Multiple Intelligences in History of Education Reform

Issue 13. Dec. 12, 2023

Gillian is a seven-year-old girl who cannot sit in school. She continually gets up, gets distracted, flies with thoughts, and doesn’t follow lessons. Her teachers worry about her, punish her, scold her, reward the few times that she is attentive, but nothing. Gillian does not know how to sit and cannot be attentive. When she comes home, her mother punishes her too. So not only does she Gillian have bad grades and punishment at school, but she also suffers from them at home. One day, Gillian’s mother is called to school. The lady, sad as someone waiting for bad news, takes her hand and goes to the interview room. The teachers speak of illness, of an obvious disorder. Maybe it’s hyperactivity or maybe she needs a medication. During the interview an old teacher arrives who knows the little girl. He asks all the adults, mother and colleagues, to follow him into an adjoining room from where she can still be seen. As he leaves, he tells Gillian that they will be back soon and turns on an old radio with music. As the girl is alone in the room, she immediately gets up and begins to move up and down chasing the music in the air with her feet and her heart. The teacher smiles as the colleagues and the mother look at him between confusion and compassion, as is often done with the old. So he says: “See? Gillian is not sick, Gillian is a dancer!” He recommends that her mother take her to a dance class and that her colleagues make her dance from time to time. She attends her first lesson and when she gets home she tells her mother: “Everyone is like me, no one can sit there!” In 1981, after a career as a dancer, opening her own dance academy and receiving international recognition for her art, Gillian Lynne became the choreographer of the musical “Cats.” Hopefully, all “different” children find adults capable of welcoming them for who they are and not for what they lack. Long live the differences, the little black sheep and the misunderstood. They are the ones who create beauty in this world.

Credit- Unknown – posted on Facebook 

Where does MI fit in our efforts to improve school for children?

Welcome to the last MI@40 Newsletter for 2023

This issue gives a history of school reform efforts in the United States since the 1800s. I believe this is important for understanding how MI theory fits into these historical events. If we know our history then perhaps we can have a clearer idea for the future of MI. This will help us to understand the strident resistance to the acceptance of MI theory and how our work can address this resistance. Beginning in 2024 the Newsletter will shift its focus to the future. Your thoughts on the future of MI are welcomed.

The history of school reform in the U.S. has been contentious since the mid-1800s when mass public education grew exponentially to manage the schooling and acculturation of waves of immigrants along with societal changes ushered in by the industrial revolution. Our founders knew that an educated general populace was a key to sustaining the American experiment in democracy (Thorne, 2010). Schools have been infused with idealism aligned with American values enumerated in the constitution (e.g., life, liberty and pursuit of happiness) to provide the highest quality education for students, so the country can flourish.

        Changes in social values and political agendas influence schools in ways that can be detrimental to the provision of high-quality education for all students. One illustration of this is embodied by the adage, “Knowledge is power.” Traditionally, high status families can afford to pay for the best teachers / education for their children, so they are prepared to assume their future roles as elite leaders. The economically disadvantaged are left to fend for themselves with manual labor, semi-skilled training, and skilled apprenticeships. This creates a two-tiered system reinforcing existing social structures.

            The democratic ideal of a well-educated general public overturned this tidy two-tier arrangement, in theory, at least, if not in actual practice. This simplistic division between the college bound and everyone else has evolved since the early 1900s into complicated bureaucratic organizations to accommodate masses of children regardless of status and ability. In a traditional view of education in this country, all children should be required to take a rigorous academic-focused education with high-stakes standards in order to have access to opportunities previously only available to the elite.

The history of the progressive education movement in the United States is long and complicated, beginning in the 1920s with humanistic goals to increase the number of children in public schools and broaden how they were taught. The critique by traditional educators is that such efforts too often abandoned their focus on basic academic skills such as reading, math, science, and history. Such curricular diffusion, the argument goes, deprives the economically disadvantaged of the opportunity for advanced education afforded to the elite, who are simply assumed to be college bound. Thus, from this point of view, humanistic goals undermine the democratic ideal of providing college-based, academically rigorous coursework.

        Contrary to present day progressive ideals, the progressive movement from the early 1920s advocated the use of IQ test scores as part of its “scientific-based” educational organization. This approach strives for efficient school organization for the masses. Test scores are still used by many schools to funnel students according to intelligence levels into appropriate educational streams, e.g., college prep, vocational and general. This was described as progress because it moved from two tiers (high quality education and everyone else) to at least three (if not more) levels according to an objective test of academic ability. Throughout the 20th century, various progressive movements also advocated for a variety of school reforms, including instruction that is child-centered, interest-based, activity and reality-based, social-emotional and based on learning styles.

