TBT: Analysis and Critique of the Multiple Intelligences Theory as a Pedagogical Approach and Educational Method – UMass Boston, Fall 2012

Midterm Paper: Analysis and Critique of the Multiple Intelligences Theory as a Pedagogical Approach and Educational Method

The multiple intelligences theory was categorized by Professor Leistyna under Week 3 of the Apling 605 syllabus, which addressed the language learning theory of social interactionism. Social interactionism distinguishes itself from the two dominant language learning theories before it (behaviorism and innatism) insofar as it involves a set of principles which incorporate the learner as an active participant in a cognition-based learning process (rather than one which employs habit-building, as in behaviorism) and which include concepts such as communicative competence (communicative competence is, as contrasted by linguistic competence, which is valued by innatism, the ability of a speaker to use language appropriately in a given sociocultural context), the development of cultural capital, bidirectional modeling as a means of apprenticing learners into the new L2/C2, and valuation of both competence and performance in order to determine the learner’s success in language learning. It appears that the multiple intelligences theory is social interactionist because it emphasizes a dynamic, adaptive, and individualized approach to language teaching and learning (rather than the behaviorist, one-size-fits-all model), creates various opportunities to elaborate on both form and function in a given lesson and class, and appears to incorporate acculturation, either explicitly or tacitly, as a focus or benefit of the method (a completely different approach than the acultural innatist model). As regards applications of this method in the L2 language learning process, there have been studies which show the benefit and ease of intermingling between MI and the use of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development in class design and pedagogical approach (for example, see Mehta, 2002), and it has the flexibility and potential, according to the type of language learning program [immersion vs. two-way bilingual, etc.] in place, to illustrate an active transfer of L1 knowledge to the L2 as per the linguistic interdependence principle, especially “where the environment is rich with opportunities for interaction in the second language in purposeful, meaningful activities.” (Cummins & Swain, 1986)

I selected the multiple intelligences theory because I have used this topic as the theme of a lesson in an ESL class I taught in the past, and from that brief contact I was interested to know more about how the theory has been applied to educational methodologies, pedagogical approaches, and real-world classroom environments and practices, while wondering which subjects this theory has had more or less success in. I watched the four videos included in Apling 605’s syllabus which elaborate on MI theory, its benefits and “success stories,” and its uses and applications in a variety of educational situations. In the fourth video we see Howard Gardner, the creator of MI, as an esteemed and famous professor and member of the Harvard glitterati since 1969, in which he defines “intelligence” as “the biopsychological potential to process information in certain ways, in order to solve problems or fashion products that are valued in a culture or community.” (Gardner, 2010) Here Gardner speaks lovingly and somewhat humbly about the applicability and elasticity of the multiple intelligences theory and its response to educational and pedagogical problems in the modern world, especially as relates to standardized testing and underachievement in learners not as “intelligent”, using the parlance of MI and according to many sources, in the verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical realms predominantly emphasized in traditional schooling. It appeared to be particularly concerned with ways of addressing different learners’ needs in a variety of ways, providing “multiple access points” to educational content in order to serve the unique abilities of each learner.

The basic practice of using multiple intelligences theory in a pedagogical approach and classroom design appears to be helpful to teachers in finding ways to work with learners who do not benefit from the traditional school model; according to Gardner, “If you teach in many ways, you reach more students.” (Gardner, 2010) His “individualize and pluralize” dual approach asks the instructor to inform him/herself about the learners being taught (individualize) and approach lesson design and classroom procedures in a “friendly,” adaptive, flexible manner in which a variety of learners can benefit at the same time by presenting the information in a number of ways (pluralize). Though not explicit, I assume the role of the learner is to be open to attempting different activities in the spirit of exploration and be ready to embrace his/her “intelligences” as they become apparent. Class lessons and activities are designed to incorporate the eight “intelligences” as described by Gardner: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic (there is a ninth potential area of ability called “existential,” though Gardner is hesitant to consider this a fully distinct “intelligence”). Teachers help students reveal, and then learn to capitalize on, the 3-4 “top” “intelligences” of each child (thus ensuring their engagement in the educational process) by creating lessons which contain aspects of all the intelligences.

