Multiple Intelligences Theory & Learning Styles – Science or Quack?

February 3rd, 2014 8 Comments Features


It’s been 30 years since the theory of multiple intelligences was proposed by Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University. The “eight intelligences,” which ranged from bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to naturalist intelligence, explained why students could succeed at one type of task and fail at others. Teachers started regarding their students as having different intelligences not based on a general quotient but rather on individual capacities, and adult learners began examining potentials they’d left behind in childhood but now had the opportunity to develop through courses, hobbies, or other programs of self-development.

And that’s as far as the theory should have been taken.

Unfortunately, much like the learning styles theory and the right-brain-left-brain paradigm, multiple intelligences has skyrocketed into popularity while oversimplifying the nature of the human brain and further pigeonholing students into narrow categories.

“Why,” asks Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, “are we referring to musical, athletic, and interpersonal skills as intelligences?”

Gardner himself has noted on several occasions that the success of his first book on MI rested, in part, on this new label: “I am quite confident that if I had written a book called “˜[Eight] Talents’ it would not have received the attention that Frames of Mind received.”

The term intelligence has always connoted the kind of thinking skills that make one successful in school, perhaps because the first intelligence test was devised to predict likely success in school; if it was important in school, it was on the intelligence test.

“Readers made the natural assumption that Gardner’s new intelligences had roughly the same meaning and so drew the conclusion that if humans have a type of intelligence, then schools should teach it,” Willingham says.

What’s more, Gardner’s new definition self-consciously broadened the concept to include effective use of the body and thinking skills relevant to the social world. In Frames of Mind Gardner describes intelligence as “a biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.” Previous definitions had been limited to cognition or thought; one was intelligent to the extent that one could solve problems and adapt effectively to one’s environment using thinking skills. The body had no part in the matter.

But what we’ve missed, over the years, is that Gardner’s eight “intelligences” were never scientifically proven to be anything more than talents, preferences, and skills.

“Too many of the categories correlate too highly with one another to be separate intelligences,” says Christopher J. Ferguson, associate professor of behavioral and applied sciences at Texas A&M International University. “Cognitive performance on skills related to verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, and visual-spatial tasks, as well as many memory tasks, tends to be highly related.”

[Editor’s Note: Read more about neuroducation here.]

Only bodily-kinesthetic – the ability to manipulate one’s own body with dexterity – may truly represent a separate cognitive ability, probably stemming from cerebellar activity involved in fine motor control, he says. But it may be better represented as a neurophysiological trait than as intelligence.

In addition, despite its widespread popularity, the success of multiple intelligences theory as a teaching method is backed by very little hard data.

The most comprehensive study into the effectiveness of MI was a three-year examination of 41 schools that claim to use multiple intelligences. It was conducted in the early “˜90s by Mindy Kornhaber, a long-time Gardner collaborator. The results showed that standardized test scores increased in 78 percent of the schools, but Willingham says the scientific integrity of the study is questionable.

First, the results failed to indicate whether the increase in each school was statistically significant. If they weren’t, Willingham notes, then we would expect scores to increase in half the schools by chance anyway.

Second, there was no control group and thus no basis for comparison with other schools in their districts. Moreover, there is no way of knowing to what extent changes in the school were actually due to the implementation of MI. The energizing thrill of adopting a new school-wide program, new statewide standards, or some other unknown factor could just as easily have improved the quality of teaching.

The sheer fact that the theory is an inaccurate description of the mind, says Willingham, means that the more closely an educator draws on the theory, the less likely the educator is to be successful.

What About Learning Styles’ Success Stories?

The story is similar when it comes to learning styles theory, one of the most popular and widely adopted paradigms of the century.

In a controversial report from the journal of Psychological Science in the Public Interest (2009), Harold E. Pashler, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, wrote, “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 classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.”

