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"Multiple Intelligences" and "Learning Styles"

    I don't remember when it happened but at a certain moment, I decided to call these faculties "multiple intelligences" rather than abilities or gifts. This seemingly minor lexical substitution proved very important; I am quite confident that if I had written a book called "Seven Talents" it would not have received the attention that Frames of Mind received.

    -- Howard Gardner

    In recent decades, education theorists, administrators and ed school lecturers have been in a froth of enthusiasm over the 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner, offering the notion that children learn in different ways. Well, that's not only reasonable, but obvious.

    But the response to "MI" has been that since kids learn differently, teachers need to spend lots and lots of time with a variety of loony projects so that all bases are covered.

The Risks of "Multiple Intelligences" and "Learning Styles"

    On first glance, much of the rhetoric on "multiple intelligences" does not sound particularly unreasonable, which is part of why it is so dangerously insidious. But a deeper look reveals four profound problems:

    1. The core problem with this fad is the utter lack of any suggestion as to how such supposed "learning styles" might be objectively and quantitatively identified or assessed, or how any of this would translate into effective teaching practices. In the absence of specific methods, it's no surprise that there is also no evidence that different teachers can make the same assignments to MI "intelligences" for a given child. Ultimately, there is a complete absence of even the slimmest objective, quantitative evidence that any of this has any utility.

    2. In an attempt to provide different kinds of exercises and projects for the different "learning styles" of the students in the classroom, spectacular blocks of precious time are wasted that could be better spent.

    3. Virtually all of the fountains of rhetoric that pour from MI theory espouse use of MI "intelligences" to design various constructivist child-centered projects. Thus, MI is welcomed as a way to bolster support for progressivist methods, rather than adding much new. Almost never is there discussion of alternative teacher-centered methods. For example, a truly effective teacher might make use of a few classroom demonstrations, a video clip, interactive choral response, and an out-loud story, in addition to or in place of straightforward lectures. In fact, an effective teacher might well accomplish all of this, and with greater learning effectiveness, in the same amount of classroom time as a single one in a suite of constructivist "projects" used in the name of MI.

    4. If the education industry really took to heart the notion that different kids require different approaches, then the obvious conclusion would be that it's nuts to expect all of the students in a geographic district to attend the same school. Students should attend the schools that best meet their needs, not merely according to which side of the street they live on.

    Also see related topic:
        Projects vs. Learning

Understanding Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles

  • "Learning Styles Don’t Actually Exist, Studies Show" by Patrick Carroll, August 12, 2022. "For most of us, the idea that different people have different learning styles is so obvious that it is simply common knowledge. But there’s a problem here, a big problem. No matter how hard scientists have looked, they haven’t been able to find any good evidence for the learning styles theory. Indeed, many academics who study this for a living consider learning styles to be one of the biggest myths in education. ...
    "There is ... evidence that using multiple teaching approaches together (such as words and pictures) tends to improve learning across the board, a phenomenon known as the multimedia effect. Again, researchers don’t take issue with this. What they dispute is the idea that each student has a particular learning style, and that teaching to a student’s preferred learning style will improve their educational outcomes."

  • "The Myth of Learning Styles'" by Cedar Riener And Daniel Willingham, Change, The Magazine of Higher Learning , August 2010. "There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist. ... Students differ in their abilities, interests, and background knowledge, but not in their learning styles. Students may have preferences about how to learn, but no evidence suggests that catering to those preferences will lead to better learning."

  • "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence" by Harold Pashler, Mark A. Mcdaniel, Doug Rohrer, Robert A. Bjork, Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9(3):105 , December 2008. "The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing. ... If classfication of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated."

  • "Testing the ATI hypothesis: Should multimedia instruction accommodate verbalizer-visualizer cognitive style?" by Laura Massa, Richard Mayer, Learning and Individual Differences , December 2006. "There was not strong support for the hypothesis that verbal learners and visual learners should be given different kinds of multimedia instruction."

  • "Belief in Learning Styles Myth May Be Detrimental" by American Psychological Association, Fall 1999. "Many people, including educators, believe learning styles are set at birth and predict both academic and career success even though there is no scientific evidence to support this common myth. ... numerous studies have debunked the concept of learning styles ... lack of scientific evidence supporting them."

