In 1983, psychologist Howard Gardner introduced his theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), which has since been a central topic in the field of education, and a controversial one among psychologists. The MI concept was developed to do away with previous notions of intelligence as a single, monolithic construct, which is typically measured with an IQ test. Here we're going to talk a little bit about what MI theory is, and why it's been such a subject of debate in the academic world.

The Theory

Gardner's original theory proposed the existence of eight different intelligence types. These are:

1) Verbal Linguistic: The ability to use words and language

2) Logical-Mathematical: The ability to carry out deductive and inductive reasoning processes, use numbers, and recognize abstract patterns

3) Visual-Spatial: The ability to visualize objects and spatial dimensions, and create mental images

4) Musical-Rhythmic: The ability to detect tonal patterns and sounds, and to sense rhythms

5) Bodily-Kinesthetic: The ability to control one's physical motion, and remain attuned to bodily sensations

6) Interpersonal: The capacity for strong relationships and effective communication with other people

7)  Intrapersonal: The capacity for spiritual well-being, and awareness of internal states

Gardner emphasized that the list of intelligences may not be confined to the items above, and that we may discover more intelligence modalities over time. He himself has proposed the inclusion of several other intelligences, including existential and moral intelligence. Importantly, each person is said to be a mosaic of all the above intelligences, with a varying strength in each. For example, a person is not simply an "interpersonal" learner or a "verbal-linguistic" learner, but someone with "strong interpersonal intelligence" or "strong verbal-linguistic intelligence."  

MI Theory in Education

As mentioned earlier, MI theory has been highly influential in the field of education, and has been a driving force in the development of more balanced curriculums in Western classrooms. Traditional schooling used to heavily favour students with verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences; however, over time schools have begun to include more arts, self-awareness and physical education opportunities in their programs. It is not only the content in school curriculums that has been revised in the wake of MI theory, but also the methodology of teaching. › Articles › Methodology Some educators have deduced that since there are multiple intelligences, there must also be different types of learning. Therefore, teachers might design a lesson plan so as to cater to students with different intelligence strengths. For example, visual stimuli may be used to aid visual-spatial learners with a new concept, and tactile stimuli can be useful in teaching bodily-kinesthetic learners.

The Criticism

MI theory has clearly been of great value to many students, parents, and teachers, presenting opportunities for students with strong non-traditional forms of intelligence (i.e. non-logical-mathematical or verbal-linguistic) to thrive in classroom environments. However, despite the apparent success of MI theory in education, many psychologists argue that there is no empirical evidence to support the concept. They argue that MI theory was born out of an artificial division of human intelligence into multiple areas, and neuroscience studies have found no data to support the existence of these divisions in the human brain. Furthermore, many have criticized the conflation of multiple intelligences with multiple learning styles. Gardner himself has denied that multiple intelligences equate to multiple learning styles, which he asserts are lacking in empirical evidence. Finally, despite Gardner's intention to dispel notions of one general intelligence, a 2006 study found that all of Gardner's multiple intelligences do in fact correlate with a single intelligence (referred to as g). Therefore, it has been proposed that each of the multiple intelligences consists of a unique cognitive strength (e.g. intrapersonal ability), but also a general cognitive intelligence. The implication is that a low general cognitive intelligence (g) impedes ability in each of the different MIs; however, any given MI can be compensated for by a strong unique cognitive ability. Further research is required to confirm this hypothesis.


What does all this mean? If anything, the MI controversy illustrates the occasional divide between practical usefulness and academic accuracy. Many educators have seized on the concept of MIs and implemented it in their classrooms, often to great effect: now, more than ever before, students have the opportunity to experience a balanced and multifaceted curriculum, through which they may discover their calling in a non-traditional subject area. On the other hand, it has been argued that multiple intelligences may simply be "useful fictions," with little-to-no basis in physical reality. Perhaps this an acceptable state of affairs. Decide for yourself - do you think MI theory should be integrated into modern education systems? Or should teachers only make use of theories with a proven scientific basis?