The report was based on an exhaustive study of learning styles literature, aimed at finding empirical evidence for the validity of the theory. The panel concluded that an adequate evaluation of the learning styles hypothesis – the idea that optimal learning demands that students receive instruction tailored to their learning styles – required a particular kind of study. Specifically, students should be grouped into the learning style categories that are being evaluated (e.g. visual learners vs. verbal learners), and then students in each group must be randomly assigned to one of the learning methods (e.g. visual learning or verbal learning), so that some students will be “matched” and others will be “mismatched.” At the end of the experiment, all students must sit for the same test. This way, if the learning style hypothesis is correct, then, for example, visual learners should learn better with the visual method, whereas auditory learners should learn better with auditory method.

The panel found that studies utilizing this essential research design were virtually absent from the learning styles literature. In fact, the panel was able to find only a few studies with this research design, and all but one of these studies were negative findings – that is, they found that the same learning method was superior for all kinds of students.

But why do so many learning styles studies show positive effects? Hundreds of studies that do not meet Mr. Pashler’s stringent criteria for experimental design suggest – at least loosely – that students do better when instructors are trained in learning-styles theory.

One possibility, writes the Chronicle of Higher Education, is that the mere act of learning about learning styles prompts teachers to pay more attention to the kinds of instruction they are delivering. An instructor who attends a learning-styles seminar might start to offer a broader mixture of lectures, discussions, and laboratory work – and that variety of instruction might turn out to be better for all students, irrespective of any “matching.”

“Even though the learning-style idea might not work,” says Richard E. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “it might encourage teachers to think about how their students learn and what would be the best instructional methods for a particular lesson.”

[Editor’s Note: Read more about other learning strategies here.]

The same may be said for multiple intelligences theory.

Science: Inspiration or Guide?

So how do you balance the lack of scientific evidence with the presence of practical evidence? Willingham says there are two primary methods by which educators might use science to inform practice.

On the one hand, you can operate under the belief that scientific evidence on learning is consistent with how you teach. “Teachers inevitably have a theory – implicit or explicit – of how children learn,” he writes. “This theory influences choices teachers make in their practice. If you believe that science provides a good way to develop and update your theory of how children learn, then the harmony between this theory and your practice is one way that you build your own confidence that you’re teaching effectively.”

It would seem, then, that if you don’t see the scientific proof for a theory, you shouldn’t practice that theory. But it’s not that simple.

“It’s possible to have effective practices motivated by a theory that lacks scientific support. For example, certain acupuncture treatments were initially motivated by theories entailing chakras – energy fields for which scientific evidence is lacking. Still, some treatments motivated by the theory are known to be effective in pain management.”

Which leads us to the second method: Although multiple intelligences theory may lack scientific evidence, it is not necessarily going to lead to bad practice. However, it is advisable to use it as inspiration, not a guide.

“In talking with teachers, I think this second method is probably more common.” Teachers treat multiple intelligences theory not as sacred truth about how students learn, but as a way to “prime the creativity pump, to think about new angles on lesson plans.”

“We need to take extreme care when moving from the lab to the learning environment,” says John Geake, Professor of Education at the UK’s Oxford Brookes University and a research collaborator with Oxford University’s Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain. “We do remember things visually and aurally, but information isn’t defined by how it was received.”

And neither should learning theory.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

8 Responses

  1. SAY KENG LEE says:

    Interesting reading, and I like your closing remarks!

    My own personal philosophy of dealing with ”new theories” or ”new strategies” or ”new ways of doing things”, in spite of the lack of scientific evidence, is very simple:

    Absorb what useful; reject what’s useless; research my own experience, and add what is specifically my own.

    • Saga Briggs says:

      A great philosophy! What’s “useful” and “useless” varies from person to person… find whatever works for you and run with it. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Erubecula says:

    Like all these things, one can selectively choose scientific research to bolster one claim or another. So is there experimental evidence for ‘multiple intelligences’ – I fear that there is (unlike Professor Willingham’s claim to the contrary), or at least there is as much as there is of the concept of ‘intelligence’ (which is a mathematical construct – not a ‘thing’ – which originates from factor analyses). Gardner himself answers questions that Prof. Willingham poses such as why are there ‘musical intelligences’ and so on.