  • "The truth is that there is virtually no support for learning styles in the research literature. While students may have preferences, all of us (with very rare exceptions) learn by seeing, hearing, and doing. Likewise, all of us (with very rare exceptions) think verbally, mathematically, and spatially. So teachers should be trying to provide students with the content knowledge, experiences, and skills that support development of all three ways of thinking. ... Instead of tailoring lessons to students' supposed learning styles, teachers should be concerned with tailoring their lessons to the content (e.g., showing pictures when studying art and reading aloud when studying poetry)."
    -- Nora S. Newcombe, professor of psychology at Temple University, and past president of the Developmental Psychology division of the American Psychology Association

  • "Multiple Intelligences Overview" by Barbara Shafer: This is a good place to start. Barbara provides a brief but well-reasoned synopsis of Multiple Intelligences and the reasons for concern over its adoption in schools.

  • "Different Strokes for Different Folks? A Critique of 'Learning Styles'" (PDF file) by Steven A. Stahl, American Educator (American Federation of Teachers), Fall 1999. "People are different. Certainly people might learn differently from each other, and we should structure our teaching accordingly. This sounds so reasonable. But it isn't."

  • Scoping Out Multiple Intelligences by Linda Seebach, Scripps Howard News Service, distributed May 21, 2004 and printed in numerous newspapers. Excerpt: "At a fateful moment in writing his hugely influential book, 'Frames of Mind,' psychologist Howard Gardner says, he decided 'to call these faculties 'multiple intelligences' rather than abilities or gifts.' As minor as the change seemed to be, it made all the difference. 'I am quite confident that if I had written a book called 'Seven Talents' it would not have received the [same] attention," Gardner said in a 2003 paper titled "Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years". And what a lot of nonsense American education would have been spared as a result.

  • Reframing the Mind by Daniel T. Willingham, Education Next, Summer 2004. As with so many curricular trends, educators have enthusiastically embraced curricula based on Multiple Intelligences theory, even though to date, no research support exists indicating that its use improves academic achievement. A University of Virginia psychologist has written this thoughtful, in depth article on Gardner's theory and its applications, investigating where the theory has merit and where its application is not substantiated. From the introduction:
        "What would you think if your child came home from school and reported that the language-arts lesson of the day included using twigs and leaves to spell words? The typical parent might react with curiosity tinged with suspicion: Is working with twigs and leaves supposed to help my child learn to spell? Yes, according to [one writer, who] is far from alone in placing faith in Gardner's theory of 'multiple intelligences.' Gardner's ideas have been a significant force in education for the past 20 years -- significant enough that they bear close study. How does the scientific community regard the theory of multiple intelligences, and what impact should the theory have on education?"

  • Guided Notes and Assessment on "How MI Informs Teaching at New City School", class assignment from Dr. Martin Kozloff, Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina. In this assignment to one of his classes, Dr. Kozloff gives students a paper to read supporting the Multiple Intelligences theories, while inserting probing critical questions.

  • The Schools They Deserve: Howard Gardner and the Remaking Of Elite Education by Mary Eberstadt, Policy Review, October & November 1999, No. 97. This is a withering dissection of the anti-science mentality of "Multiple Intelligences" and the legions of educrats who remain true believers. Excerpts:
    "In the New York Times Book Review, psychologist George Miller pronounced the theory 'hunch and opinion'; in the New York Review of Books .... psychologist Jerome Bruner praised the book for its timeliness, but went on to conclude that Gardner's 'intelligences' were 'at best useful fictions.' And these were just the friendly critics. ... Robert J. Sternberg of Yale observed that 'there is not even one empirical test of the theory' ... Though some put their kindest face forward, praising the author of Frames of Mind as 'brilliant' and his thesis as 'original' or 'powerful,' few of his professional peers would venture, then or since, that anything Gardner was up to amounted to science."

  • "a false sense that learning has taken place when it has not"
    "Seven Kinds Of Smart", Time Magazine, October 19, 1998. (The link is to a reprint in another publication.) "As science, then, there may be less to the theory of multiple intelligences than many educators seem to believe. ... evidence for the specifics of Gardner theory is weak, and there is no firm research showing that its practical applications have been effective. ... The danger is that it leads to wasted time, to an emphasis on less important skills and to a false sense that learning has taken place when it has not. ... 'The discussion is all hunch and opinion,' wrote George Miller, one of the founders of cognitive psychology. ... The most common use of MI is to attack a topic from seven directions to fit in all the intelligences. ... All these activities will take up a lot of time, and they will teach children very little ..."

