John White: Multiple intelligence? It's a flaky theory

'How many of your intelligences have you used today?' This notice at the entrance to an Australian school refers to Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence (MI) theory, which is big in school improvement in Britain and across the world. Gardner claims that there are eight or more intelligences - not just one - including musical, spatial and bodily-kinaesthetic as well as the linguistic and mathematical sorts found in intelligence tests. There is only one problem: the intelligences don't exist.

This is not just of academic interest. Across the world, pupils are being taught that they are by nature bodily or spatially or interpersonally intelligent. They are becoming imprisoned in mythical self-perceptions which may well limit their ideas about what they are capable of learning. Granted, MI is a godsend to teachers dealing with children weak on the basics and hampered by thoughts of themselves as "thick".

There is an excellent example of this in Channel 4's recent series The Unteachables. Teacher of the Year Phil Beadle, faced with a group of disruptive and low-attaining 13-year-olds, managed to get them sitting down long enough to tick their way through an inventory of their various abilities. The verdict was, as he told them, that most were strong in bodily and musical intelligence. He tailored his pedagogy accordingly, teaching punctuation karate- fashion and the concept of the adjective via lyrics sung to the guitar.

It was a riveting piece of teaching, but does the theory behind it hold water? Human beings are intelligent creatures in all sorts of ways, and Gardner is right that there is no reason to privilege abstract areas like language, logic and mathematics. Intelligent behaviour is about flexibility in the ways one reaches one's goals and there are as many forms of intelligence as there are types of goal. Whether we take boxing, biology, or bringing up children, each activity brings its own kind of practical judgment.

Gardner has corralled this variety into eight categories, not by painstakingly examining how people behave, but through his own value judgments about what intellectual competences are important. He is looking for "a reasonably complete gamut of the kinds of abilities valued by human cultures" - and the multiple intelligences are what fit the bill. As he admits, he might well have decided not to call them "intelligences" at all, but "forms of knowledge". This is not psychology at all.

The further one looks into the theory, the more unsubstantiated it appears. There are eight criteria by which an intelligence is identified, but no reason is given for selecting them. Gardner stirs into his own flaky theory another equally contentious one about symbols, taken from aesthetics. He also holds that each intelligence unfolds from birth to maturity on the pattern of biological development in plants and animal bodies.

This is assumed, not argued, and it is also false. As they grow up, children usually become better at understanding other people, but this is not because some seed of interpersonal intelligence has been genetically implanted in their brains and gradually develops to its full potential. It is because of what they learn through experience, from those around them and the writers they may read.

Back to Phil Beadle and the thousands of other British teachers sold on MI. Why do they think it true? Do they go along with it because so much of today's teaching world says it delivers the goods? Because it emanates from a Harvard professor who must have done the proper research?

We don't know. What we do know is that for many of them it is a lifeline. They use it to change pupils' beliefs about themselves, to coax them to learn in non-traditional ways. Does it matter, then, if MI theory leaks like a sieve as long as it works in practice? In other words, does truth matter?

It should do, to teachers of all people. That aside, is it really the case that MI delivers the goods? Zaak and Grace and the other young "unteachables" may now think of themselves not as thick but as bodily or musically intelligent. That is the sort of person they are. They are made that way, so how could they be expected to be anything else? The danger of this kind of thinking should be obvious - especially to teachers sceptical about the traditional idea of intelligence and its assumptions about mental limitations. MI shares with this idea its determinist orientation, its belief that nature calls most of the shots. In its pluralistic way, it is as constraining as IQ.

The writer is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Education at the Institute of Education University of London. His pamphlet "Howard Gardner: The myth of multiple intelligences" is published by the Institute in its Viewpoint series

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Guru Careers: Solutions Consultant

£30 - 40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Solutions Consultan...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£30 - 35k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux - Central London

£40000 - £48000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Engineer - Linux ...

Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrator - Windows, Linux - Central London

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Linux Systems Administrat...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power