          Traditionalists decry the erosion of academic quality due to various progressive “fads” in the classroom and other social-cultural influences. This opinion was reinforced when falling college entrance test scores (SAT) were cited as evidence that our schools were failing by the influential government report A Nation at Risk (1983): “The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people . . .”  

1983 – Two Paths in Opposite Directions?

         Coincidently, in 1983, Howard Gardner published his landmark book, Frames of Mind, introducing the theory of multiple intelligences to psychologists, educators, and the world. Both Frames of Mind and A Nation at Risk described problems in American education, but from very different perspectives. The government report sounded the alarm that America was experiencing an existential crisis due to low educational standards, lax behavioral expectations, and degraded teacher education. Gardner, on the other hand, described the negative impact on students of an education based on IQ scores and the overvaluation of a narrow set of academic skills (verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical). According to Gardner, human potential, student engagement, achievement and creativity were undermined by a constricted view of intelligence and related educational goals.

        Recommendations in the Nation at Risk report sparked a nationwide “back to new basics” movement, where all 50 states invested billions of dollars in high stakes academic testing to ensure students did not suffer from social promotion, grade inflation, lack of required courses and minimal graduation requirements. Standardized testing every two years was designed to force schools to require intense focus on the three Rs- reading, ‘riting, and ’rithmetic. And maybe science and history, too, in some states. A direct consequence of the report since 2000 has been the adoption of basic skills tests as the defining measure of school quality. Anything that diverts classroom attention away from the content on the tests is suspect and discouraged*. 

        Meanwhile, critics of A Nation at Risk disputed the evidence and analysis (primarily college entrance exam scores) used as the basis for the report’s conclusions. Some even went so far as to proclaim that schools were doing a better job and reaching more students than ever before in history (Babones, 2015). Many teachers were striving to motivate and engage more students by understanding their particular “learning styles.” They appreciated that even students with identical IQ scores could have very different types of motivation and achievement.

It was onto this battlefield of controversy that MI theory entered, to wide acclaim. Appreciation by teachers around the world, however, was not shared by U.S. government authorities who were looking for an efficient, test-based, quantifiable method of coercing local schools into a standardized curriculum. MI theory is not opposed to “high standards.” MI includes and fully supports the development of all students’ academic skills, but not via a standardized curriculum best suited for those students with IQ-type strengths. Teachers and students who excel at the other intelligences not usually associated academic achievement are thus marginalized in a traditional, standardized curriculum.

        Since the 1980s, classroom teachers have been feeling frustrated; caught in the tug-of-war between “teaching to the test” and other more student-centered methods such as project-based instruction, learning styles, social-emotional learning, etc. MI theory intrigued many educators because it provided a legitimate alternative to IQ and practical lesson plan ideas, to better engage more students. Teachers were already primed with learning styles theories to accept MI as a better view of human intelligence, even though MI is not the same as learning styles (Gardner, 2013), they both have important instructional implications. As educational historian Larry Cuban notes, “…MI is like a life preserver thrown to a drowning person. It gives scientific legitimacy to include all children as learners and grants strong credibility to . . . individualize classroom practices and use instructional materials that embrace MI” (p. 142). MI-inspired instruction brings the founders’ ideals for an egalitarian education for all students directly into the classroom and also for broader social structures.

       Unfortunately, the debate since 1983 has been waged as “MI vs. IQ,” which leaves combatants in opposing corners with little room for compromise, while defending their own metaphorical “hills” in order to retain power and control of schools. In reality, MI theory includes all the skills associated with IQ. MI-inspired educators do not reject reading, writing, math and logical reasoning, and even recognize the usefulness of some tests to evaluate achievement. In the opposing corner, IQ-based educational reformers reject any assessment beyond standardized tests as measures of “school quality.” Non-academic skills are disparaged as merely talents, interests or distractions from core priorities and are considered to be of secondary or tertiary importance.

      How educators move from MI theory to practice is not prescribed by the theory, but instead is open to interpretation. Like the idea of “democracy,” MI is an ideal that some communities choose to strive towards as circumstances permit. Critics tend to believe that the use of MI results in lower academic achievement, but this view is not shared by many educators, who argue the opposite. Critics only associate MI with humanistic psycho-social values and laissez-faire school management and lax standards. These may provide strong debate points, but they are certainly not a necessary result of adopting an MI mindset.