An example of the application of multiple intelligences theory in the ESL classroom can be seen at About.com (Beare, 2012). If we use this list of ESL activities as a guide, we can see that the MI approach seems, at first blush, to provide some good grounding for a lesson with various entry points. Beare appears to be familiar with MI and works to show how a variety of classroom lessons and activities can be described as in line with MI’s aforementioned concept of “pluralizing,” addressing topics such as pronunciation and intonation (through the use of grammar chants), vocabulary building (through picture use), semantic and syntactic familiarity and building (through lessons focused on phrasal verbs and countable/uncountable nouns), and culturally-specific topics such as “Multinationals” which might help to contextualize learning in a greater integrated understanding of the culture in which the learner is studying. It seems that sociopragmatic and paralinguistic information could become a part of this lesson planning also, an important tenet of the social interactionist theory of language learning to which MI belongs. Assessment as an extension or “final step” in a MI-supported method seems unclear, but in the ESL example I’ve cited, this might not be the end result of the work done in class. (I will address assessment later in this paper, as it relates importantly to Gardner’s articulation of the goals and applications of MI.)

The limitations inherent to the multiple intelligences method lie first in its oversight of educational consideration for topics such as discourse and literacy. The previous paragraph showed several substantial ways in which an instructor can ensure coverage of the traditionally emphasized areas in ESL; however, all of them are content-related, rather than learner-centered, and none of them appear to be motivated by the conscious exploration of social, cultural, and political factors which can strongly impact the academic achievement of learners, especially learners whose identities fall outside the mainstream such as non-whites, non-native English speakers, and members of lower socio-economic classes. (We can also assume that students who pay thousands of dollars a year to study in the U.S., such as the students I imagine Mr. Beare was actually referring to as intended learners for his ESL lessons, belong to the upper socio-economic levels of their cultures, a fact which, statistically speaking, almost certainly implies that they have had a strong educational and academic background and identify with the most powerful groups and discourses in their respective societies.) Discourse in the context of language learning means that a student doesn’t simply learn the L2 which is being studied, but also acquires a second cultural discourse, an “identity kit” which contains the ability to navigate effectively in the C2 in which the L2 is situated (Gee, 1989); to separate linguistic competency from cultural competency, as MI appears to do on its face, is at best an oversight belonging to a thoughtless designer, and at worst, has the potential to set an ELL up, like so many in the U.S., for lower academic achievement in the hands of the nativist English-only programs in our country. Literacy – and I would extend this concept to include academic literacy – is a complementary issue which is related to a learner’s experience with and use of written and read text in his/her sociocultural environment in and outside the home. A very basic example of how literacy appears to be overlooked as an academically important factor in MI-based lesson planning and pedagogy can be illustrated by asking this question: How would a learner display “intelligence” in the logical-mathematical, musical, and linguistic areas (as well as most of the others, if we’re using written documents and textbooks in class which are written under the assumption that a certain level of literacy/academic literacy] can be found in all learners) if he/she doesn’t possess the literacy expected for this age/grade/language ability level? It may well be possible to use this method for learners who are not yet fully literate in English, but I strongly believe that it could not replace the fundamental literacy work needed in the L1 – or at least in the L2 in an environment which provides L1 support to the L2 learner – in order for the kind of academic achievement expected and tested for in U.S. public schools today. If the learner is already literate in the L1, I believe that a transfer of skills (following the CUP bilingual model of the linguistic interdependence principle in social interactionism) would be possible, again, as long as the learning environment were a bilingual educational environment and not an English-only immersion program; if the latter were the case, I’m not sure. As to language level and proficiency, and considerations for a heterogeneous classroom (e.g. containing learners with varying academic abilities, divergent L2 proficiency levels, and a wide range of literacy levels), I think an MI approach might cause things to become very messy, at least from an evaluative and progress-oriented perspective. How would the instructor have the ability or the time to address all of these learners with divergent language and learning needs in their individual responses to lessons designed to engage in one or more of eight different “intelligences” at a time, and know how to manage students’ relative responsiveness to these different activities for present benefit and future reference, let alone assess progress? I think a homogeneous classroom would allow this method to be more fully applied and utilized to the greatest extent of its potential for dynamism and adaptability. I don’t think it implies that there would be a requisite minimum or maximum age, nor a certain language proficiency (again assuming literacy and academic literacy is a constant already here); however, I do think it would be more appropriate for school-age learners, perhaps between the ages of five and eighteen, when certain “intelligences” which are “less academic,” like the musical or spatial “intelligences,” can be incorporated elements in lesson planning of different content.

