Multiple intelligences – virtues and confusions

The idea that there are multiple intelligences, or many dimensions to intelligence, has virtues but also opens up confusions.It is a needed counter to the single-scale idea of IQ. It has the virtue of reminding teachers that a student who does not fit the dominant intelligence needed in a given endeavor is not a Problem. Teachers should create opportunities in teaching and learning for students to mobilize non-dominant intelligences. At the very least, students can benefit from awareness of their preferred intelligences and the fact that among people there is a diversity of preferred intelligences – not everyone learns the same way as they do.

However, there are many confusions when teachers and students refer to Multiple intelligences. Is a teacher supposed to teach to the preferred intelligence of any given student, or to teach the student to compensate for their weaker, less developed intelligence? This question is especially pertinent when a field operates in one (or a few) modes. For example, a student might say “I’m a visual thinker,” but the subject, say, literature or history, requires a lot of reading of texts. Is the teacher supposed to provide visual illustrations as an alternative to the texts, or to teach the student strategies to take in the text? Confusion is even greater when students invoke their preferred learning style and misdiagnose their learning difficulties. For example, the Internet provides abundant opportunities for jumping from one visually compelling page to another, but the distractable student may be better served by downloading the text to be read, printing it out, reading it in a space way from the computer, and marking it up so they are digesting and responding to what they are reading.  It is not the visual versus textual preference that is the obstacle to learning, but trying to learn while online.

When I first encountered educators talking about multiple intelligences, they did not address the question above about teaching to the preferred intelligence of any given student or teaching to compensate for a weaker, less developed intelligence.  When I asked, the best I got in response was “of course, do both.”  That answer does not address the fundamental tension and its implications for teaching and learning.


About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

One Response to Multiple intelligences – virtues and confusions

  1. One of the unfortunate trends emerging from the backlash against multiple intelligences theory is the idea that a particular subject has a preferred kind of multiple intelligence presentation and the learner has to adapt if this doesn’t align with his own. The argument is that this teaches the student persistence and resilience. The counter argument (that a teacher could use to use a less preferred multiple intelligence himself in order to learn the same) is not addressed. Of course one can go too far to accommodate learners, but going to the extreme to accommodate teachers, or a topic, is not balanced either.

    This idea of doing both—teaching to address the weaker multiple intelligences and teaching to utilize the stronger multiple intelligences–really has no measure of how much and when to do each. If you are looking to emotional factors, motivation, and self-awareness, there can be some help for the scaffolding needed. But that isn’t enough. I think the key reason for this broadening of teaching and learning tools is not to build strength though, but flexibility. It might be better to focus on flexibility over strength in the long term learning success of a student.

    I suppose that is why I am concerned at the backlash against multiple intelligences. This is harmful for when either the teacher or the student is unwilling to look at another way to teach or to learn, there is a kind of learning, but it is not useful.

    Rather than choosing to be for or against, I like to extend the idea of multiple intelligences much more. If we can identify and speak in multiple creative intelligences and multiple teaching intelligences, perhaps being “multilingual” in these various forms of metacognition will make us even better creatives and teachers—and learners—overall.

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