  • "Playing Verbal Tricks", by John Leo, U.S. News & World Report, August 2, 1999. "Harvard's Howard Gardner, who thought up the theory of multiple intelligences, was once asked why [he named it that]. 'If I had called them talents,' he said, 'no one would have paid any attention.' So now everybody is smart in some way, even those who can't read or write."

  • George Cunningham, professor, University of Louisville:

           "...Gardner's multiple intelligence theory ... is accepted only among those that know the least about intelligence. Among those who seriously study the subject, it is considered irrelevant or plain silly. There have been two very serious books about the structure of intelligence published in the last several years. Neither devotes more than a few paragraphs to dismissing his theories as irrelevant."
           "The history of intelligence testing is replete with extraordinary theories that showed initial promise, but were later abandoned. The strange aspect of these theories is that it is often difficult to understand how anyone could have ever found them compelling. The phrenology of Franz Joseph Gall is one such theory."
           "It is probable that Mr. Gardner's catalogue of intelligences is wrong. In the absence of an explanatory theory, the chance of accidentally making the right small, to the vanishing point.
           "... Howard Gardner has devised a complex theory of intelligence that ignores the long history of research on this topic. ... All of his assertions are based on his own conjecture with only meager evidence to offer in its support."

  • "Intelligence Oxymorons", by William McNerney, Daily Herald, Friday, November 26, 1999: This is a beautifully written piece by a St. Charles, IL resident, using the very rhetoric of MI to satirize its premises: "Another talent that needs to be explored is the special ability of some people to convince others that certain ideas have merit, even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary."

  • "nonsense"
    Professor Pans 'Learning Style' Teaching Method By Julie Henry, Education Correspondent, [UK] Sunday Telegraph, July 30, 2007. "... The director of the Royal Institute and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, has dismissed as 'nonsense' the view that pupils prefer to receive information either by sight, sound or touch. She said that the method of classifying pupils on the basis of 'learning styles' is a waste of valuable time and resources. ... 'The rationale for employing ... learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that ... any ... learning style inventory has any direct educational benefits.'"

  • "Learning Styles Research": a good roundup of current thinking and research on the question of learning styles and multiple intelligences.

  • "Reading Instruction and Learning Styles: Should They be Matched?" by Sara Tarver

  • What Is Intelligence?, Thinking for Learning, Northumberland [UK] LEA. "Among psychologists who create tests allowing measurement of mental abilities, there is agreement that the ability to perform well in a number of very specific tests of different types of mental abilities is related to a generally good mental ability termed g. This is to say that the ability to perform well in one test indicates the ability do do well in the others. ... This is in sharp contrast to Howard Gardner's notion of Multiple Intelligences, each separate and unrelated. Critics of Gardner's theory argue that there is evidence of correlation between mathematical, verbal, and musical abilities; and that abilities in movement and personal relations cannot be termed 'intelligences'."

  • Multiple Intelligences, comments by Eric Buehrer: a short, common-sense look at the MI fad that concludes, "Too much attention to 'intelligences' can cause a teacher, and even an entire school, to digress into fun and interesting activities that do not promote real academic achievement."

  • "Auditory Versus Visual Styles of Learning to Read: A False Dichotomy" by Dr. Patrick Groff, NRRF Board Member and Senior Advisor

  • Multiple Intelligences Theory Makes Educators Feel Good Excerpt: "Referred to as 'M.I.' by supporters, it is a theory that few psychologists accept, and some view as nothing more than a 'hunch and opinion.' However, M.I. is appealing to educators ... because it offers an explanation for academic failure in which the problem lies in the system of measurement rather than the student or the teacher."

  • Some Critiques of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences Theory by Clifford Morris. This article summarizes seven other papers and sources critical of MI, and provides links and references.

