Oct. 6, 2023
Welcome to Barriers and Bridges in the Classroom!
Joyce van Deursen, teacher, Netherlands
This is a special double issue. Authors address two themes: Is MI valid? Does MI work in the classroom? Of course, these are vital questions as acceptance of MI in schools hinges on their answers. Conventional leaders have done their best to thwart MI adoption despite enthusiastic and creative efforts by student-centered teachers. This is exemplified by our first author Joyce van Deursen’s personal experience of the power of MI to engage students in the Netherlands. The negative answers to these two questions are illustrated by Lynn Waterhouse who proclaims, “MI is a neuromyth” and that teachers are irresponsible for using MI activities in their lesson plans. Her recent full paper in Frontiers in Psychology is available on the web. I reprint her abstract here along with my rebuttal essay. I realize that this is a rather lengthy defense of MI but the details are important (albeit rather dry) for grasping the deep foundations upon which MI is based. In fact, a fuller description of these foundational details is forthcoming. Stay tuned. Also look forward to hearing more about how the multiple intelligences continue to be of interest in Asia, specifically Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China. We’ll also examine how MI has fit into the historical school reform efforts in the United States. It is a fascinating story that continues to this day.
My 20 years of MI helping students in my classroom
By Joyce van Deursen, Netherlands
For me, Multiple Intelligence doesn’t start 40 years ago, but about 20 years ago when I was just starting as a teacher in primary education. I soon saw the challenge in increasing the children’s involvement in the lessons. The children quickly found it annoying to listen for a long time and do assignments in a workbook over and over again. I also learned that repetition is important. But repeating the same thing over and over again… boring… and so the students’ motivation decreased.
On this quest I came across the theory of Multiple Intelligences. Despite the criticism of the theory in education because it is not sufficiently scientifically substantiated, it still appealed to me. I see it as a way to put into practice the knowledge that neurological science has acquired in recent years: Learning is easier with positive emotions, success experiences and with a diversity of stimuli.
Applying MI in the classroom
This is how I got to know the 8 different Intelligences. An incentive to ensure that, even under the pressure to perform in mathematics and language, I continued to pay sufficient attention to world orientation and the creative subjects.
Then came the challenge of how to ensure cross-pollination. So how can I use other Intelligences during a math lesson than just the Logical-Mathematical and how can you also use the Naturalistic Intelligence for reading comprehension, for example? With the structures of Cooperative learning (Spencer Kagan) you can easily use different Intelligences in a lesson.
In the process, I also became more creative in using different forms of processing. For example, I had the tables practice with self-drawn paths where children practiced the tables while jumping and saying the multiplication tables out loud (Logical-Mathematical, visual-spatial, physical-kinesthetic) and we summarize the knowledge acquired about the human body in a mindmap (naturalistic, visual- spatial).
After years in the classroom, I increasingly ended up in individual guidance of children and adults. I learned to work with the MIDAS questionnaire through school counselor Mat Custers (BCO) and the AMI Foundation. This questionnaire gave me the opportunity to gain a broader picture of individual students. In our Western educational world, a lot of attention is paid to math, linguistic and social side. As a result, we often miss the 5 other Intelligences that children who get stuck at school excel in. By using the MIDAS questionnaire, all of a child’s talents and preferences emerge, even those that are usually less explored at school. For example, I once had a student in class with dyslexia. She was demotivated from learning (‘I’m stupid’) and reading was certainly not her hobby. After completing the MIDAS, it turned out that she was strongly Musical-Rhythmic and Interpersonally intelligent. The confirmation that she was good at something was already a boost for her self-confidence. You need musicality to be able to read beautifully and doing it together made it a lot more fun for her. She started reading to toddlers and found the joy again. And her confidence, because later she took part in a reading competition.
From MI you don’t say: How Intelligent are you? But: How are you Intelligent?
A way of thinking that helps children and adults.
