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  • Writer's pictureJulien Morizio

Multiple Intelligences: Flawed but still Useful

Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is well-known in education. However, it is not universally accepted. I remember, during my undergraduate studies, most professors would expect you to refer to it when using differentiated instruction. On one occasion though, a professor with a psychology background said that this theory had been debunked and was no longer relevant. I had difficulty reconciling both stances: one regarded the theory of multiple intelligences as a pillar of modern pedagogy, the other denounced it completely.

I looked into it a little more and learned that the issue has more to do with conclusions educators derived from this theory rather than the theory itself. Many have confused Gardner's notion of intelligence with learning style, conflating the two. It then follows that if a student has high visual-spatial intelligence, then they are to be labeled as a visual learner. Their teacher, practicing differentiated instruction, would therefore make sure to always include a visual representation for everything they teach. The same would be done for the auditory and kinesthetic learners. While that might seem pedagogically sound, it can be limiting. Gardner himself stated that the idea of learning styles is "a hypothesis of how an individual approaches a range of materials." The individual might have a preference for how to approach certain materials, but they surely are not limited to a single way of doing so. Learning is more complex than that.

In Gardner's theory, the intelligences are more like cognitive abilities than learning styles, and everyone possesses all of them to varying degrees. For example, just because a person has intrapersonal intelligence does not mean that they are disqualified from having or developing interpersonal intelligence. The same is true for all other intelligences: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, naturalistic, and bodily-kinesthetic. There may very well be other forms of intelligence that have not yet been discovered.

While the idea behind Gardner's theory is good, psychologists and neuroscientists take issue with it because it is not scientifically sound. Cognitive research science does not support the theory. As Waterhouse explains, there are a shared set of genes and overlapping processing pathways that are associated with mathematics, reading, music, and motor skills. They could therefore not be separated into distinct abilities (Waterhouse, p. 213, 2006). Furthermore, Gardner's theory was never backed by enough empirical evidence to be accepted among the scientific community.

Why do educators still refer to it then? As I wrote, while the science might not be accurate, the idea itself is good. Not only that, but adhering to its premise that children have various abilities at varying degrees encourages educators to design diverse and engaging lessons. The theory itself might not be supported by research, but pedagogical practice inspired by it certainly is. Recent studies have shown that varying the ways in which students access content improves their learning (Hattie, 2011). Students have different strengths and needs that, when identified, should be used to inform instruction to make it more effective (Tomlinson, 2014). Also, "providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills increases engagement and learning, and provides teachers with more accurate understanding of students' knowledge and skills (Darling-Hammond, 2010)" (Edutopia).



  • Experience

  • Cherry, K. (2019, July 17). Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Very Well Mind.

  • Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). Performance Counts: Assessment Systems that Support High-Quality Learning. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

  • Edutopia. (2013, March 8). Multiple Intelligences: What Does the Research Say?. George Lucas Educational Foundation.

  • Hattie, J. (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

  • Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

  • Waterhouse, L. (2006). Multiple intelligences, the mozart effect, and emotional intelligence: a critical review. Educational Psychologist, 41(4), 207–225.

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