Stop Using Multiple Intelligence Theory in the Classroom

Multiple  Intelligence Theory has little or no place in the classroom. Teachers should stop using multiple intelligence theory and avoid inventories that purport to tell learners what “type” of learner they are.

These inventories are based on a conflation of the ideas of Multiple Intelligence Theory and Learning Styles. Learning Styles do not exist, so using them in classrooms is unhelpful and perhaps even harmful.

Now that I’ve made all the hair on your neck stand up, please allow me to explain.

How Multiple Intelligence Theory Became Popular in Schools

In the book Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath discuss how urban legends spread and become “sticky” – meaning that people remember them and they go viral.

This is what happened with Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. It sounded good to educators because we like to believe that if we just do everything exactly right, all students will be amazing.

Multiple Intelligence Theory rejected the idea that all intelligence was what we call “general intellectual ability.” Essentially, general intellectual ability is heavily weighted to logical reasoning and verbal skills. But what about people who are really good at music or athletics and have different natural abilities?

Makes sense. Multiple Intelligence Theory seemed to suggest that if we tapped into the students’ particular “intelligence,” we would find that all students were gifted. They just were gifted in different ways. How lovely! How egalitarian!

The idea morphed from his original theory (which few actually know) and merged into the idea that we all have a “learning style” and can only learn when taught (or learn most effectively when taught) in that style, even though Howard Gardner never said that, and, in fact, has refuted this idea.

Belief in learning styles has become so rampant that you cannot avoid it. Teachers have been made to feel that if they didn’t reach all their “kinesthetic learners” then they were somehow sub-standard. Many teachers begin the year with learning style “inventories” and attempt to identify the students’ learning styles.

Multiple Intelligence Theory Challenged

The theory became what the Heath brothers would call “sticky.” It infiltrated classrooms and professional development sessions. It became ubiquitous in education.

Then, this sticky idea began to unravel. An interesting paper appeared in Educational Psychologist. This paper, published by Lynn Waterhouse, began to push back against the idea of learning styels. The paper has now been cited nearly 4,000 times in other articles, all saying the same thing: The Learning Style Emperor has no clothes.

The conversation continued and expanded. Christopher Ferguson, a professor at Texas A&M, who, after looking at the research, agreed with Waterhouse. In his view (read an article here), the MI theory is more philosophical than research-based. It also attempts to make false equivalencies among the “intelligences.” So what if I can’t read – my interpersonal skills are out of this world!

Problematically, students themselves believe it, even though the body of research rejecting learning style theory continues to grow. Studies, including this one done by Polly R. Husmann and Valerie Dean O’Loughlin, continue to find that even when students are taught in what they describe as their preferred learning style, it makes no impact on achievement.

In their paper, they assert, “Thus, this research provides further evidence that the conventional wisdom about learning styles should be rejected by educators and students alike.”

But what’s the harm? Even if Waterhouse, Ferguson, and others clearly demonstrate that Multiple Intelligence Theory as practiced in schools is pedagogical snake oil, so what?

The harm is that teachers and school districts spend precious resources trying to make instruction fit a false model.

Does that mean that MI techniques are useless?

No, but it means that you cannot say that because a teacher has one style that only appeals to so-called “auditory learners” that that teacher is somehow inferior. You also can’t say that because a teacher does use them that he or she is effective. It’s not good neuroscience, which means it’s not good pedagogy.

Believe me, visual learner or no, if someone yells “Fire!” I’m learning. I don’t need a picture.

What Howard Gardner Says About Learning Styles

Finally, Howard Gardner himself weighed in. In an article published in the Washington Post, Gardner debunks the idea of learning styles, saying:

Sometimes people speak about a “visual” learner or an “auditory” learner. The implication is that some people learn through their eyes, others through their ears. This notion is incoherent. Both spatial information and reading occur with the eyes, but they make use of entirely different cognitive faculties.

Similarly, both music and speaking activate the ears, but again these are entirely different cognitive faculties. Recognizing this fact, the concept of intelligences does not focus on how linguistic or spatial information reaches the brain—via eyes, ears, hands, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the power of the mental computer, the intelligence, that acts upon that sensory information, once picked up.

In a nutshell, Gardner is explaining that the brain just doesn’t work that way.

Anyone who says, “I’m a visual learner,” or some variation on that idea does not understand the way the brain takes in and processes information.

Why Multiple Intelligence Theory is Harmful

Focusing on MI takes teachers away from the things that truly do make for effective teaching.

It is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic for an ineffective teacher to incorporate a bunch of MI theory when the core teaching is lacking.

Gardner says, “If people want to talk about ‘an impulsive style’ or ‘a visual learner,’ that’s their prerogative. But they should recognize that these labels may be unhelpful, at best, and ill-conceived at worst.”

What Teachers Need to Know about Learning Styles:

  • Dozens of studies have demonstrated that learning styles don’t exist.
  • Drop the term “styles.” It will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students.
  • Introduce students to information in lots of ways because allows for review without boredom, not because some “naturalist” learner is going to drop out of school because you didn’t spell out Emily Dickinson’s poems in twigs.

Here’s professor Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia explaining it in a video for all you visual learners…

The video is older, but the meaning and information are pertinent.

I love Dan Willingham, and I’ve reviewed his book Why Kids Don’t Like School, which is fabulous. Read the review here. Of course, if you’re an auditory learner, there’s a version on Audible. (Kidding).

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