November 22, 2019
Thanks to Jennifer Taylor, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today’s post.
Human intelligence is difficult to define and even more difficult to measure. IQ tests exist, certainly, but exist primarily as measures of logical and linguistic proficiency. It is difficult to ascertain the accuracy or validity of their results. The arts and social proficiency are not usually included in measures of intelligence – which fails to represent the diversity of skills and aptitudes that exist in our world and in our classrooms.
In 1983, Howard Gardner introduced the theory of multiple intelligences. He noticed that the arts were missing from any evaluation of intelligence, and conducted research on the subject. According to Gardner, people are not born with a specific and measurable level of intelligence – rather, intelligence is represented by a combination of different intellectual capabilities that are interconnected and fluid over time. The multiple intelligences identified by Gardner were Linguistic, Logical-mathematical, Musical, Visual-spatial, Kinesthetic, Intrapersonal, and Interpersonal, with Naturalist intelligence added to the list later on. All eight intelligences exist within all humans to varying degrees, with the highest-rated aptitudes indicating natural proclivity.
The intention of Gardner’s multiple intelligences was to dispel the notion that intelligence is fixed and broaden the definition that is used to define it. The theory better matches the observed realities of a diverse population with varied aptitudes, and was quickly embraced by educators; as any teacher knows, each student learns differently, and what works for one may not be effective for another. Many teachers include multiple intelligence surveys as part of metacognitive learning, and students too love to identify their capacities as learners. In practice, however, even when an attempt is made to match the type of instruction with a learner’s identified dominant intelligence, measurable improvements to learning are unsubstantial. In practice, multiple intelligence theory doesn’t seem to work.
The issue, I believe, is not with Gardner’s theory; the existence of varied forms of intelligence is not only logical, but also backed by research. Instead, problems arise when a false equivalence is drawn between multiple intelligences – the existence of multifaceted intelligence within all learners – and learning styles – a single, preferred form of intelligence. I have heard from students, on several occasions, variations of the argument “I am not doing that because that’s not how I learn. I’m a _____ learner, so this doesn’t help me.” The result is a return to the mindset Gardner attempted to overthrow – a single, fixed form of intelligence dictating a learner’s potential. The mistake that educators and students are making, then, is in matching instructional approach to the learner, rather than the skill that is being learned.
A learner may have a dominant form of intelligence, and will probably master corresponding skills more quickly and to a greater degree. A professional football player may possess prevalent kinesthetic intelligence – and is therefore gifted in physical motion and bodily awareness that allows him to master athletic feats quickly. Why? Not because the player is a “kinesthetic learner” but because sports are best learned by physically moving and problem-solving. It would be illogical, however, for this same athlete to attempt to learn about poetry or financial literacy through kinesthetic learning. Conversely someone who possesses stronger verbal-linguistic intelligence will have trouble using their dominant form of intelligence to become a skilled football player.
How, then, can multiple intelligences be best incorporated into education? Educators are responsible for determining which strategies of instruction are most effective for the topic being taught – ideally, touching on more than one intelligence for the same information. When I am teaching a second language, the obvious choice is to focus on Verbal-Linguistic instruction. But, I also include images for added context and interest, discussions to build an interpersonal connection with the material, and even songs that reinforce language structures. All learners are capable of acquiring knowledge from any type of learning, and nurturing multiple intelligences in all aspects of education results in an improved ability to process information in different formats, and more deeply-embedded learning for students.
“Multiple Intelligences: What Does the Research Say?” Edutopia, George Lucas Educational Foundation, 20 July 2016, https://www.edutopia.org/multiple-intelligences-research.
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