      In her review of 100 years of school reform in America, Diane Ravitch never directly mentions multiple intelligences nor its impact on schools, but regularly notes how innovative educational ideas rarely work for very long in large, public-school systems. She describes several inspirational, small, short-lived and well-funded experimental programs that are difficult to replicate or extend. However, there are a few implications in her analysis for the future of multiple intelligences.

One of those implications is illustrated by this case. Beginning in the 1920s and continuing throughout the century, the tug-of-war between progressive and conservative philosophies was resolved in the Winnetka, Minnesota public schools. This system was inspired by the work of Carleton Washburne (1889 – 1968), where child-centered instruction was used to achieve academic learning objectives, e.g., grammar, arithmetic, phonics, spelling, etc. (1963). “The Winnetka approach used methods of progressive education – individualized instruction, group projects, creative activities, and motivation through students’ interest – to reach goals of traditional education” (Ravitich, 2000, p. 189). Winnetaka was unique and noteworthy because it used these child-centered strategies in large scale public education, not only in niche, well-funded private or university lab schools. Unfortunately, these successful schools did not achieve the fame or influence of educational theories associated with major universities and other “brand name” movements (i.e., Dewey in Chicago, Eliot at Harvard or at Teacher’s College, Columbia).

According to Ravitch, one hundred years of innovative school reforms may have been distractions from intensive academic education, but were not total failures because, “Surely the elementary schools were more joyful places, yet there was no good reason to pose a dichotomy between children’s well-being and the thoughtful study of school subjects” (p. 282). The problem is how to build practical bridges in the daily classroom between these opposing forces of ideology? Can the theory of multiple intelligences help?  Near the end of Ravitch’s comprehensive examination of American schools’ struggle to achieve the dream of providing high quality education for all students, regardless of status or class, she notes,

“Howard Gardner became a national leader of an effort to reclaim the strain of progressivism that championed students’ joy in learning without denying the importance of academic disciplines and to cleanse progressivism of its earlier association with IQ testing, curricular differentiation, anti-intellectualism, and life adjustment education” (p. 463).

From the Margins to the Mainstream?

       Like other non-traditional scientific theories that challenged the status quo (e.g., evolution, heliocentrism, germ theory, etc.) MI has lived on the “margins,” vying for mainstream acceptance. In fact, an entire book was devoted to Gardner responding to the critics of MI theory, Gardner Under Fire (2006).Not only are the multiple intelligences held on the margins as something of lesser value than mainstream ideas, so too, are the people who can most benefit from MI-inspired practices, e.g., students with academic limitations but strengths in one of the “other” intelligences- kinesthetic, musical, naturalist, visual-spatial, etc.

The movement from the margins to the mainstream since 1983 has been a surprisingly long struggle. MI’s longevity was probably aided by Gardner’s 50+ years affiliation with Harvard University and its Ivy League pedigree. This stamp of authority has been important to educators as well as students who don’t fit into the “standardized” IQ mold. Rather than feeling denigrated, they find hope by having their unique MI strengths recognized as a legitimate intelligence — not merely a second-rate learning style.

This fundamental change has practical as well as psychological long-term benefits for students, and also for teachers. Students who are perceived as having second or third class intelligence are forced into a state of “vulnerable marginality.” MI may not be accepted by the mainstream, but it can serve to shift mindsets from “vulnerable” to “valued.”

“Marginality functions differently for those who have it thrust upon them than for those who choose it. Those who did not choose their marginal status often experience feeling different as a painful burden. They may feel trapped in their marginality – at best tolerated but not truly recognized, and at worst, sealed off and scorned” (Daloz, Keen, Keen & Parks, 1996, p. 73).

It is possible to shift from being locked into a lower status (based on IQ) by choosing a wider perspective that honors a full range of abilities with true value for society and each individual’s potential to contribute something of worth. This is not an illusion or phony self-esteem, because each of the intelligences can function as power tools in the solving of problems and fashioning of products or services. Value-based marginality, according to Duloz, Keen, Keen & Parks, works from a position of strength that can “. . .  transform the pain of their marginality into a deepened capacity for compassion and a strength of identity and purpose” (p. 73).  Learning about the multiple intelligences and one’s own unique profile can spark such transformational experiences that changes lives.

The shift away from the curse of an identity label such as “stupid”, “slow” or “merely average” can open up a whole new world of possibilities for a student’s thought and action. To move from being boxed in to being given a fighting chance to excel can bring deep personal engagement with the challenges of school and career development. Not to mention the satisfaction of being able to make vital contributions to society and the community as a valued adult.

