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John Simkin

Multiple Intelligences

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The theory of multiple intelligences (MI) was developed in 1983 by Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University. It suggests that the traditional notion of intelligence, based on I.Q. testing, is far too limited. Instead, Dr. Gardner proposes eight different intelligences to account for a broader range of human potential in children and adults. These intelligences are:

Linguistic intelligence ("word smart"):

Logical-mathematical intelligence ("number/reasoning smart")

Spatial intelligence ("picture smart")

Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence ("body smart")

Musical intelligence ("music smart")

Interpersonal intelligence ("people smart")

Intrapersonal intelligence ("self smart")

Naturalist intelligence ("nature smart")

Dr. Gardner's theory has become part of the dominant ideology in schools. However, is it true? John White, emeritus professor of philosophy of education, has recently published an essay calling into question MI. What is more, it is highly dangerous as it puts forward a restrictive view of intelligence. That it supports the notion that humans have a limited capacity set by a genetic code.

What do people think? Is MI a force for good or bad?

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I was at a conference in Örnsköldsvik in Sweden in 2000 which was all about learning styles. The keynote speaker was Dr Rita Dunn, who was the joint founder of the whole area of research (see http://www.learningstyles.net/2004/1_rd.html).

What impressed me about her various contributions that weekend was the broad and deep research base which underpinned the conclusions her team had come to about learning styles.

At one point in the conference she answered a question from the floor about the relationship between her team's theories and Gardner's theories about multiple intelligences. Her answer went something like this: "I've talked to Howard about this, and he says that his theories are just that - theories. It's up to others to devise the experiments which will prove or disprove them. What we're talking about, however, is the results of verifiable, peer-reviewed scientific experiments on thousands of subjects, which is a whole other ballgame."

I haven't followed the scientific debate myself since 2000, but it might well be that the distinction between a theory and the verified results of careful scientific experimentation hasn't been made clearly enough … which leaves the field free to the old familiar argument that the kids are just thick - if they aren't achieving anything, it's their own fault (nothing to do with how we organise our schools, set up our lessons, develop our societies, etc, etc).

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One other small point … I've been teaching for nearly 30 years now, and the longer I do it, the more difficult it is for me to give the term 'intelligence' any meaning at all. I can see abilities, and recognise that some people have more of them than others in any specific situation (I'm useless both at sewing and at the high jump), but I just can't see why certain abilities (such as the ability to understand the Latin subjunctive) are rated more highly than others (such as the ability to make a perfect joint between two copper pipes) - at least in school. Out in society, it's rather different, which is why plumbers get paid more than teachers!

So perhaps my greatest objection to the followers of Gardner (rather than the person himself) has to do with the whole question of intelligence. I'm quite prepared to believe that MI is better than IQ … but it wouldn't have to make much sense to make more sense than IQ!

There's a lovely passage in 'Hogfather' by Terry Pratchett about Susan Sto-Helit, Death's granddaughter, who's trying to make it work as a governess:

… And they'd been conscientious and kind and given her a good home, and even an education.

It had been a good education too. But it had only been later on that she'd realised that it had been an education in, well, education. It meant that if ever anyone needed to calculate the volume of a cone, then they could confidently call on Susan Sto-Helit … Anyone at a loss to recall … the square root of 27.4 would not find her wanting. If you needed someone who could talk about household items and things to buy in the shops in five languages, then Susan was at the head of the queue. Education had been easy.

Learning things had been harder.

Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.

(pp. 39-40 - ISBN 0-552-14542-4)

Perhaps the problem is that MI is all about education, rather than about learning.

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What do people think? Is MI a force for good or bad?

One problem I have with all this is the way in which MI and accelerated learning research has been applied in schools.

Devising a "test" to established a child's preferred learning style for instance is in my view fraught with difficulties. Not least what are we to do with the results? Does it mean for instance that a child must be taught in a particular way or that all lessons must be planned to cater for all learning styles at all times?

"You are a visual learner" is a new label to give a student but not necessarily a helpful one.

I also have a problem with the growth of the MI/AL industry of highly paid consultants touring schools with the new snake oil of "multiple smarts".

Headteachers and teachers in challenging environments are rather vulnerable to the unproven claims this industry makes of its systems, products an consultancies.

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Dr Dunn had an interesting point to make about testing for learning styles too:

Let's say that you find out that your 'native' learning style is analytic and kinetic (in other words you like to understand things by looking first at the details and then working up to the big picture, and you like moving around as you learn). Well, the point of education is to get you to expand your abilities, not just rest on your laurels. So, the correct response to such a result in a learning styles test is to get the analytic learner to start learning globally, etc, so that she develops the learning styles which don't come naturally.

This way of thinking is why I have more time for learning style theory than for multiple intelligence theory …

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MI is a useful thing to know about and think about but like many of these things has been taken too far when teachers are expected to analyse the "Learning Style" of each of their 30 students and deliver individual lessons accordingly. That is absolute garbage and should be named up as such.

It can be a useful tool in a teachers' repertoire and it may help to assist the learning of some with specific difficulties, but I agree with David that the point is surely to encourage children to learn in all ways rather than only to cater to their strengths.

I know that I understand better when I read print more than when I just hear poetry for example, but surely I need to practise the latter because there will be times when it will be useful. I also think it's useful to understand that some people are more emotionally intelligent/aware than others and whether that's to do with nature or nurture, but that's really all these things are - ideas about how humans function, not educational methodology.

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Another problem I have with the whole 'learning styles' movement is the nature of the tests which have been devised in order to decide which learning styles a particular pupils has. Basically, the ones I've seen are so badly-designed that you can't draw any sensible conclusions from them.

Dr Dunn at that conference described how her team had set about trying to discover what kinds of learning styles children with attention-deficiency problems had. At that time in Sweden there was a crude 10-question test which ordinary teachers were expected to administer. Some of the questions were things like "Does the child find it difficult to keep still?" and if you answered 'yes' to four of them, the kid had ADHD! You might just as well use a 'survey' from a magazine for teenagers (along the 'How sexy are you?' lines).

Dr Dunn's methodology was to find 1500 subjects who'd had CAT scans which had identified physical changes in the structure of the brain before they even started to test them. In other words, her team was performing scientific studies, which were peer-reviewed and falsifiable. If we had similarly well-constructed tests to identify learning styles for the general population, there might be some point to them (although it still begs the question "what do you do with the knowledge that such tests might reveal?").

The pseudo-science which is being peddled right now just seems to pander to a passive biologism …

(Sorry for the gloomy nature of this post - we've just been sent "To root, to toot, to parachute -what is a verb?" from England by my sister for our two-year old, which is clearly one of these National Curriculum primers for tiny tots - what a load of anti-intellectual rubbish the whole field of education seems to be turning into in the UK these days!)

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The pseudo-science which is being peddled right now just seems to pander to a passive biologism …

Exactly - which is why it is so popular amongst "managers" and "leaders" in the UK.

It is an easy hook for a "leadership" assignment which may just make the portfolio heavy enough to pass :lol:

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