The videos discussing multiple intelligences theory listed on the Apling 605 syllabus made clear the very strong allegiance many educators have to using MI in their teaching; in fact, at least one member of the current Apling cohort says she used MI to great success in her teaching at Leslie University in the past. It appears that this is one of its strongest points: that it is very much a “classroom-friendly” method and that teachers seem to love it and be loyal to its intended outcomes and benefits to them and their students. (We should qualify the naming of this method “classroom-friendly” by also stating that the implementation of an MI-grounded approach and design model would necessarily imply an allocation of funds and time dedicated to providing the materials [some examples might include texts with visual resources, song books, sports equipment, electronic or A/V resources, and so on] and perhaps a limited amount of training to the instructors who plan to use this new method.) Indeed, it appears to be a pedagogically-oriented method which helps an instructor condition and shape his/her current work, rather than a comprehensive method which incorporates an equal balance of techniques, approaches, and procedures in class and lesson design alongside the fundamental consideration of the sociocultural, political, and academic identity of all types of learners as well as of the learning environment in which the educational process is taking place. While it purports to provide a “multiple access point” approach to educational design, I believe that in reality it assumes a lot of its learners and even the instructors using it as a pedagogical tool. It should be telling that Gardner stated, “I’m sure my theory is ethnocentric” (though it is, as he claims, less ethnocentric than other methods) and that he admitted that the MI method would be difficult to access for learners, educators, and schools coming from different definitions of literacy or lower socio-economic status without access to technology. (Gardner, 2010)

To me MI seems to be, to be blunt, a new set of paints and techniques for middle-class instructors which is motivated by the desire to create new (or redefine tried-and-true) lesson designs and classroom procedures which have not produced academically “successful” students and have left teachers exhausted, anxious about the stability of their jobs in the NCLB-inspired educational climate of the U.S. public school system. While MI’s mission does not appear to be to revolutionize the classroom or the educational process, one of the biggest oversights in the method is assessment; even the incongruence of standardized testing with MI’s demand for a variety of lesson approaches and teaching procedures is not answered more than peripherally by Gardner in his talk at Harvard. When Gardner was invited to speak with the BBC about improved test scores in England as a result of the implementation of MI methodology, he plainly responded, “I’m happy to take credit if the test scores go up, but I’m not going to take blame if they go down.” (Gardner, 2010) The reasons for his laissez-faire attitude become clear in “Inadequate Evidence for Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence Theories” by Waterhouse, in which she states that “because [Gardner’s] ‘basic paradigm’ clashes with that of psychometrics…and because testing ‘results may well be misused,’ he will not define testable subcomponents for the intelligences. Without such subcomponents, the intelligences are defined only by general descriptions…” (Waterhouse, 2006) I believe that as a result, Gardner is ironically, in refusing to contribute a concrete set of assessment methods that educators and schools can implement as a means of measuring the success of his methods, opening up learners to face the very standardized tests he claims to detest by avoiding the responsibility that a person in his position would be asked to take. Perhaps this is his un(self)admitted goal, because how can he be blamed for low student achievement when he washes his hands of consideration for learners as they face state-mandated testing, or when he denies the need for MI-centered evaluative tools which will show whether his method supports student progress and should be either used again or discarded?

MI appears to have at its core the intention of expanding the definition of “gifted” learners, a mission which Gardner hoped would result from dethroning classic psychometric testing as the sole means of evaluating students’ intellectual abilities and academic potential and allow students with “intelligences” other than verbal-linguistic or logical-mathematic to be considered “talented.” (Brualdi, 1996) I cannot see in the model how any attention is given to those learners who would most benefit from a broad-based and more socioculturally nuanced and honest conception of the notion of intelligence: those learners categorized – often erroneously and for a variety of non-academic/cognitive, cultural/discursive/socio-economic reasons – into Special Education programs and classrooms. Just as it seems much more difficult to engage the linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical or naturalist “intelligence” of learners whose literacy levels are lower than that assumed by the MI method, what consideration is given – and not simply the sort of all-inclusive, open-door, everyone-is-welcome consideration which purports to be moved by open mindedness but often veils an inability to truly “see” non-standard, non-average students – for learners who are disabled? Will a blind or deaf student receive equal consideration in lesson design which incorporates music or pictures? How will a quadriplegic student benefit from a lesson that assumes students will use their physical bodies in average ways to complete the task given? Add this to our already-growing list of reasons why MI is an incomplete, if not myopic and intentionally simplistic, method of language teaching which seems to offer little support to ELLs from lower socio-economic background or non-standard literacy/academic experiences in accessing the educational opportunities it promises, as a result of its seemingly “neutral” design which was called “ethnocentric” by its own creator.

