in fact evidence that undermines the theory. In particular this evidence demonstrates overlap in the neural circuitry involved in different intelligences. Even without looking at this evidence, the argument can be made that many of Gardner’s intelligences overlap. One such example is that mathematics is essentially the language of science and therefore is a subset of linguistic intelligence.
Another criticism is the classification of several of these items as intelligence. Two of the frequently disputed intelligences in this respect are bodily kinesthetic and musical, which are arguably in fact talents rather than attendance. As alluded to above, the ability to perform well at a sport may have far more to do with genetics than a form of intelligence.
Finally, criticism is often levelled at multiple intelligences theory for treating the intelligences as equally valuable or desirable. We might consider for example that a naturalistic intelligence is far less desirable than interpersonal intelligence, at least from the perspective of a western city-dweller. However, any sense of desirability is likely to vary between cultures and may change over time.
While it seems multiple intelligence theory is due to fade into obscurity, it has certainly had a profound effect on education. The consensus in ELT seems to be that as teachers we should take into account a whole host of individual differences about our students. Among these are their interests, skills, abilities and preferences.
As yet there is no definitive model of intelligence which we can use to ensure our teaching is hitting every student regardless of this attribute. It is perhaps necessary therefore to remain open to as many individual factors that affect learning as we can.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (10th edition). Basic Books.
Waterhouse, L. (2006). Inadequate Evidence for Multiple Intelligences,
Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence Theories. Educational Psychologist, 41(4), 247–255)