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Unpick woolly thinking

The modish multiple intelligences bandwagon is run on flaky, flawed psychology, writes John White

Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences get star billing in active learning initiatives. The idea that intelligence is not tied to IQ but takes many forms has been a liberation. MI theory identifies some eight types of intelligence: not only the logico-mathematical and linguistic kinds measured by IQ, but, also musical, spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal and naturalist intelligences.

And MI does appear to deliver the goods in terms of inclusion and raising self-esteem. Pupils who used to think themselves dim can blossom when they find out how bright they are making music or interacting with people. MI also seems good news for pedagogy, as the same topic can be presented differently according to profiles of intelligences.

Schools minister David Miliband draws on multiple intelligences in his campaign on personalisation. London schools commissioner Tim Brighouse praises their contribution to work on learning styles. Gifted and talented programmes rely on them to identify highly able students. Specialist schools, for understandable reasons, are also attracted.

The educational world has gone for MI in a big way. But has it done its homework? The idea that children come hard-wired with a whole array of abilities in varying strengths is appealing. But is there any reason to think the theory is true?

In the 1960s, some primary teachers were sold on the idea that children develop naturally and need minimal direction. It was hard to shake them.

But they were wrong. Children's minds are not like children's bodies: they are not pre-programmed to unfold in appropriate conditions from seed to mature state. Children need induction into what it is correct to believe and to do. They need guidance and correction until they can guide and correct themselves.

The lesson was well learnt, and child-centred thinking of this sort largely faded away. The question about the MI bandwagon is: is it likewise burdened with a dodgy theory?

The basic idea that intelligence can take many forms and is not tied to the abstract reasoning tested by IQ is both welcome and true. But it's hardly news. Many philosophers and psychologists have agreed with common sense that intelligence has a lot to do with being flexible in pursuit of one's goals. You want to buy a car and check things out rather than rushing into it. As a striker, you vary your footballing tactics. Your child is being bullied at school and you consider the options to work out what's best to do. There are innumerable forms in which intelligence can be displayed, and we don't need a new theory to tell us.

In fact, MI's central message is different. There are not endless forms of intelligence, just eight. It also claims that our differing strengths in these - some of us are better at sports, others at maths - go back to differences in our brains. Our various intelligences develop as these neurological seeds unfold into more complex forms. Depending on his or her initial endowment, the child now scribbling with crayons may or may not develop into a Picasso.

If all this seems familiar, it should. At the root of MI theory is the same commitment to mental unfolding that fired the child-centred teachers of the 1960s. It is a pluralistic version of the same thing. As indicated, the psychology is flaky. The idea that children's minds develop from seeds is deeply problematic and Gardner provides no reliable evidence for the notion.

And why just eight categories? This has nothing to do with science, but a lot to do with Gardner's value judgements, his way - and his is only one of many - of mapping what's important in the intellectual world. Not surprisingly, this has similarities (except in the greater weight it gives the arts) to the way school curricula tend to be structured. Another explanation for its appeal to practitioners, perhaps; but sham science may not be the surest foundation for the aims of education.

Some schools give their pupils smart cards to be inscribed with their preferred intelligences. Others cherry-pick ideas from MI, as from other fashionable theories, if they support teachers' practices anyway. But whatever their level of commitment, schools making use of MI should ask themselves the following questions.

First, what grounds do we have for thinking that the intelligences actually exist? ("Because a famous Harvard professor says so" doesn't count).

Second, do we really want children to think that they are born with a talent for music or plaiting raffia or helping people, if there is no solid evidence in favour?

Ministers of education high on gifted and talented programmes and personalisation - and who rely on MI as academic scaffolding for these - should ask themselves whether we should be in the business of sponsoring iffy theories and recommending them to teachers. Moreover, would we be better employed in unpicking our big, untidy ball of wool called "personalisation" and making better sense of it? And finally, what on earth are Labour ministers doing rooting for innate "aptitudes", not least those of the so-called "gifted" - the darlings of every eugenicist since Galton?

But that's another question.

John White is emeritus professor of philosophy of education at London's institute of education. His lecture Howard Gardner: The Myth of Multiple Intelligences, takes place at the institute (20 Bedford Way, London WC1) at 6pm on 17 November. All welcome.

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