I do not mean to throw the baby out with the bathwater (a regular admonition by Professor Macedo in the UMass Apling department), but I believe that Gardner’s following statement, simplistic and seemingly pure in its “amoral” vision of how MI can be implemented as an educational method and philosophy, says it all: “Multiple intelligences is really a way of thinking. It’s a way of thinking that recognizes the individual differences and realizes that different things can be taught in a lot of ways.” (Gardner, 2010) Since MI’s designer refuses to incorporate into his theory any other concessions to a more socioculturally and politically grounded way of seeing education, we will have to fill in the blanks, as should all educators who use the theory in developing their pedagogy and approach. We should add, first, to Gardner’s original definition of “intelligence” to create a new definition: “Intelligence is ‘the biopsychological potential to process information in certain ways which are recognized as valid in the dominant discourse, in order to solve problems effectively according to that discourse or fashion culturally-recognizable products that are valued in the dominant culture or community.”’

If we accept this new definition of “intelligence,” then perhaps we can go forward with Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory and derive from it a set of pedagogical practices, lesson design opportunities, and classroom approaches. This would at least be honest. It is because I strongly subscribe to James Paul Gee’s notion that intelligence, knowledge, aptitudes and literacy are socially and culturally situated (Gee, Discourses, Socio-Culturally Situated Educational Theory, and the Failure Problem, 1989) that I find myself required to make these concessions. I also think teachers should be honest with themselves in admitting that this method is much more of a response to teacher frustration and angst about the current state of affairs in the U.S. educational system as regards the pressure on schools and students to receive high standardized test scores (and the concomitant pressure this brings to bear on these teachers) than a true and thoughtful attempt to remedy the overlooking and underserving of so many subordinated and marginalized students lost in the U.S. educational system. If we as educators do not attempt to critically review the methods we use in our classrooms, no amount of Harvard speechifying is going to change the fact that we don’t really know what tools we’re using, what effect their use will and will not have, or how they should best be implemented – rather than to lighten the load of teachers and, inadvertently, reinforce the process of assimilation and subordination of non-standard identities, languages and voices in American public schools – to support those most in need.

Works Cited

Beare, K. (2012). Multiple Intelligences in the ESL Classroom. Retrieved from About.com: http://esl.about.com/od/teachingenglish/a/l_multiple.htm

Brualdi, A. C. (1996, September). Multiple Intelligences: Gardner’s Theory. ERIC/AE Digest Series EDO-TM-96-01 .

Cummins, J., & Swain, M. (1986). Bilingualism in education: Aspects of theory, research, and practice. London, U.K.: Longman.

Gardner, H. (2010, January 26). “Multiple Intelligences: The First 25 years” with Howard Gardner. Retrieved from YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDtZEpf_SJ4&feature=related

Gee, J. P. (1989). Discourses, Socio-Culturally Situated Educational Theory, and the Failure Problem. Discourse Analysis, Critical Theory, and Educational Reform. Delaware: School of Education at the University of DE.

Gee, J. P. (1989). Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction. Journal of Education , 171 (1), 5-17.

Mehta, S. (2002). Multiple Intelligences and how Children Learn: An Investigation in one Preschool Classroom. Masters Thesis, The Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Child Development, Blacksburg, VA.

Waterhouse, L. (2006). Inadequate Evidence for Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence Theories. Educational Psychologist , 41 (4), 247-255.


One thought on “TBT: Analysis and Critique of the Multiple Intelligences Theory as a Pedagogical Approach and Educational Method – UMass Boston, Fall 2012

  1. Pingback: Intelligence, emotional or otherwise | ahead of the hydra

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