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"
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Understanding Multiple Intelligences
- "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
- "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
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.
"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."
"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 ..."
"a false sense that learning has taken place when it has not"
- "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 observations...is 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."
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
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."
parent's group in west suburban Batavia posted a page
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
'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
- 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:
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"
"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
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 and 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. ...
In other words:
"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
"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."
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 potentially damaging ways,
Gardner was understandably appalled, calling it "stereotyping", "a complete perversion"
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").