    Whilst the theory maybe sound (I believe it is) the application maybe missing wide off the mark. We don’t believe that one should ‘teach’ ‘multiple intelligences’ in a school setting, rather the theory helps to answer questions about curriculum content and in particular pedagogy.

    The problem with learning styles research could be as much about experimental protocol (and ethics) as it is about the phenomena being present (or not).

    This doesn’t change the fact that in practice educators find it extremely useful to NOT teach in only one standardized manner and instead focus on predispositions of students as they approach a topic. I believe this is what Say Keng Lee is advocating. Certainly something that Sir Ken Robinson has a lot to say on (look him up on TED talks).

    • Hector says:

      I’m sorry to tell you that Prof. Willingham is right. There’s no scientific evidence proving that Gardner’s intelligences are anything more than talents, preferences, and skills. But you can believe whatever you want and avoid reading scientific papers on the intelligence topic. It’s easier that way and surely you’ll be happier thinking that “one can selectively choose scientific research to bolster one claim or another” and never checking it by yourself. If eventually you take a little time reviewing scientific papers on the matter, please have your mind open: probably your convictions will be compromised.

  3. Everybody have talents and multiple intelligences. But I belive the great changes come from inside to out of ourselves. If we can join our strengths with others, we can get better…Personal leadership and social entrepreneurs, with Interpersonal inteligence .

  4. Andrew Calvert says:

    Great article. I agree with Say Keng on the closing remarks. But I also fear that the thinking behind MI can lead to an attitude whereby you effectively give up on making students a, b or c into better readers and writers. You inherent aptitude for reading and writing doesn’t make them any less primary as means of communicating occupational and political information and ideas.
    All in all I think it’s unsatisfactory that we are left to wade through so much uncertainly just because testing and research is so poorly done in general! Making every patient a test-patient wouldn’t be accepted in the medical profession!

  5. John Ashley says:

    I have observed that many theorist provide tools by which to access the individuals learning, memories and recall. The broader ‘one’ can access the individuals senses and positive reactivity the stronger a learning experience can be. One son was failing mathematics and hadn’t learnt the process of answering questions. Then he learnt that all learning has some kind of process and subsequently to write down the formula, then the equation and some working and went from 40% to 75% and stayed in that zone. Problem was he needed to work the calculator correctly and that would have put him into the 90 percentile. Prof Willingham gives us an intelligent point of access to teach and learn, and that is super useful to me.

  6. Home-Educating Mother says:

    I’m a home-schooling mother of a severely Dyslexic son whom I was told would not be able to enter into High School -despite, being of normal cognitive (I paid for a private clinical assesment through a child psychologist, of his full IQ score), because my son is unable to write or read. The public education system has been unable to teach him even his ABC’s, for the 5 years it’s had him as a student.

    My son is excelling in Home-Education (although I do -and I say this with much humility- have a degree much higher than anyone teaching him at his primary school, so perhaps this helps). My son had gone from only writing out his ABC’s in grade 5 to writing full paragraphs in only two months.

    The Multiple Intelligences theroy has influenced my teaching style a lot. I’m not advocating for it to be implented in all schools across the country, in all situations, but in the case of learning disorders, or special education, often involving aspects -or “talents”- that a student is good at, and entwining them into their learning methods can help get that student out of a rut.

    Even the International Association of Dyslexia recommends using a “multi-sensory” approach, which isn’t that different really than a lot of what’s entailled by the Multiple Intellegences theory -in practicality. They two theories actually work rather well together, when you throw out the useless parts, as someone above also advocated.

    The Multiple Intelligences theory test is actually a very good starting point, I beleive, I finding strengths a Dyslexic (or Learning Disordered) child may have, and building neural networks between a child’s current stengths and the new basic reading and writing material they must learn. It appears, to me at least, to be very useful in helping children with special needs to suceed.

    Which is basically, what the above article is advocating anyway -inspiration, but not “sacred truth”.

    *sorry in advance, for any spelling/grammatical errors. This was very hastily written. I’m too busy to go back and check it 🙂

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