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Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 3rd Edition

by Thomas Armstrong

Table of Contents

Chapter 15. MI Theory and Its Critics

Gardner's theory provides a much needed corrective to the shortcomings of traditional psychometric approaches. Instead of probing the bases of bubble-sheet results, Gardner sought to illuminate the mental abilities underlying the actual range of human accomplishment that are found across cultures.
—Mindy Kornhaber

Along with the expanding popularity of multiple intelligences, there has been a growing body of writing critical of the theory. In fact, one of the criticisms lodged against MI theory is that there has not been enough acknowledgment of the critical literature on the part of MI advocates. Willingham (2004), for example, observes: "Textbooks [on MI theory] for teachers in training generally offer extensive coverage of the theory, with little or no criticism" (p. 24). Traub (1998) writes: "Few of the teachers and administrators I talked to were familiar with the critiques of multiple intelligence theory; what they knew was that the theory worked for them. They talked about it almost euphorically" (p. 22). In this chapter, I'd like to review some of the major criticisms of MI, and attempt to clear up what I believe are some key misconceptions about the theory.

Criticism #1: MI Theory Lacks Empirical Support

Most of those making this complaint about MI theory come from the psychometric, or testing, community. Gottfredson (2004), for example, argues that the literature on intelligence testing offers virtually no support for the idea of eight autonomous intelligences but overwhelming support for the concept of an overarching single intelligence, frequently attributed to Spearman (1927) and often referred to as "Spearman's g" or simply "the g factor." (See also Brody, 2006.) Gottfredson (2004) writes:

The g factor was discovered by the first mental testers, who found that people who scored well on one type of mental test tended to score well on all of them. Regardless of their contents (words, numbers, pictures, shapes), how they are administered (individually or in groups; orally, in writing, or pantomimed), or what they're intended to measure (vocabulary, mathematical reasoning, spatial ability), all mental tests measure mostly the same thing. This common factor, g, can be distilled from scores on any broad set of cognitive tests, and it takes the same form among individuals of every age, race, sex, and nation yet studied. In other words, the g factor exists independently of schooling, paper-and-pencil tests, and culture. (p. 35)

Visser, Ashton, and Vernon (2006) actually put together a battery of 16 tests ostensibly covering the eight intelligences (two tests for each intelligence) and discovered the presence of g running through most of the tests. These researchers argued that what Gardner calls intelligences are actually capacities that are secondary or even tertiary to the g factor. In other words, they exist but are subservient to g. J. B. Carroll (1993), who created his own hierarchy of human cognitive abilities, with g at the top, compares linguistic intelligence to "fluid intelligence" and musical intelligence to "auditory perception" (a mistake on his part, because the multiple intelligences are not dependent upon the senses), while finding no place at all for bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

Response to Criticism #1

MI theory agrees that the g factor exists. What it disputes, however, is that g is superior to other forms of human cognition. In MI theory, g has its place (primarily in logical-mathematical intelligence) as an equal alongside of the other seven intelligences. It appears that what is most at stake here is a matter of semantics. Most critics in the psychometric community agree that the intelligences in Gardner's model exist and are supported by testing. What they disagree about is whether or not they should be called "intelligences." They want to reserve the word "intelligence" for the g factor, while regarding the other seven intelligences as talents, abilities, capacities, or faculties. Gardner (2003) has written that he intended to be provocative in referring to multiple "intelligences" rather than multiple "talents." He wanted to challenge the sacrosanct nature of "intelligence" as a singular phenomenon and get people to think more deeply about what it means to be intelligent. The fact that he has stirred up so much controversy from the psychometric community suggests that he has accomplished his goal. The reality is that MI theory is supported empirically from a number of sources. In Frames of Mind (1993a), Gardner established eight criteria that needed to be met in order for an intelligence to appear in his theory (see Chapter 1). Each of these eight criteria provides a range of empirical data, from studies of brain-damaged individuals and "savant" populations, to evidence from prehistoric humanity and other species, to biographical studies of human development and research on human cultures. As Gardner (2004) notes, nothing substantial has emerged in the past 25 years to seriously challenge his theory. Posner (2004), for example, observes that recent neuroimaging research supports Gardner's idea of separate areas of the brain being related to different intelligences. Ironically, the fact that the psychometric community has stayed within the narrow confines of numbers and standardized testing actually limits its ability to give broad empirical support to the notion of a pure g-factor intelligence (Gottfredson's argument notwithstanding, g appears to measure "school-like" thinking; see Gardner, 2006b). On the other hand, MI's multiple sources of empirical data considerably expand its validity as a theoretical construct.