  • Multiple Intelligences: A comment on Howard Gardner's ideas by Keith McGuiness. This ecologist reacts as a scientist to the flimsiness of the premises for MI theories. Excerpt:
        "Perhaps, I thought, there might be a lot of evidence to support this theory? It turns out that there isn't. In fact, judging by the number of publications about it, the psychological research community appears to have given Gardner's theory very little attention.
        "Perhaps, I thought, there might be studies showing that teaching to the 'multiple intelligences' has educational benefits? I found a few studies published in the last few years which suggest some benefits. Most publications, however, discuss how to integrate the 'multiple intelligences' into the curriculum; not whether or not such integration has any greater benefits than traditional or alternative practices. So much for that idea."

  • A parent's group in west suburban Batavia posted a page on criticisms of Multiple Intelligences.

  • Each To Their Own: The [British] government espouses the theory of learning styles with scant regard to the evidence, The Guardian [UK], May 31, 2005. "Howard Gardner ... never intended his book on multiple intelligences (MI) to be a blueprint for learning, but he was aware that many educationalists were adapting his ideas. The shock came on a visit to Australia. 'I learned that an entire state had adapted an education programme based in part on MI theory,' he says. 'The more I learned about this programme, the less comfortable I was. Much of it was a mishmash of practices -- left brain and right brain contrasts, sensory learning styles, neurolinguistic programming and multiple intelligences approaches, all mixed with dazzling promiscuity.' Gardner says he is still 'uneasy' about the way his theories are used in schools. But other researchers are less picky; there is a range of consultants willing to accept large fees from schools. Few mention the scientific doubts about the approach they are selling."

  • Why Has Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences Had So Little Impact on Vocational Psychology? By Andrew D. Carson, Ph.D. This article takes a different focus, namely Gardner's potential for use in career choices and decisions, but its conclusions for the most part apply equally as well in education. Excerpts:
    "I would suggest there are a number of reasons for why vocational psychologists have largely ignored Gardner's work in general and his MI theory in particular. First, he has ignored almost all research and theory contributed by vocational psychologists. ... Second, despite all the books, there have as yet been relatively few serious, empirical, theory-testing publications of MI theory. ... Third, he tends to make broad claims about how his MI theory makes sense and seems to imply that competing theories -- nd theories of g in particular -- are lacking in substance; this is despite decades of empirical research supporting the latter. Fourth, he almost never collaborates or interacts with other vocational psychologists ... Fifth, he seems romantically inclined rather than philosophically inclined, ... meaning that he identifies in his topics what in them he finds emotionally engaging, and focuses on extreme limit cases (e.g., his biographies of great achievers), rather than to promote dry, logical, traditional, and testable theories."

  • Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction? by Daniel T. Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), American Educator, Summer 2005. Introduction: "The idea that people may differ in their ability to learn new material depending on its modality -- that is, whether the child hears it, sees it, or touches it -- has been tested for over 100 years. And the idea that these differences might prove useful in the classroom has been around for at least 40 years. What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn't affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content's best modality. All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality. In this column, I will describe some of the research on matching modality strength to the modality of instruction. I will also address why the idea of tailoring instruction to a student's best modality is so enduring -- despite substantial evidence that it is wrong."

  • Sidebars to the above article: "How Has Modality Theory Been Tested?" and "The Content's Best Modality Is Key," both by Daniel T. Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, American Federation of Teachers (AFT), American Educator, Summer 2005. Excerpts: "The research presented in this article boils down to this: Modality of instruction is important, but it is equally important for all students -- not more or less important depending on students' modality preference. There are several important implications for educators. First, teachers need not worry about differences between students in terms of modalities; there are not visual or auditory or kinesthetic learners. Indeed, applying this incorrect theory may actually shortchange some students."

  • Learning Styles Don't Exist, short presentation by Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia:

  • Do learning styles really exist?, a quick and lively presentation by Dr. Joseph Kim, an Associate Professor of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour at McMaster University.

Teaching Based on Hunches?

  • "Emphasizing Learning Styles Based On Hunches" by Dr. Elaine McEwan: "The notion of teaching to a child's learning styles or multiple intelligences seems like a very sound, commonsensical approach. ... In my experience, most teachers who attend a learning styles or multiple intelligences workshop get all fired up in the beginning about the wonderful changes they'll make in their classroom and soon discover it's not practical. They soon file the handouts away and get real!"