“A neuromyth is a commonly accepted but unscientific claim about brain function. Many researchers have claimed Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences (MI) theory is a neuromyth because they have seen no evidence supporting his proposal for independent brain-based intelligences for different types of cognitive abilities. Although Gardner has made claims that there are dedicated neural networks or modules for each of the intelligences, nonetheless Gardner has stated his theory could not be a neuromyth because he never claimed it was a neurological theory. This paper explains the lack of evidence to support MI theory. Most important, no researcher has directly looked for a brain basis for the intelligences. Moreover, factor studies have not shown the intelligences to be independent, and studies of MI teaching effects have not explored alternate causes for positive effects and have not been conducted by standard scientific methods. Gardner’s MI theory was not a neuromyth initially because it was based on theories of the 1980s of brain modularity for cognition, and few researchers then were concerned by the lack of validating brain studies. However, in the past 40 years neuroscience research has shown that the brain is not organized in separate modules dedicated to specific forms of cognition. Despite the lack of empirical support for Gardner’s theory, MI teaching strategies are widely used in classrooms all over the world. Crucially, belief in MI and use of MI in the classroom limit the effort to find evidence-based teaching methods. Studies of possible interventions to try to change student and teacher belief in neuromyths are currently being undertaken. Intervention results are variable: One research group found that teachers who knew more about the brain still believed education neuromyths. Teachers need to learn to detect and reject neuromyths. Widespread belief in a neuromyth does not make a theory legitimate. Theories must be based on sound empirical evidence. It is now time for MI theory to be rejected, once and for all, and for educators to turn to evidence-based teaching strategies.”
by Branton Shearer
After reading Lynn Waterhouse’s latest denial of the validity of multiple intelligences (MI; Frontiers in Psychology, 2023) I am left wondering how best to respond to her large blind spots, biased conclusions, errors in reasoning and factual misconceptions. It is challenging to critique Waterhouse in a limited space because she gets some things right and many things wrong. I hope to highlight areas of agreement as well as her errors. Since she dismisses my own research out of hand, it is a bit uncomfortable choosing the right words without taking personal affront. The points she raises are too important to be reduced to a collegial argument, but it is interesting how she easily dismisses with insults the 68 – 90% of the teaching force that values MI theory—around the world, I might add, despite well-funded government efforts to discredit MI. With exasperation, she notes how resistant a majority of teachers are to change their positive views about the value of MI-inspired teaching strategies (2023, p. 7; Rousseau, 2021). Teachers simply refuse to see their work as some kind of science lab experiment where they are expected to become well-versed in neuroscience methods. Is this surprising?
Perhaps Waterhouse has felt a similar discomfort since 1983 as the legions of teachers she castigates for believing in MI dismissed her own belief in IQ (general intelligence) as a malicious kind of myth. Waterhouse’s nearly fourteen-year career at the Educational Testing Service (ETS) must have been discomforting years as the IQ test industry (and aligned schools) were attacked as being culturally biased, suspect and harmful (Block & Dworkin, 1976). But, the testing industry rebounded to even greater influence as conservative politicians came to its rescue and launched nation-wide testing regimes that invested millions of dollars in every state. Sadly, these massive efforts have proven to be very poor investments with minimal improvements in student achievement. Instead, time consuming testing programs negatively impacted the quality of students’ educational experiences (especially on the narrowing curriculum) (Amrein & Berliner, 2002; Dee & Jacob, 2010). It seems very possible that traditional instructional practices are not the holy grail that Waterhouse would have us believe. State by state, leaders have turned their backs on massive testing regimes. It is little wonder that Waterhouse has worked diligently to defend the traditions associated with IQ testing given her many years at ETS. It is hard to have your daily work attacked, I know.
What does this have to do with MI being denigrated and dismissed as merely a neuromyth?
Rather than arguing with each and every point where Waterhouse misses the mark, I’ll limit this response to three or four big misses and let the reader decide if her criticisms still hold up. I will point to consequential research supporting MI as a scientific theory, rather than delving in deeply here. Waterhouse cites only two of my ten published reports describing evidence for the validity of MI theory. Interestingly, several of these papers directly address her specific criticisms and yet were omitted from her critique.
