The cult of multiple intelligences

11th May 2013 at 20:35

Have you seen Britain’s Brainiest on Saturday nights? The BBC has resurrected this odd niche in the quiz show ecosystem: testing people’s intelligence and not just their general knowledge. What caught my eye was the advert which preceded it, promising that it would test contestants not only on their numeracy and logic skills, but also on their ‘emotional intelligence’. By this point I couldn’t hear anything anymore because my TV  had sailed through the window and into the herb garden.


We all have multiple intelligences

You will have heard, of course, that people do not have one simple level of intelligence, from stupid to smart; they have many types of intelligence. This idea was put forward by the psychologist Howard Gardner in 1983 as an alternative to the traditional idea of IQ, or a singular type of ‘smart’. The idea was seized upon by the educational academic community, and certainly by the time I entered the profession it was one of the pillars of modern education.


These intelligences explained why children could be good at one type of task (for example working out maths puzzles quickly) and not at others (stumbling over poetry, or misunderstanding how plants work). It also offered an exciting new model for teachers: instead of regarding students as smart or dumb, and consigning them to pigeonholes their entire academic career, teachers should instead regard every student as having different intelligences and different ways in which they could excel. Everyone was special, in other words.


Not only that, but multiple intelligences offered a revolutionary way of teaching children; educators were encouraged to appeal to their existing intelligences and design learning tasks that played to these strengths in order to encourage development in other areas. For example, a student who scored highly for musical intelligence but poorly in mathematics, could be assisted in learning maths by developing ways to communicate mathematics through the language of music; perhaps by linking notes to numbers and imagining the symphonies that resulted.


A whole new way of teaching….

It was certainly bold. Up and down the teaching cosmos, teachers were encouraged to create geography tasks that involved students discussing their feelings about soil erosion, and music teachers attempted to convey Mozart through the medium of mime. It was, for a time, the learning theory that devoured the world.


Some of the categories seemed to make sense: children were good at maths, or good at English, and sometimes both. So they might be seen as relatively easy to include in the taxonomy. But as we progress farther and farther along the list we encounter more controversy. Intra versus inter-personal? The overlaps seem as profound as the differences.


And what about music and maths? There has often been a strong link evidenced between both of these aptitudes, possibly due to the very mathematical way that music, in its acoustic nakedness,  can be described. And surely there are skills in linguistic ability that map with the conceptual realm of the spatial? And so on.


And that’s before we even get to the upper end of Gardner’s Multiple Hootenanny. If alarm bells aren’t ringing by the time you get to Naturalistic intelligence, then I suggest you need to check your clappers. Naturalistic intelligence means the general intelligence of being able to appreciate nature and how it connects and operates. This is one of his most contested fields. Was Gardner reading Lord of the Ringsat the same time? It sounds like such a subjective collection of abilities and capacities that most of us wouldn’t have even thought to describe as intelligence at all. We might as well describe ‘good with card tricks’.


And then of course there are the big bears: existential intelligence and moral intelligence. I think I’ve studied and taught ethics long enough to be able to say with confidence that these two are highly, highly contested as even having any level of existence at all. Moral intelligence: what does that mean? Is someone more morally intelligent than another? Does that mean kind, virtuous, dutiful, loyal…? It is a collection of values and opinions so loaded with subjectivity that it seems indescribably cocky to attempt to shoe horn it into any metric of intelligence.


And yet we still see multiple references to multiple intelligences throughout school literature. As recently as last year I had to bite my tongue as I sat through a consultant soliloquizing about its benefits in the teaching arena. It’s long past this baby’s bedtime. Multiple intelligences: not so smart after all. Not true; not useful; not in my classroom.