Stop Using Multiple Intelligence Theory in the Classroom


Multiple  Intelligence Theory has little or no place in the classroom, and teachers should stop using multiple intelligence theory and avoid inventories that purport to tell learners what “type” of learner they are.

Now that I’ve made all the hair on your neck stand up, please allow me to explain.

The legend begins

In the book Made to Stick,the authors discuss how urban legends spread and become “sticky” – meaning that people remember them and they go viral. This is what happened with Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. It morphed from his original idea (which few actually know) into the idea that we are all somehow “gifted” in different ways and can only learn when taught (or learn most effectively when taught) in that way.

The idea stuck to educational theory (some may say it was hijacked by pedagogy) and has become so rampant that you literally cannot avoid it. Teachers were made to feel that if they didn’t reach all their “kinesthetic learners” then they were somehow sub-standard.

The legend unravels

Not that long ago, however, an interesting paper appeared in Educational Psychologist. This paper, published by Lynn Waterhouse, began the conversation whose essential idea was “The emperor has no clothes.”

Enter Christopher Ferguson, a professor at Texas A&M, who, after looking at the research, agreed with Waterhouse. In his view (read an article here), the MI theory is more philosophical than research-based. Even more, it makes people feel good. So what if I can’t read – my interpersonal skills are out of this world!

But what’s the harm? Even if Waterhouse, Ferguson, and others clearly demonstrate that MI is pedagogical snake oil, so what? The harm is that teachers and school districts spend precious resources trying to make instruction fit a false model. Does that mean that MI techniques are useless?

No, but it means that you cannot say that because a teacher has one style that only appeals to so-called “auditory learners” that that teacher is somehow inferior. You also can’t say that because a teacher does use them that he or she is effective. It’s not good neuroscience, which means it’s not good pedagogy.

Believe me, visual learner or no, if someone yells “Fire!” I’m learning. I don’t need a picture.

The crux of the matter

This, then is the true crux of it:  Focusing on MI takes teachers away from the things that truly do make for effective teaching.

It is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic for an ineffective teacher to incorporate a bunch of MI theory when the core teaching is lacking.

Howard Gardner himself says this: “Sometimes people speak about a “visual” learner or an “auditory” learner. The implication is that some people learn through their eyes, others through their ears. This notion is incoherent…[T]he concept of intelligences does not focus on how linguistic or spatial information reaches the brain—via eyes, ears, hands, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the power of the mental computer, the intelligence, that acts upon that sensory information, once picked up.” (You can read more of what he said here.)

The lessons:

Beware of theory. Read the research yourself. And don’t think that because they didn’t act it out they aren’t going to remember it.

Introduce students to information in lots of ways because allows for review without boredom, not because some “naturalist” learner is going to drop out of school because you didn’t spell out Emily Dickinson’s poems in twigs.

Here’s professor Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia explaining it in a video for all you visual learners…

Stop using multiple intelligence theory and start teaching way you think is best.




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