Multiple Intelligence (MI) theory, originated by Howard Gardner, has been around for several decades. As a scientific model of mind or way of accounting for learner differences, it has been severely criticised for a number of reasons. These include the lack of empirical evidence and scientific measurability, inadequate criteria for defining what an ‘intelligence’ is, and the problem of how an ‘intelligence’, in the case of music for instance, may be differentiated from a ‘talent’ or ‘gift’. MI theory, therefore, comes with a strong ‘health warning’. Despite this, it has nevertheless had enormous appeal for many educators. Some of the reasons for this are:
- It resonates with our everyday classroom experience of the differences in the children we teach.
- It provides us with a flexible, organisational tool for planning varied, balanced lessons and units of work (how many ‘windows’ can we open on to the content of our lessons).
- It helps us to cater for diversity and to ‘reach and teach’ all the children in our classes.
- It enables us to help individual children build on their strengths.
- It makes us aware of individual children’s unique learning profiles and preferences.
- It makes us aware of our own learning profiles and preferences, and this in turn can help us to provide children with a more balanced approach when we teach.
However, there are also some key provisos which mean we need to be cautious about this instinctive pedagogic appeal:
1 The word ‘intelligence’. As educators, we should always try and guard against the danger of thinking of ‘intelligence’ as a ‘thing’ which children either have or don’t have, in greater or lesser measure. As Williams and Burden say, intelligence is a hypothetical construct and, in their view, it would be better if the word itself was an adjective or an adverb, rather than a noun, in order to reflect that people are more or less ‘intelligent’, or act more or less ‘intelligently’, in different situations.
2 The danger of labelling. We need to guard against the danger of using MI theory to label children e.g. He’s a visual-spatial learner. Any kind of label that ‘pigeon holes’ children tends to be ultimately inadequate, limited and limiting, sometimes prejudiced and, at times, also unhelpfully self-fulfilling.
3 MI as an end in itself. The third proviso is to do with seeing the development of children’s multiple intelligences as an end in itself. As language teachers, our main responsibility is to develop children’s skills and competence in English, or whatever foreign, second or additional language we teach. This means that the key application of MI theory to our everyday life in the classroom is the way that it can potentially provide, in Howard Gardner’s own term, ‘entry points’ to learning and ‘a powerful tool that can help us achieve our educational ends more effectively’.
4 What constitutes effective instruction. The fourth proviso is to do with erroneously thinking that a range of varied activities which appeal to different kinds of learners or ‘intelligences’ is sufficient in itself to ensure that effective instruction will take place. We also need to remember the importance of coherent learning objectives and outcomes, cohesive sequencing of activities as well as including clear examples and demonstrations, explicit modelling of thinking processes, opportunities for participation and divergent responses, and constructive feedback.
With all the above in mind, MI theory can nevertheless provide us with a useful planning tool that helps to ensure variety and balance in the kind of language input and practice opportunities that we give children.The practical example to illustrate this below comes from using the traditional story of Goldilocks and the three bears with a group of six-year-olds as part of a story-based unit of work. Although there is clear overlap between the activities and categories e.g. singing and acting out songs is verbal-linguistic and kinesthetic as well as musical, MI provides a framework that allows us to keep a healthy check on the range of activities we include. This is on the basic assumption that i) ‘variety is the spice of life’ (and learning) and ii) the more ways we find to make learning appealing, engaging and memorable for children the more effective we will be as teachers.
Goldilocks and the three bears: MI framework
- Repeating and saying new words
- Listening to and joining in the story
- Saying The three bears chant
- Playing Bingo, Memory, Goldilocks says …
- Identifying things that are big, small, tiny
- Saying who’s in your family
- Making guesses
- Talking about bears
- Re-telling the story
- Associating pictures and words
- Finding differences in pictures
- Ordering pictures
- Drawing and completing pictures
- Doing a puzzle
- Following a maze
- Keeping the rhythm of The three bears chant
- Singing the song Goldilocks goes to the house of the bears
- Singing the song A happy family
- Identifying patterns in picture and word sequences
- Deducing numbers in a sequence
- Deducing the correct card in a game
- Acting out the chants, songs and story
- Cutting out and playing with picture cards
- Playing games e.g. Bear can fly!
- Doing a bear drama activity
- Making and moving the story character pencil puppets
- Acting out the story in groups
- Acting out a role play between Goldilocks and Baby Bear
- Playing communication games e.g. with picture cards
- Exchanging information about your family
- Choosing your favourite character in the story
- Drawing and writing about your own family
- Completing activity sheets related to the story
- Evaluating and assessing your work
- Recognizing different types of bears
- Identifying bears that go to sleep (hibernate) in winter
It would be interesting to hear your views of MI theory – whether for or against – and whether or not MI theory has any practical use or application in your teaching. Please do share your thoughts!
Gardner H. Frames of Mind 1983 (1st edition), 1993 (2nd edition) New York: Basic Books
Williams M. & Burden R.L Psychology for Language Teachers 1997 CUP
See also Lindsay Clandfield’s Six Things blog for discussion on Six things about Multiple Intelligences that you might not know.
Note: the illustration of ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’ is from Bugs 1, Read C. & Soberón A., Macmillan Education