Howard Gardner: Why the theory is wrong
By Kelvin Smythe
Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory: Sounds good, but the basis is wrong
I support the general outcomes of implications of the Multiple Intelligence Theory (MIT) and look for schools to have a broad vision of education and use a variety of methodologies and activities to develop a wide range of abilities in children, not just concentrate on the linguistic and logical ones. (Gardner’s first important publication was ‘Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences’ 1983.) My commonsense tells me that this is the right approach for schools; however, my commonsense also tells me that the listing of the intelligences in the way Gardner goes about it, and justifies it, is wrong. It is also important for teachers to know that Gardner’s theory is widely criticised in the scientific research community. This posting will also argue we should look to our own traditions for inspiration. This should encompass agitating against the withering effect of managerialism on our willingness to act imaginatively and boldly.
For me, the most significant concern, however, is that we do not need an overseas expert to tell us something we already know: that children can have differing abilities – and listen with awe, and considerable expense, to that idea because ‘abilities’ is replaced with ‘intelligences’. It is a rubric of networkonnet that we should stop looking overseas for education theories to support ideas we already know about teaching and learning, and build on our own traditions. An argument regularly brought forward to support the MIT is the reputation some schools have gained as a result of incorporating it into their philosophy and practice. This could be explained in two ways: schools interested in basing their practice on MIT are likely to be self-selectively successful; and, such a move by schools qualifies perfectly for the Hawthorne effect to apply (that is, the increased attention to whatever is happening being a major factor in any success claimed).
Gardner’s theory is that the accepted interpretation of intelligence, expressed, for instance in general intelligence tests, does not adequately cover the wide range of abilities people display. He originally listed seven intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Recently, Gardner has added naturalistic, and he is working on other intelligences like spiritual, existential and moral. An outcome of this theory has been advocacy for child-centred education, and the use of a variety of activities to suit the various ‘intelligences’, as well as activities to strengthen areas of weakness. The attractiveness of this outcome to New Zealand teachers, and to me, is undeniable. But the only thing new to us is the use of the word ‘intelligences’. We have always criticised the narrowness of standardised intelligence tests, and understood intelligence to be about the cognitive or mental capacity of the individual – a definition that includes all the ‘intelligences’ in Gardner’s list, and by the way, existential (the ability to reflect on philosophical questions) thinking, as well.
One of the difficulties with Gardner is that he has not come up with any agreed definition of intelligence. At first, he defined it as the ability to solve problems that have value in a culture, or as something a student is interested in. Subsequently, however, he said he had no fixed definition, and his intelligences are more of an artistic judgement. Fair enough, too, good on him, however, it is an artistic judgement we could make, and did make, ourselves.
Gardner points out that his intelligences assume a relative value according to their social context. This has an admirably democratic quality to it, but it probably places his ideas in the realm of rhetoric not science. Rhetoric in education theory has strong precedents, but its justification should be from within its own tradition. Gardner says ‘I balk at the unwarranted assumption that certain human abilities can be arbitrarily singled out as intelligence while others cannot’. There is validity in this argument. However, while we can identify, say, linguistic ‘intelligence’, what do we know about underlying processes. How do the underlying processes of the ‘intelligences’ work and how do they interact with the other ‘intelligences’? I can agree with dismissing the idea of single factor constructs of intelligence, but Gardner’s list, on the basis of my reading and judgement, does not stand up. I predict in the time ahead, the model that will hold is a hierarchical model in which there is general factor supplemented by numerous special mental abilities.
When I sit back and let Gardner’s ideas wash over me, there is something about them that seem familiar, an echo, then I realise what and where – cognitive learning styles. Gardner’s list is very similar to a list that cognitive style advocates would come up with. However, a consideration of the degree of soundness, usefulness, and practicality of cognitive style theory will wait to another day.
Gardner’s ideas on intelligence have supported enlightened practice, but it is enlightened practice New Zealand primary teachers are well capable of arriving at themselves. We need to be cautious about the rush of overseas ideas we have made so welcome. To some extent, though, I believe this welcoming is a response to the aridity and technocratic nature of our official curriculum, and the managerialism and manipulation within our schools. We have welcomed back our own ideas, in different clothing, as an escape from where we are in our curriculum. Teachers need to wrest back more control of what they do from bureaucrats, especially those in the review office. And our curriculum people need to be liberated. Take our advisers, for instance, they should be freed from their bureaucratic output procedures, from the managerial roles they play in schools, from advising on what they are not experts at or enthusiasts about, and encouraged to be original in what they are.