Criticism #2: No Solid Research Support for MI Exists in the Classroom

This criticism parallels the first one in suggesting that MI has no empirical support (or, to put it in a more contemporary context, "MI is not research-based"). Here we are concerned, however, not with pure theory but, rather, with its practical applications in schools. Collins (1998), for example, writes that "evidence for the specifics of Gardner's theory is weak, and there is no firm research showing that its practical applications have been effective" (p. 95). Willingham (2004) writes:

… hard data are scarce. The most comprehensive study was a three-year examination of 41 schools that claim to use multiple intelligences. It was conducted by Mindy Kornhaber, a longtime Gardner collaborator. The results, unfortunately, are difficult to interpret. They reported that standardized test scores increased in 78 percent of the schools, but they failed to indicate whether the increase in each school was statistically significant. If not, then we would expect scores to increase in half the schools by chance. Moreover, there was no control group, and thus no basis for comparison with other schools in their districts. Furthermore, there is no way of knowing to what extent changes in the school are due to the implementation of ideas of multiple intelligences rather than, for example, the energizing thrill of adopting a new schoolwide program, new statewide standards, or some other unknown factor. (p. 24)

Response to Criticism #2

Perhaps the greatest problem with the argument that MI is not research-based is that it is founded upon a very narrow conception of what constitutes authentic research. In the restrictive climate of the No Child Left Behind law, the idea of "valid research" has been severely limited to highly controlled studies using standardized tests and quantitative tools based on correlation coefficients and levels of statistical significance. One government definition of the "gold standard" in educational research is provided in a "user-friendly guide" published by the U.S. Department of Education (2003):

For example, suppose you want to test, in a randomized controlled trial, whether a new math curriculum for 3rd graders is more effective than your school's existing math curriculum for 3rd graders. You would randomly assign a large number of 3rd grade students to either an intervention group, which uses the new curriculum, or to a control group, which uses the existing curriculum. You would then measure the math achievement of both groups over time. The difference in math achievement between the two groups would represent the effect of the new curriculum compared to the existing curriculum. (p. 1)

There are many problems, however, with using this type of ostensibly "rigorous" methodology to validate the success of multiple intelligences in the classroom. First, multiple intelligences do not represent a specific program such as, for example, Direct Instruction (Marchand-Martella, Slocum, & Martella, 2003), which is implemented uniformly by all trained teachers. As can be seen from reading the previous chapters of this book, MI represents a wide range of techniques, programs, attitudes, tools, strategies, and methods, and each teacher is encouraged to develop his or her own unique approach to implementing them. Therefore, it is impractical to conduct controlled studies of the kind Willingham demands since multiple intelligences in one classroom could be very different from multiple intelligences in another classroom and because even the "control classroom" would probably be using multiple intelligence strategies to some extent. (In other words, how do you find a "pure" MI classroom and a control group that uses absolutely no MI to compare it with?) Second, to demand a certain level of statistical significance from a study, as Willingham does, is to risk rejecting an educational intervention simply for "missing the cut" (e.g., if the level of statistical significance were .05, then a level of .06 would be considered "insignificant"). McCloskey and Ziliak (2008) suggest that using statistical significance as a quantitative analysis tool is often misguided even in the hard sciences. Third, to reduce the success or failure of a study to mere numbers is to reject other valid sources of a program's effectiveness, including individual case studies of children's learning improvement, parent reports of improved attitudes toward school, and documentation of learning progress through projects, problem solving, and portfolios (see Chapter 10). The demand for quantitative precision in education is an unfortunate nod toward positivism—the idea that ultimate truth can be expressed only through numbers or similarly precise scientific formulations (see Comte, 1988). There are many other thinkers in the Western intellectual tradition who argue for the validity of qualitative forms of research (see, for example, Dilthey, 1989; Gadamer, 2005; and Polyani, 1974), and it is methodologies derived from these philosophers that are especially appropriate to use in guiding educational research (see, for example, Denzin & Lincoln, 2005).