  • Teachers on "Learning Styles": No Better Than Random Guesses!
    "Teachers' Ability to Perceive Student Learning Preferences" by Carleton R. Holt, George Denny, Matthew Capps and Jack B. De Vore, TC Record, February 25, 2005.
    Oh, this is classic! This article in the ultra-progressivist TC Record (no less) looks at how well teachers are able to estimate their students supposed "learning styles."
    Guess what? The study says, "Results revealed the percentage of learning preferences teachers assessed correctly had a mean of 30.3% whereas random guessing would have been 25% ... his difference was not statistically significant" and "Further, no significant difference was found in the accuracy of teacher ratings by school district, by grade level, or by number of students rated."

  • Resisting Education's Fads by Gail Russell Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1998. "Teachers call it the 'reform du jour,' and for many, it's the biggest challenge at the start of any school year. That's when the latest idea for how to improve student performance kicks in. ... The 1990s brought down new mandates to teach to individual 'learning styles' -- despite a lack of consensus on how to measure learning styles, or whether it is better to teach to a learning style or to help students overcome it."

  • Sidebar: How To Fad-Proof Your School by Gail Russell Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, August 25, 1998. "The key to fad-proofing your school is to look for things that work and avoid those that don't. Here are suggestions from some top superintendents and teachers."

Gardner on the Misuse of MI

    In an essay on ethics and science, Howard Gardner himself descibes an episode that unintentionally illustrates the flimsiness of the MI theory and lack of substance for its premises:
    "...Scientists must ... undertake a good faith effort to make sure that the fruits of science are applied wisely and not foolishly. ... Let me introduce an example from my own work as a cognitive psychologist. Nearly twenty years ago, I developed a new theory of intelligence called the theory of multiple intelligences. While I thought that this theory would be of interest primarily to other psychologists, I soon discovered that it was of considerable interest to educators all over the world. Educators began to make all kinds of applications of the theory. I was intrigued and flattered by this interest. ...
       "About ten years later, I received a message from a colleague in Australia. He said, 'Your multiple intelligences ideas are being used in Australia and you won't like the way that they are being used.' I asked him to send me the materials and he did so. My colleague was absolutely correct. The more that I read these materials, the less I liked them. The 'smoking gun' was a sheet of paper on which each of the ethnic and racial groups in Australia was listed, together with an explicit list of the intelligences in which a putatively strong and an accompanying list of intelligences in which they were putatively weak.
       "This stereotyping represented a complete perversion of what I personally believed in. If I did not speak up, who would? Who should? And so, I went on television in Australia and criticized the program as pseudo-science. That critique, along with others, sufficed to result in the cancellation of the project."

    -- Howard Gardner, "The Ethical Responsibilities of Scientists," an essay in "Science Literacy for the 21st Century."
    In other words:

    When MI was being cited by educators to use hunches and guesses to stamp labels on kids in entirely insupportable and potentially damaging ways, Gardner was "intrigued and flattered." But later when someone in Australia was using the same system of hunches and guesses to stamp labels on ethnic groups in entirely insupportable and damaging ways, Gardner was understandably appalled, calling it "stereotyping", "a complete perversion" and "pseudo-science"!

    What Gardner fails to appreciate is that the same lack of scientific rigor is evident in the application and methods in both of these cases.


  • Education expert Chester Finn wrote this parody of Multiple Intelligences as an April Fool's Day news story:
    147 Forms of Human Intelligence Cited by Harvard Expert
    Famed Harvard University scholar Chauncey Gardner, in a book that he terms "the summation of my life's quest for heretofore undiscovered forms of human intelligence," reports that a total of 147 different intelligences have "absolutely, positively, you betcha" been found. In addition to such previously reported forms as bodily-kinesthetic intelligence and intellectual intelligence, the new discoveries include fashion intelligence, wine-and-cheese intelligence, sports car intelligence, drug-enhanced intelligence and baseball intelligence. Gardner insists, however, that there is no such thing as "central" intelligence, despite the federal government's agency by that name.

  • For a truly funny satire of the MI concept, see this article from The Onion:
    "Parents of Nasal Learners Demand Odor-Based Curriculum."

  • In this subtle and funny paper, Learning Styles: Freud's Seminal Contribution to Learning Styles, Dr. Kerry Hempenstall asks whether we should be just as concerned about other types of learners, such as oral learners (who "learn the alphabet best from eating alphabet soup") and latent learners (who are "not ready for learning yet, and the appropriate teaching strategy is to do nothing").

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