Intelligence and Multiple Intelligences

July 5, 2009

Did I mention I’m a teacher too? Here’s my first foray into educational theory, practice, and politics.

One of the defining characteristics of my education courses was the concept of multiple intelligences (wiki page on M.I.). In brief, this theory purports there are at least 8 different categories of intelligence: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalistic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (there is thought about 9th: spiritual). Each learner has some innate aptitude towards 1-3 of these and can most easily learn by utilizing these.
Consequently, a student who can comprehend complex mathematical (logical-mathematical) ideas is not necessarily more intelligent than a student who can articulate a deep understanding of literature (verbal-linguistic). OK. But the theory goes further. A student who can correctly interpret a map and relate that to geo-politics (visual-spatial), is not necessarily any more intelligent than a student who can relate really well with anyone in the room (interpersonal).

This is bread & butter in probably every single education department in the country. Christopher Ferguson, in “Not every child is secretly a genius,” published at the Chronicle Review, takes issue with this theory. I think Mr. Ferguson hits a huge flaw with M.I.: the quantitative data (numbers-based) is lacking in the research (I wish he had backed up this claim with references). Ferguson claims that like the natural-philosophers, the ancestor of the natural-scientists, multiple intelligence theory is based on philosophy, not empirical studies.
Why? Because M.I. is politically correct, and philosophically sound with modern education (which is resoundingly constructivist*). Further, he argues, a classroom steeped M.I. theory fails to teach students the necessary skills to succeed in advanced studies, complex processes, or acknowledge that not every student has the intelligence (the older concept of ‘g’, a measure of overall intelligence) to become a rocket scientist; and it conflates intelligence with interests and motivations.

I am split on this.
Pro-M.I.:

  • Utilizing the theory of multiple intelligences challenges the education to use a diverse array of pedagogical tools and methods. Its prevented me from falling into a rut of using the same techniques over and over. It creates a more interesting classroom environment, in a phrase.
  • Maybe our society would be more healthy if it were not obsessed with logical-mathematical and verbal-linguistic. A greater utilization and appreciation of each intelligence might help build a more culturally complex society (read: end of cable television and video games; resurgence of art and local culture).
  • Different age groups utilize difference intelligences. In my experience, the average junior high boy is much more comfortable learning with kinesthetic modes than the average junior high girl, who is able to utilize more traditional modes of education: primarily verbal-linguistic**.

Con-M.I.:

  • In the professional world, employers need people who can maintain focus, achieve a goal, and work in the situation. Whether or not that is one’s preferred intelligence, is laregly irrelevant to the task at hand (unless you work at Gallup…)
  • Some students do show a greater aptitude for learning (i.e., may have a higher intelligence) than others. Is being strong interpersonally (e.g., precociously social) the same as being able to master math tools? It is not. While social skills are pivotal in many regards, they do not seem to be categorically identifiable with the ability to learn new concepts.
  • Thus, an M.I. infused classroom can fail to impart on students the importance of standard modes of transferring ideas: language. If you cannot learn from reading and listening, your options are severely hampered.
  • I agree with Ferguson’s insight that some of the intelligences are not seperate from one another, or may be better categorized together. “Cognitive performance on skills related to verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, and visual-spatial tasks, as well as many memory tasks, tends to be highly related. In other words, it goes back to ‘g.’ [intelligence]”
  • Further, as the author points out naturalist and music (two of my strengths in M.I.) seem to be more along the line of interests than intelligence. And intra- and inter-personal might better be “described as personality traits.”
  • A successful person is one who can utilize many of these traits, integrated together.

A part of the problem I am wrestling with is the reality that during my studies for my masters of education, not a moment was spent critically examining the theories that under-girded the department. That is, even when I attempted to examine Piaget’s theory of learning (a foundational element to M.I.), my professors refused to lead the class into such a misty quagmire of thought and research.

Am I likely to continue to utilize M.I. in my classroom? Yes, I will, primarily because it diversifies my instruction. Am I likely to really accept this eight-way division of intelligence without empirical data to back it up? No. It is frosting on the cake of teaching, but its root assumption, that all children are wonderful and equally endowed with powerful intelligences of some sort, seems contrary to experience***.

Ferguson’s article points out an extreme flaw: the lack of empirical data to justify the continued use of multiple intelligences as a foundational element in teacher formation. However, given the current politically-correct culture, it seems unlikely that M.I. will vanish from the scene: it is nice, and that is what counts, it seems. And to end my rambling (thank you for bearing with me thus far), I find it well worth it pause on what Uncle Gilbert (Chesterton, that is) once opined: that it is a strange thing when students (in this case, teachers) are taught by theories that are younger than they are.

*(A question for another day is whether constructivism is even compatible with an epistemology within a Catholic worldview?)
**(This difference is especially fascinating. Given that we now say education is ‘female-orientated,’ when in the past these traditional methods seemed to perpetuate a ‘male-dominated’ intelligentsia… I’m just saying, its curious)
***(NOT that this means anything toward the root human dignity of any of my past or future students or how they- or classes of people- should be treated. As Henri Nouwen points out in his writings, sometimes it is those with severe mental handicaps and disabilities that can teach most poignantly about human dignity, compassion, and faith).

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One Response to “Intelligence and Multiple Intelligences”

  1. Anonymous said

    Well done!

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