The fact is that there are many examples of successful implementation of MI theory in educational programs around the world (see also Chapter 16). In addition to the study mentioned by Willingham (Kornhaber, Fierros, & Veenema, 2003), which also noted increased levels of parent participation, deceased levels of discipline problems, and increased academic performance for students with learning difficulties, there have been a number of research projects initiated by Harvard Project Zero that have won accolades over the years, including Project Spectrum (Gardner, Feldman, & Krechevsky, 1998a, 1998b, 1998c), Practical Intelligences for School (Williams et al., 1996), and Arts Propel (Zessoules & Gardner, 1991), which was called by Newsweek magazine one of the two best educational programs in the United States (the other was the graduate school of the California Institute of Technology [Chideya, 1991]). The American Educational Research Association has had a special interest group (MI-SIG) dedicated to multiple intelligences research since 1999, where researchers have presented hundreds of papers providing validation of MI in numerous educational contexts. (MI-SIG hosts an online database of over 200 doctoral dissertation abstracts concerned with multiple intelligences that can be accessed at the following URL: To celebrate the 20th anniversary of multiple intelligences theory, an entire issue of the prestigious Teachers College Record at Columbia University was dedicated to the work of multiple intelligences researchers and theoreticians in 2004 (Shearer, 2004). In addition, the educational literature is replete with examples of individual schools and teachers who have shared in different ways their successes in implementing MI theory (see, for example, Campbell & Campbell, 2000; Greenhawk, 1997; Hoerr, 2000; and Kunkel, 2007). To reject MI theory as not research-based simply because there are no inappropriately precise research studies that attempt to mimic research from the hard sciences is to deprive children of a wealth of positive interventions that can open new doors to the world of knowledge.

Criticism #3: MI Theory Dumbs Down the Curriculum to Make All Students Mistakenly Believe They Are Smart

Some critics have accused MI practitioners of using superficial applications of MI theory—strategies of which even Gardner himself would not approve. Willingham (2004), for example, has criticized previous editions of this very book for its "trivial ideas" (he cites two spelling strategies—singing spelling words and spelling with leaves and twigs—as his examples of trivial applications). Collins (1998) criticizes strategies from another multiple intelligences curriculum guide (not by this author) referring to a unit concerned with learning about the oceans, where students build boats and role-play at being sea creatures. He writes of a child using bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to learn U.S. history: "How deeply can a student comprehend a given topic by relying on his strongest intelligence? Using his hands, Dave may be able to learn about the boats of the settlers, but can a kinesthetic approach help him understand central historical issues, like the reasons the Europeans came to America in the first place?" (p. 96). Similarly, critics have suggested that MI theory promulgates an artificial "feel-good" attitude where every child is told that he or she is smart. Barnett, Ceci, and Williams (2006) write: "… mere re labeling may not have a permanent curative effect. … Focusing on the label rather than on meaningful performances that demonstrate skill may lead children to become further disillusioned once the first blush passes." They indicate that "the focus must be on displaying meaningful skills and competencies, not simply on feeling that one is smart" (p. 101).

Response to Criticism #3

Willingham was wrong to take two spelling strategies out of a book containing over a thousand ideas and make them represent the whole of Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (this, I believe, is known as a "straw man" argument and is an example of a logical fallacy). If all a teacher did to apply MI theory in the classroom was to use these two spelling strategies, I too would criticize the effort. But the intention of this book (and many others like it, I believe) is to show how MI theory can be used in the service of a wide range of practical pedagogical goals, from lower-order rote skills like spelling (which some teachers actually do care about!) to higher-order thinking strategies such as those used in the Christopherian encounters discussed in Chapter 12 (see also Figure 12.1 for an example of a clear differentiation between levels of cognitive complexity using MI theory).