Three points are important considerations. First, Waterhouse (2006) (and others) originally focused their MI criticism on the lack of “empirical evidence” (i.e., standardized tests) and now they dismiss MI as a neuromyth because one of the eight criteria for MI is evidence from neuroscience. Second, rarely acknowledged but of profound importance, critics do not accept the definition of intelligence used as the foundation for MI theory. Intelligence is “a biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.” (Gardner & Moran, 2006, p. 227) This definition more fully humanizes intelligence theory and makes the use of standard tests to validate MI very difficult and inappropriate. But, alternative qualitative assessments have proven to be both valid and effective when well designed and used with care (Chen & Gardner, 2012; Shearer, 2007, 2018; Shearer & Reith, 2011). Unfortunately, because these are not tests aligned with IQ theory they are not acceptable to the psychometric tradition that Waterhouse represents and so are dismissed entirely.
Third, central to Waterhouse’s argument against MI is that it is simply a neurological theory where there are independent brain modules dedicated to processing each of the eight intelligences. This is a deceptive misrepresentation. Several facts refute this assertion. Neural evidence is only one of eight criteria used to validate each intelligence*. Validity of any theory is established through multiple lines of investigation. If Waterhouse does not acknowledge the value of the scholarly disciplines and qualitative data supporting MI theory’s validity (e.g., biology, sociology, anthropology, evolution, etc.) then she is professing a type of scientism that restricts truth to a biased kind of data. This may work in biology where everything of interest can be measured exactly but is inappropriate to describe human potentials.
In neuroscience the terms used to label brain processes are important, especially given the brain’s dense interconnectedness. Each intelligence has clearly identifiable systems comprised of specific neural architectures that work in concert to produce the end result (Shearer & Karanian, 2017). This system model applies as well to general intelligence (see the P-FIT model, Jung & Haier, 2007). So, no, there are no “modules” in the brain that can be simplistically labeled as the “music module” or for that matter even an “IQ module”. Given this, I wonder if Waterhouse would also label IQ as a neuromyth if it didn’t provide support for her emphasis on academic skills?
It is worth noting that MI is not anti-general intelligences-type skills so it is a false argument to pose MI vs. IQ (or its related academic skills). Of course, logical and linguistic thinking are essential to human intelligence. When the neural components of the logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences are combined there is a striking resemblance with the P-FIT model for IQ. This evidence supports MI theory rather than undermining it. There is a major issue among IQists with exactly how to define general intelligence because scholars have found more than 70+ definitions (Legg and Hutter, 2007) but invariably they must include tasks related to the language and logical thinking.
Waterhouse believes that MI has failed to identify specific neural components accounting for the eight intelligences but this is also a false assertion (Shearer, 2019, 2020). She states that MI neural systems must be completely independent and solely dedicated to each intelligence. That’s not how relatively independent and neural systems work. Indeed, there are neural components that are primarily responsible for specific contents that link together in consistent ways to form predictable neural architectures for each intelligence. This does not preclude neural flexibility and structures that serve like building blocks with multiple uses. She cites linguistic intelligence as having inadequate neural definition. However, there is a practical logic to the multiple uses for linguistic neural architecture that involves sound processing as well as physical movement (speech). There are the visual processing components for reading as well as interpersonal communication (speech and writing) and intrapersonal (self-talk). Does this mean that identification of a linguistic intelligence is a neuromyth? I think not. It would be a very odd and distorted kind of science that would draw such a conclusion. Instead, it demonstrates how each intelligence can be combined to serve functional roles in everyday life.
It is important to note the place of MI in the history of science. There is strong evidence that MI is a transformative theory as described by Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962, 1970). Waterhouse and her colleagues are harbingers of a 19th century fading “normal science” theory of human intelligence. During the transition from an inadequate view of reality (geocentrism, pre-Darwinism, flat-Earth cosmography, etc.) proponents of accepted “normal science” will strenuously defend their theories as sacrosanct. The first and fundamental task of science is to describe reality and shine light on our blind spots (Diamond, 2005). MI theory moves the conversation from 19th century, western cultural empiricism to embrace a wide range of evidence that aligns more fully with the history of human experience. Musical intelligence is not merely a “nice and fun hobby”. Is a symphony worth less than a novel? A national anthem? Is a ballet of less value than a mathematical equation? As Gardner often notes, each culture and context determines such valuations. The ballet star in a math classroom may be denigrated and pegged as “merely average” unless their strengths are recognized and logically linked to the course skills.
