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MIXED ABILITIES

It ain't what you think, it's the way that you think it
John White, emeritus professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education, has
recently published an essay calling into question the multiple intelligences (MI) theory of
Howard Gardner. Many of us, in schools across the country, use Gardner's theory as a
guiding mechanism behind our classroom practice, and if White has exposed it to be without
foundation, the world collapses and we are the frauds we've always suspected ourselves to
be.
Gardner proposes that intelligence is not limited to what we might call IQ, but is a collection
of seven, eight or nine different intelligences. Logico-mathematical, linguistic, musical,
spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal were the first batch. These have
since been joined by naturalist and (perhaps) by existential.
In short, just because you're not good at maths and English, it doesn't mean you're thick: you
might have some other special ability, and this might usefully be termed an intelligence.
It's an immensely seductive measure for those of us working with students who find areas of
the curriculum difficult to access. Helping a student to discover what they are good at and
giving this the term "intelligence" can have a marked effect on their self-esteem.
Some schools have even gone so far as to have "smart" cards printed for students. These say,
"Hi. I'm Mike, and I have high quotients of musical and logico-mathematical intelligence."
On seeing this, a teacher would know to avoid Mike as one would a leprous dog, since he
likes nothing better than singing songs about sums, and is a nutter.
White's arguments are many and complex. Loosely, though, he suggests that Gardner's
definitions of the varying intelligences have little to do with scientific fact, and are more the
result of Gardner's own artistic judgment, superimposing his own previous studies in the arts
on to Piaget's theories on development. The professor also suggests that Gardner's criteria for
defining an intelligence have been plucked from the ether.
He makes a compelling case. I have had some less academic worries than White's about
Gardner's theories: the definition of naturalistic intelligence for instance. Liking bunny
rabbits and kittens is not a form of intelligence; more likely the reverse. Also, what is the
difference between intrapersonal and existential intelligence? Are the intra-personally
intelligent deep thinkers and the existentially intelligent, like, really really deep thinkers?
The notion of kinaesthetic intelligence is too broad. Anyone who's seen Frank Bruno poured
into a tutu during panto season will tell you a boxer and a dancer aren't the same thing. Yet
Gardner's theory says they possess high quotients of exactly the same intelligence.
When one comes to assessing students' intelligences with web-based tools, you often find
these are creakier than an exam invigilator's Hush Puppies, and the questions one has to
answer are facile. Engaging in regular sporting activity is no measure of one's ability at it,
and being asked whether you like "all kinds of animals" is a question more suited to
CBeebies.
White argues that Gardner's theory is developmentalist: that it proposes the existence of two
polar states for each intelligence, the initial and the mature. The initial state is one's (alleged)
genetic capacity for a certain intelligence: the mature state is less easily defined and relies on
reference to cultural production. Gardner would argue that Keats, for instance, as a poet,
would be an example of a mature linguistic intelligence.
But judging the maturity of this or that person's intelligence on the basis of their achievement
or place in a near arbitrarily constructed canon is faulty. As is the notion that humans have a
limited capacity set by a genetic code. Children are not hard-wired at birth. You can learn
things. Jacqueline Du Pre may not have been a natural cellist, but you can bet your bum she
practised a lot.
At its worst, MI can be used to deny the need to work at things. And, as such, can end up
being just as reductive a form of labelling as the previous forms its application in schools
seeks to overthrow. "I don't have to work hard in maths, I'm musically intelligent."
So there is much in White's essay that makes sense. Where I balk, though, is at any
suggestion that schools should throw out effective practice because it is built on sand. White
says: "If the intelligences are not part of human nature, but wobbly constructions on the part
of their author, educators should treat them with caution."
It all depends on whether you, as an educator, protect notions of truth as utterly sacrosanct.
MI works best as a model through which you can construct a really interesting lesson, or as a
fairly advanced form of differentiation. Rather than getting the pre-literate students to fill out
endless and pointless word searches, get them to dance about it, sing about it, talk about it,
think about it.
And while it may not be scientific fact that these intelligences exist, humans do possess
different competencies. Judging an illiterate kid as thick when, in fact, he can take a car
engine apart and put it back together from memory not only maims him - for life - but it is
factually incorrect. Multiple intelligences may just be a sticking plaster to put on the gaping
wounds of social exclusion, but is the best thing we've got as teachers.
As Gardner says, "So long as materials are taught and assessed in only one way, we will only
reach a certain kind of child. But everything can be taught in several ways. The more we can
match youngsters to congenial approaches of teaching, learning, and assessing, the more
likely it is that those youngsters will achieve educational success."
So, is the theory of multiple intelligences flakier than a seven-day-old almond slice? Quite
possibly. But who cares?
Emeritus: (of the former holder of an office, especially a college professor) having retired but allowed to
retain their title as an honor.

Essay: article, composition


Suspected: possible, suspicion
Thick: dense.
Termed: Called
self-esteem: self-respect, pride, dignity.
Nutter: lunatic
Plucked: remove.
Compelling: convincing.
Broad: extensive
Assessing: Evaluate.
Relies on: to depend on.
Faulty: defective.
hard-wired: connected.
Utterly: totally