It is true that during my 22 years of training teachers in MI I have all too often seen teachers take the easy way out—believing, for instance, that "rapping math facts" meant they were doing multiple intelligences. But I have also seen many wonderfully original ideas related to MI theory come out of the minds of experienced teachers over the years. Collins (1998) doubts whether it is possible to use bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to teach the historical factors that led Europeans to come to America. However, a well-designed role-play that imaginatively puts students at Plymouth Rock on November 11, 1620, and has them improvise reasons why they decided to leave England gives the highly dramatic learner an opportunity to think this objective through in a highly physical way.

It is also true that it is not enough merely to tell students that they are smart in eight different ways and expect them to blossom. This has to be followed up with solid academic effort leading to tangible improvements in knowledge of history, math, science, reading, and other basic subjects. The argument of MI theory is that it is not enough to produce this kind of understanding of the disciplines through textbooks, lectures, and standardized tests, but that something more is required. Students need to investigate ideas in world history, chemistry, ecology, literature, economics, algebra, and other domains by involving their whole selves (and whole brains), and this includes using their bodies, imagination, social sensibilities, emotions, and naturalistic inclinations, as well as their verbal and reasoning skills.

It is interesting to note that most of the criticisms of MI theory have come from academics and journalists—people who are usually far removed from the classroom. Few criticisms actually come from those who have applied the theory in their classrooms and seen it make a difference in their students' lives. This suggests a profound split between generalists, who can find lots of logical holes in MI theory, and practitioners, who are too busy looking for ways to motivate children and for methods to turn their lives around to worry about a few logical inconsistencies or insufficiencies.

MI theory was not originally designed by Howard Gardner as an educational model to be applied in the classroom. He initially wanted to convince academic psychometricians that there was another, broader way of conceiving intelligence. Ironically, despite arousing controversy, he seems to have failed in this effort. And yet, unexpectedly, he found teachers responding enthusiastically to his model because it filled a need that had not been met by an educational establishment too concerned with standardized measures and lock-step textbook approaches to learning. Instead of treating children as colorless denizens of a bell curve, MI theory revealed the positive qualities of each child and provided practical ways for each child to experience success in the classroom. Thus, the most authentic refutation of the critics of MI can be found in the children themselves. Whenever a light goes on in a child's mind in a well-designed MI classroom, the argument supporting MI theory becomes that much stronger and clearer.

For Further Study

  1. Read some of the articles critical of multiple intelligences cited in this chapter (e.g., Barnett et al., 2006; Brody, 2006; Collins, 1998; Gottfredson, 2004; Traub, 1998; Visser et al., 2006; Waterhouse, 2006; Willingham, 2004). Which aspects of their criticism do you agree with? Which aspects do you disagree with? Does your attitude toward MI theory change as a result of reading this critical literature? If so, how?
  2. Howard Gardner has provided a number of responses to criticisms of MI theory, including to some of the above-mentioned authors (Gardner, 2006a, 2006b, 2006c; Gardner & Moran, 2006). Read the original critics and then some of his responses to them, and evaluate the success or failure of his defense of MI theory.
  3. In other writing (Armstrong, 2006), I have suggested that today's educational climate is characterized by an overemphasis on academic performance as measured by standardized testing and an underemphasis on the education of the whole child. To what extent has this restrictive atmosphere given rise to the criticisms noted above?
  4. Using some of the materials discussed above, organize a debate on MI theory, with one individual or team taking a pro-MI stance and the other individual or team taking an anti-MI stance. Afterward, discuss who did the most effective job of defending their position.
  5. Interview colleagues and other school personnel about their attitudes toward MI theory and whether they have changed their opinion about it over the past 10 years. If they have a different attitude about it now than previously, ask them to share the reasons for their change in opinion.


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