One theory’s dangerous implications

2013-03-04 00:00

THIRTY years ago, Howard Gardner’s Frames of mind: the theory of multiple intelligences came out, and what damage it has wrought on the educational landscape. How is it, you might ask, that a theory pointing to a wide range of intelligences rather than one general intelligence quotient could inflict such damage?

Surely knowing that we are made up of different sorts of intelligences must be a good thing, educationally speaking? If each of us has a different intelligence profile (just like our own unique fingerprint), and if understanding what this unique combination is gives a better ability to work out how to teach and learn, then we had better implement multiple intelligence pedagogies in all our classrooms as soon as possible. It should result in a massive improvement of learning as each pupil learns in a way best suited to his or her profile.

Many teachers have had the personal experience of struggling to get a concept across in a particular way, and then, after shifting to a completely different way of doing it, finding their pupils grasping it. There is no doubt that different ways of teaching a concept can have a radical impact on understanding, and that some pupils tend to grasp a concept better when using a particular type of representation. Teachers and researchers have known this long before multiple intelligences came along.

The reason why pupils start to understand the concept is not because it resonates with their particular type of intelligence profile, but because the concept has been better represented, or because the multiple angle of view has increased understanding. The risk with teachers who use Multiple Intelligence Theory (MIT) to structure their lessons is that they might confuse the best ways to represent a topic with different intelligences of pupils. And there lies the danger, for by trying to represent the concept in ways that best fit the intelligence profile of the pupil, the teacher can forget to represent the concept in ways that best fit the concept.

I was a history teacher in a past life. When doing the Anglo Boer War, I used photographs, maps, and diaries, not in the attempt to work with the different learning styles of my pupils, but in the attempt to best represent the Anglo Boer War. When doing Adolf Hitler, I played some of his speeches, not to resonate with some of my pupils having an auditory learning style, but because the auditory presentation best caught the hypnotic power of Hitler. I worked with different modalities in presenting my lessons, not because I was taking into account the different multiple intelligence profiles of my pupils, but because that was the best way to present the topic.

There is far too little time in a classroom to waste it trying out different modalities of learning that are not really suited to the topic at hand but resonate with the intelligence profile of the pupil. To get pupils to construct letters out of twigs because they are kinesthetically oriented is to waste time. We have excellent research on the best ways to teach letters to children, and that is what is important, not that they spend half a day arranging twigs into patterns because it provides a feel for the letters.

The research on learning the alphabet does point to the importance of using different modalities, but this is based on systematic ways of getting all the children in the class to experience and make meaning with the letters, not on trying to accommodate different intelligence profiles. If you want to improve learning then focus on what needs to be learnt and how it can be done in deep and meaningful ways that bring out the essence of the concept.

What makes the adoption of multiple intelligences in classrooms even more worrying is the lack of empirical proof for separate multiple intelligences. Recent developments in neuro-science and cognitive development point to a general processing efficiency of the brain that carries through to different domains of intelligence. If you have a really good working memory and can process information quickly and reflectively, this is going to carry through to the particular mode you are working with, whether this be verbal, spatial, mathematical or social. There are different domains of intelligence, only they are not as separate as Gardner would have us believe. There is no solid empirical evidence for multiple intelligences in the form that Gardner has described.

It’s not only empirical support for MIT that is lacking, but empirical support for its effectiveness in classrooms. It doesn’t work that well as a pedagogy. It complicates the lesson, over individualises it, makes feedback really difficult because so many different things are happening at the same time. It obscures the content of the lesson by making the manner of presentation dominate the concept. Multiple intelligence pedagogies do work sometimes, but this is mostly due to gifted teachers working in optimal conditions — the point here being that these kinds of teachers can make anything work.

Why, if MIT is both wrong as a theory of intelligence and ineffective as a pedagogic strategy, does it still carry so much power and conviction for teachers and parents? One reason could be that it gives us hope, when struggling with calculus or grammar or William Shakespeare or a science equation, that it’s just not suited to our particular intelligence profile, that we have other intelligences, that everyone, everywhere is intelligent in something, we just have to find what it is.

We do have to find out what it is we do best, but this is a complex mix of intelligence, personality, environment, motivation, and happenstance, not a simple finding of which intelligence profile we have from an ever-expanding list. The hard work is in squaring up to the task at hand with everything that you have and then persisting with it, not flipping around until you find what your own particular intelligence profile happens to be.

As parents and teachers, we need to be far more careful about the fads pushing for admission into the precious sanctum of our classrooms.

That said, teachers across the world have resonated with MIT because it echoes something important in their own experiences. Different pupils learn differently, and working out what these differences are has implications for teaching and learning. This is about learning styles, not multiple intelligences. Learning styles are different from multiple intelligences in that learning styles are closer to the reality of classroom life and the tangible practices of learning, of how we concentrate, store, remember and make sense of knowledge. It looks at the practices of learning as a complex whole and explores the alternative ways different pupils take through the process. For highly resourced schools with excellent and committed teachers responding to a demanding parent body that insists their kid gets individual attention, an explicit engagement with different learning styles is both rewarding and politically astute. But even here, with learning styles, one has to be careful. Is it not better to induct pupils into the rigours of the subject in its own terms, rather than bending the subject around to the learning idiosyncrasies of a child? Will the child not learn more in the long run from engaging with what the subject demands rather than from what he or she demands of the subject? Humility is one of the key virtues of learning, and at the heart of humility lies an openness to what the world demands of you, not what you demand of the world.

• Professor Wayne Hugo teaches in the School of Education and Development, UKZN. This article is an extract from his forthcoming book, To the Ends of Education.

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