Multiple Intelligence Theory- Not what you think

‘Multiple Intelligences’ (MI) is a theory proposed by Gardener (1983). The main concept is that children are all as intelligent as each other, but they may have strengths in a particular type of “intelligence”. For example a child who is terrible with numbers will be fantastic at something else, e.g. art.  Gardner’s theory doesn’t necessarily imply that a child will only be strong in one intelligence but rather they will have a range of abilities across the board, with one or two areas showing prominence. There are many schools in Bangkok that have jumped on the “Multiple Intelligences” bandwagon and advertise their curriculum around this theory, so I wish to highlight some of the criticisms associated with it and discuss whether or not it has any real implications for teaching.

Is MI theory a new concept?

The idea of multiple intelligences has been around for a long time. It is nothing new and in fact has been used by some schools in the UK as part of their teaching practice. Gardner himself has spoken about his apprehension with using his own theory which speaks volumes for just how little scientific evidence there is on the subject (Guardian, 1995). Klein (1997) discusses the limitations of the theory in depth stating,

“the theory shares the limitations of general intelligence theory: it is too broad to be useful for planning curriculum, and as a theory of ability, it presents a static view of student competence”

Klein goes on to say…

“Research on the knowledge and strategies that learners use in specific activities, and on how they construct this knowledge, may prove more relevant to classroom practice”.

Who decides?

An important limitation of Gardner’s theory is that he, himself, decided upon the criteria for the different intelligences. There was no scientific reasoning behind his choices and one could argue that had another researcher thought of the theory, they might have chosen other intelligences. For example being good with numbers doesn’t necessarily mean you are good with equations and having an enjoyment of listening to music doesn’t mean you enjoy playing it. If a child loves painting and is great at it, does this mean that child has artistic intelligence; even if that same child hates sculpting or is awful at drawing? And what about those intelligences that Gardner left out? Humour intelligence? Memory intelligence? How many can you add to the list? In fact Gardner only added a naturalist intelligence after his original book was published.

Klein (1997) discusses a different circular problem in his paper.

If someone were to ask, “Why is Michael a good dancer?,” the MI answer would be “Because he has high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.” If the questioner then asked, “What is bodily-kinesthetic intelligence?,” the answer would be “[It] is the ability to use one’s body in highly differentiated and skilled ways, for expressive as well as goal-directed purposes … [and] to work skillfully with objects” (Gardner, 1983, p. 206).

He goes on to say how this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“the definition of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is virtually a definition of dance, so the explanation says, in effect, that Michael is a good dancer because he is a good dancer. In fact, the explanation is less informative than the original question, which at least identified the type of physical activity in which Michael excels.”

Everyone can be smart

The theory of multiple intelligences is a wonderful idea as it backs the idea that everyone can be smart and all children are as intelligent as each other; if we can just tap into the right intelligence. The theory takes a very simplistic look at the workings of the brain and as is always, the world isn’t quite that simple. Our  genes tell a different story. According to the council of responsible genetics

Attempts to find a gene or set of markers implicated in the development or outcome of human intelligence have not succeeded” and as of now “We do not yet know how to define human intelligence”.

If multiple intelligences existed as Gardner proposes then we should be able to find it within our genes. This is not the case and the evidence stacks even more against the theory when you consider that in fact, intelligence is affected by a number of different attributes throughout life and your so called intelligences can be altered all through childhood and even into adulthood.

Exclusion and Socialistic traits

An extreme look at multiple intelligence theory suggests that it encourages separation and socialistic traits. In an era when social inclusion dominates mainstream classrooms MI theory seems counterproductive. At what age do you decide what a child is best at? It is like a scene from Divergent where the children are told what their strengths are and are subsequently placed into that role for the rest of their lives: all for the better of society. There are so many other factors involved in teaching. What a child likes isn’t necessarily the same thing he is good at. Do you focus on only strengths or is there a point where you have to enforce the weaknesses too? Do you separate children from their friends and place them in classes focused upon one intelligence?

Does the theory have any relevance?

Whether or not you agree with the theory of multiple intelligences it has sparked a debate as to the best way to teach children and how to cater for different needs. The theory may not have been proved and indeed has no scientific evidence supporting it, but teaching to a child’s likes or interests is something that has been done for years and so it should continue. If I want to get a child writing and I know that they like dinosaurs, I will base the writing around dinosaurs. This isn’t rocket science and that is why topics are set up this way in most curriculums around the world. It is not so much Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences that is damaging but rather how schools and educators use it.

For the schools that advertise a “multiple intelligence” style of learning, it speaks volumes for the lack of knowledge that they have of the theory and that their teachers are not well trained enough to grasp such a simple dated concept. Telling a teacher to teach to a child’s strengths is almost the same as telling a human they need air to live.


Multiplying the Problems of Intelligence by Eight: A Critique of Gardner’s Theory (Klein, P.D. 1997) In