Are there Multiple Intelligences ?


Howard Gardner, professor in Harvard's School of Education, wrote an influential book in 1983, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. He proposed that there is not a single" Intelligence," but rather that there are seven:

These ideas have affected education, particularly for enrolling students in Gifted programs. Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences has attracted controversy and criticism. Below are some of the major criticisms of Gardner's theory:


Criticisms of MI this section from:

Gardner's ideas are based more on reasoning and intuition than on the results of empirical research studies (Aiken, 1997, p.196). Gardner argues that his theory is based wholly on empirical evidence and can be revised on the basis of new empirical findings. He says that hundreds of studies were reviewed in the development of his theory and the actual intelligences were identified and delineated on the basis of empirical findings from neuroscience, psychology, anthropology and other relevant disciplines.

All seven forms of intelligence are not of equal importance and value. In his theory, Gardner has proposed that there are seven independent and equally important forms of intelligence. Different cultures assign varying levels of importance to the types of intelligence. For example, linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences are valued most in the US and other western cultures. Bodily kinesthetic intelligence is more highly valued in cultures that depend on hunting for survival. Even within our own culture, critics doubt that all seven form of intelligence are of equal value in education and in life. Robert Sternberg asks whether an adult who is tone deaf and has no sense of rhythm can be considered mentally limited in the same way as one who has never developed any verbal skills.

Gardner's theory does not represent new thinking on multiple constructs of intelligence. Gardner's approach of describing the nature of each intelligence with terms such as "abilities, sensitivities and skills" indicates that his theory is a matter of semantics and resembles earlier work by factor theorists of intelligence like L.L. Thurstone that a single factor (g) cannot explain the complexity of human intellectual activity. In 1938, Thurstone identified seven primary mental abilities (verbal comprehension, numerical ability, spatial relations, perceptual speed, work fluency, memory and reasoning) that underlie all intellectual activities. According to Morgan, identifying these various abilities and developing a theory that supports the many factors of intelligence has been a significant contribution to the field. Morgan believes that Gardner's seven intelligences might be better referred to as "cognitive styles" rather than standalone constructs of intelligence (Morgan, 1996). Sternberg claims that "multiple intelligences might be better referred to as multiple talents" (Sternberg, 1985, p. 1114).

Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is not legitimate because there are not specific tests to measure the seven intelligences. Gardner argues that a singularly psychometric approach to measuring intelligence based on paper and pencil tests is too limiting. Psychometrics is the psychological theory or technique of mental measurement. Gardner recommends that any intelligence be assessed by a number of complementary approaches that consider the several core components of an intelligence. For example, spatial intelligence might be assessed by asking people to find their way around an unfamiliar terrain, to solve an abstract jigsaw puzzle, and to construct a three-dimensional model of their home.

(Note: The Social Quotient system can be used as a specific test of Gardner's social intelligence. See Gardner's comments on the SQ system.)

Gardner's theory is incompatible with g. The concept of g is an integral part of a widely accepted theory developed by Charles Spearman (1927) that intelligence is composed of a general ability (or g factor) which underlies all intellectual functions. Gardner argues that g has a scientific place in intelligence theory but that he is interested in understanding intellectual processes that are not explained by g.

Gardner's theory is incompatible with genetic (heritability) or environmental accounts of the nature of intelligence. Gardner argues that MI Theory is neutral on the question of the heritability of specific intelligences. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of genetic and environmental interactions. Although it is not the focus of his theory, Gardner speculates that each intelligence has a significant heritability. He believes that environmental factors are significant in the development of an intelligence. People who seem gifted in a particular intelligence will accomplish little if they are not exposed to materials that engage the intelligence. The more powerful the environmental interventions and available resources, the more proficient people will become and the less important will be their particular genetic inheritance.

Gardner's theory expands the definition of intelligence beyond usefulness. Gardner argues that a narrow definition of intelligence as equal to scholastic performance and psychometric test scores is too constrictive. Gardner believes that multiple intelligence theory is about understanding the intellect, the cognitive aspects of the human mind. He believes that it is more useful and sustainable to view the intellect from the standpoint of a number of independent intelligences than from the standpoint of test scores or scholastic performance.


Multiple Intelligences becomes popular, in spite of the criticisms

Gardner had the good fortune to find that government money, plus pressure on schools, was waiting for an idea like his. For one thing, schools were getting increased state money for Gifted (high IQ) students. The amount of money doled out was tied to the number of gifted students a school could identify. Teachers of the gifted, interested in boosting the program in which they worked, sought to maximize their number of students. Since there are only a limited number of children with IQ's of 130 or greater (the usual Gifted cutoff level), pressure developed from teachers and parents to expand the Gifted definition. That way more students could get the benefits of this enrichment program. In California, the legislature set up funding for Gifted and Talented Education (GATE). In addition to the academically gifted, students who excelled in other talents, like leadership and music, might also qualify. Gardner's Multiple Intelligences theory provided the rationale for such an expansion, and a cottage industry of MI tests, seminars, etc. developed.

Secondly, pressure from the federal government supported this expansion in the definition of what Gifted was. Civil rights activists were concerned that almost all the students in existing gifted programs were White. Political pressure developed to increase minority enrollment in gifted programs, particularly during the Clinton administration. The fact that average African-American IQ is 85, well below the US average IQ of 100, made the expansion of minorities in Gifted programs a challenge. A good analysis of the results is a lead article in the Wall Street Journal 4/7/04 on Gifted Programs

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