Waterhouse is right that definitive tests of how MI can enhance academic achievement have yet to be completed but there are innumerable signposts pointing the way forward (Chen, Moran, & Gardner, 2009); Kornhaber, Fierros, & Veenema, 2004; Hoerr, Boggeman, Wallach, 2010). Unfortunately, normal scientists and conservative leaders are too busy gazing backward to build MI-inspired pathways to the future. While hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in a failed nationwide testing regime, innovative ideas were discredited and banned. MI does not offer a simplistic “one size fits all” educational formula (that scientists and political leaders adore) but instead is a “tool kit” that requires some retraining to use with proficiency. We are still learning how to maximize the development of each person’s cognitive potential. There are no easy answers or simplistic formulae. Forward thinking educators embraced this challenge until they were systematically defunded and restricted to “teaching to the test” to maintain their employment. Thus, the light from many MI inspired schools and classrooms was extinguished or at least dimmed. Apparently, Waterhouse’s frustration with teachers has motivated her to renew her attack on MI theory that began in 2006.
Lastly, instead of pretending that measuring the human mind is equal to weighing brain matter on a scale, Gardner does everyone a favor with MI theory by making explicit the cultural aspects and subjective influences on our cognitive behaviors. Rousseau agrees, “Cultural values always interface the leap from science to practice” (2021, p.3). MI theory does a fine job of describing how our minds work within our personalized-social-cultural contexts. Thirty-five years working with the Multiple Intelligences Developmental Assessment Scales (MIDAS) in 25+ countries and more than 12 language translations confirms this (Shearer, 2007). This is too large of a topic to cover here (evidence that does not appear in Waterhouse’s critique) but suffice it to say that data from more than 750,000 MIDAS profiles across languages and cultures supports the integrity of each intelligence as relatively independent cognitive systems with cultural dimensions**.
I created The MIDAS in 1985 with the goal of obtaining information to test MI theory’s validity and provide useful information to teachers, counselors and psychologists. The second half of my career has focused on the systematic examination of the neural systems underlying each of the multiple intelligences. I began this work as a rehabilitation counselor for people recovering from brain trauma so this was a natural progression. The MIDAS was developed as a clinical interview with patients to obtain information to create “person centered” cognitive treatment plans as an adjunct to the standard neuropsychological tests that I administered. This is where standardized skills tests can work well with qualitative, wide-ranging assessments to form well-balanced educational plans. Waterhouse misses this integrated, personalized approach to building academic skills with MI theory. It is no wonder that the number one complaint of students about school is that it is boring (Mora, 2011). When teachers fail to value your unique strengths then it is easy to disengage both emotionally and mentally.
Waterhouse also ignores MIDAS standardized reliability and validity from around the world and across decades (Kim, 1999; Saban, Kayıran, Işık & Shearer, 2012; Saeidi, Ostvar, Shearer & Jafarabadi, 2015; Shearer, 2012a). She fails to note how the MIDAS Profile has been implemented effectively in numerous schools and organizations at all age levels. This data would be an inconvenient addition that undermines her argument that MI is an ineffectual neuromyth that must be dispelled. Educators in Singapore, Taiwan, Chile, Korea, Ireland and the Netherlands continue to explore MI-inspired strategies to create strength-based educational plans.
Highlights of this work are being published in the MI@40 Newsletter www.MIresearch.org to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the publication of Gardner’s landmark book, Frames of Mind, in 1983. The goal of developing students’ and adult human potentials continues despite the distortions of recalcitrant critics.
*The eight criteria can be grouped into four general categories: biology (neuroscience and evolution); analysis (core operations and symbol systems); psychology (skill development, individual differences); and psychometrics (psychological experiments and test evidence). The criteria are:
1. potential for brain isolation by brain damage
2. place in evolutionary history
3. presence of core operations
4. susceptibility to encoding (symbolic expression)
5. a distinct developmental progression
6. the existence of savants, prodigies and other exceptional people
7. support from experimental psychology
8. support from psychometric findings
** See for www.MIResearch.org for research archives and publications. MIDAS publishers are available in the Netherlands, Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil, and S. Korea.
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