What Matters Most

When we move from pejorative labels to careful descriptions of student’s abilities, we are working with an educational fullness and richness that can’t be captured by a simple IQ score. The wider vision of the multiple intelligences enhances each student’s own life project, but it can also “foster the capacity to care for the common good,” which is a universal ideal worth striving for as reflected in American founders’ ideals. Furthering self-understanding builds the capacity to see the good in others along with the good in one’s self. It makes manifest the ideals of “we all have strengths as well as limitations” and “It’s not how smart you are but how you are smart.” which is what ultimately matters.

Personal Reflections

          As I think about what will live on after 35 years of my own MI work, I am struck by three things that have the power to transform lives: the MI language, deeply understanding each intelligence and honoring human potential within each person.

The language we use matters. Using the MI names and words to describe people and their thinking opens windows to new possibilities that may be hidden or neglected. Pulling open the curtain reveals empowering details about the many kinds of intelligence behind successful thinking and actions. 

There is power in the details. It is valuable and mind expanding to go beyond the eight MI names to describe specific sets of skills within each intelligence. Linking these practical ways of thinking to real life tasks and aspirations can make a big difference. Seemingly little things can mean a lot for shifting from merely a “good idea” into meaningful actions. For example, when a student’s doodles are identified as an expression of his visual-spatial intelligence instead of a waste of time then new possibilities for studying using visualization strategies are opened.

             Lastly, teachers and students who see the world through the lens of multiple intelligences are true lifelong learners, even if they are not among the academic elite. MI-inspired teachers around the world have deeply impressed me with their commitment to the common good. They may be working hard on the margins, but they keep going and make a difference everyday, despite the challenges. They are the ones who inspire their students to become the best versions of themselves because “…sometimes nourished by the circumstances of marginality, they have come to a deeply held conviction that everyone counts.”   P.77, Duloz, Keen, Keen & Parks.

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*The impact of standards-based accountability testing systems on the quality of education is difficult to ascertain with any certainty because the tests have changed, the data is complex, and its interpretation often depends upon one’s viewpoint. Since 1983 the United States has gone through at least three changes in accountability systems- No Child Left Behind (NCLB), 2002; Race to The Top (RTT), 2007; Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), 2015; and Common Core State Standards.

Recently two conservative commentators gave NCLB very mixed to negative reviews. Jeffry Van Cleave of Heartland Institute wrote in the that both NCLB and ESSA “failed miserably.” T.S. Dee and B.A. Jacob reviewed data in 2010 from 39 states and concluded that after five years of implementation “NCLB has fallen short of its extraordinarily ambitious goals”.   4th grade math scores improved while no progress was observed in 8th grade math. Notably, there were no “significant effects on student achievement in any of the three reading competencies” despite schools’ intense focus on developing students’ reading skills. Around 2014, national leaders attributed the lack of progress to the bad tests developed by states for NCLB and so launched the multi-million-dollar drive to develop “better tests” associated with Common Core Standards. After vast investments in money and time, the tide turned against the wasted instructional time devoted to web-based testing that produced results of no use to classroom teachers but instead only provided a yardstick by which districts and states could compare themselves to each other. Numerous states have since opted out of the Common Core and use their own locally crafted tests with quicker turnaround times for results.

Progressive commentators have been even harsher in their evaluations of the impact of tests on classrooms and schools that “ . . . have brought a barren, test-bound curriculum that stigmatizes students, vilifies teachers, and encourages administrators to commit wholesale fraud in order to hit testing goals . . . that have been essentially unchanged since 1971 . . .  “ (Babones, 2015).


Babones, S. (2015). Sixteen for ’16: A progressive agenda for a better America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.

Cuban, L. (2004). Assessing the 20-year impact of multiple intelligences on school. in Lyn Corno (Ed.), Special Issue: Multiple Intelligences, Teachers College Record, pp. 140 – 146, New York: Columbia University, vol. 106- no. 1

Duloz, L.A., Keen, C.H., Keen, J.P., Parks, S.D. (1996). Common fire: Lives of commitment in a complex world. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (Oct. 16, 2013). Quoted by Valerie Strauss, ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’ in The Answer Sheet in The Washington Post.

National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk: The imperative for educational reform (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983).

Ravitch, D. (2000). Left back: A century of failed school reforms. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Schaler, J. Ed. (2006). Gardner under fire. Chicago, IL: Open Court.

Thorne, A. (July, 2, 2010). U.S. founding fathers on education, in their own words. National Association of Scholars. Downloaded 12/14/22

Washburne, C. W., & Marland, S. (1963). Winnetaka: The history and significance of an educational experiment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

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