Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Multiple Intelligences are Not Learning Styles

Image from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.5]
Last week I wrote some of my thoughts about learning styles--and how they probably don't actually exist. I was pretty stunned when I originally read the research about this, but as I'm thinking more and more about it, I'm finding myself in agreement.

But my next question is about Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences, which I have closely equated to learning styles, in practice at least, and when I'm honest, in my thinking as well.

Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences, in a nutshell, expresses that intelligence is not a unitary trait; that is, intelligence is not something you have or don't have. Traditionally, this is how intelligence was described: either you are intelligent (you smartypants, you) or you are unintelligent (hey, dummy!) (That's pretty nasty, isn't it? Sorry.)

Gardner's theory sets this on it's ear: in Multiple Intelligence theory, there are--as the very name explains it--multiple ways of being intelligent. When Gardner first proposed this theory in the 1980's, he listed seven different ways intelligence is exhibited, and since has added an eighth, and is still considering others. Here are the eight currently-accepted intelligences:
  • linguistic ("word smart")
  • logical-mathematical ("math smart")
  • visual-spatial ("space smart")
  • bodily-kinesthetic ("movement smart")
  • musical ("music smart")
  • interpersonal ("relationship smart")
  • intrapersonal ("self smart")
  • naturalist ("classification smart")
The descriptors given above are my own, not Gardner's, but that's how I think of these and categorize these different ways of thinking.

Now, the problem with this is that the very names of some of these intelligences seems to equate them with a particular learning style ("visual" for example, or "kinesthetic.") But that isn't really the intent of an intelligence--it's not about a style, it's about a way of thinking or a way of knowing about the world. And, while I'm always open to evidence to the contrary, this seems like a pretty valid way of thinking about how people interact with the world around them.

The idea of the theory is that everyone has all of these intelligences to varying degrees, and that we may have individual strengths and weaknesses in different areas. You can probably imagine what this might look like: concert pianists are probably have high musical ability; athletes probably have high bodily-kinesthetic ability; engineers are probably have high logical-mathematical (and perhaps visual-spatial) ability. But the key idea here is that we all have a range of each of these intelligences. So an individual might have relatively high musical intelligence and linguistic intelligence, but relatively low bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

The thing about this is, in school, we tend to put a higher premium on linguistic intelligence (being able to read and write well) and logical-mathematical intelligence (being able to compute fluently and reason clearly) than the other intelligences. Oh, it's not that we don't want students to be musical, or athletic, or introspective. And we certainly want them to develop interpersonal skills. But when push comes to shove, most of what we focus on in school are these two ways of thinking. Most standardized tests focus on these two ways of thinking. The Common Core State Standards really only focus on these two ways of thinking. Even IQ tests, which have traditionally been used to measure intelligence (as if it were a unitary trait--either you have it or you don't) really only focus on these two areas.

I'm not suggesting that schools should diminish their emphasis on these two intelligences, but I think it makes sense to also emphasize other ways of thinking. Because I think we really do want our students to develop skills and abilities in all of these areas--they are all valuable and useful for all sorts of situations, both in school and out.

The problem for me has been that I have somehow gotten these different ways of thinking all intermixed with the idea of learning styles. I'm still thinking about this...and while I'm really feeling pretty sure that learning styles might not really be a real thing, I think that the multiple intelligence model still makes sense.

One thing that helped me in this is a piece from Gardner himself to explain how multiple intelligences are not learning styles. I encourage you to read it, and I hope it helps you clarify your thinking as well.

I'm left on this point: if learning styles are a bunch of baloney, we should distance ourselves from that mode of thinking. But if Multiple Intelligence theory holds water, what are the implications for schools? Should we do more to adjust our teaching practices to encourage growth in all of these intelligences?


  1. My understanding of Gardner is that most people (besides him) think of them as talents or strengths and weaknesses. They are places they excel at, and it is nice to think of them when we want to think about giving all our students a chance to excel, and our theories of intelligence definitely fall short of what they could be (I like Sternberg's Triarchic theory), but Gardner's theory cannot replace the more general intelligence theories.
    I often struggle with Garnder because he is trying to get everyone, but it still misses. I am very good at spatial knowledge in the real world (EG I have good mental maps so I don't get lost easily and I usually pick the correct tupperware size for my leftovers amount) but I cannot do geometry or manipulate shapes/spaces in my head. My husband is the opposite. Is this a failing of Gardner's visual-spatial, should it be further differentiated or are both of us just average in this type of intelligence and it looks different in practice? I lean towards Gardner is trying to give everyone a chance to be successful within his theory and it just isn't going to work in the end.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply, Luralyn. I know what you mean--I've read some of the critique of Gardner's theory too, and one of the biggest critiques from other cognitive psychologists is that these different intelligences seem to manifest in different ways for different individuals. Your spatial thinking example seem like a good example of this. But I'm not convinced that his theory is entirely unfounded. Maybe these different intelligences do look different in practice.

      I hope to keep reading more on this topic. As I've indicated, my experience teaching middle schoolers for many years makes me think that people really do have different strengths and relative weaknesses in these different areas. Whether or not they are different "intelligences" is a great question, and I'm still open to contrary evidence. I recognize that my experience with my students is anecdotal...that's probably the case for most people talking about MI theory. Maybe this goes back to Daniel Willingham's video embedded in my previous post about learning styles ( where he notes that this could be an example of confirmation bias.

      I definitely need to keep reading and thinking about this. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!