Myth-Busting: Gardner’s multiple intelligences

Every issue, Dr Pedro De Bruyckere takes aim at a common educational theory and summarises the evidence for and against it. This time, it’s Gardner’s multiple intelligences in the hot seat.

There is some truth in every lie: multiple intelligences

In the last issue of researchED magazine, I discussed the grains of truth inside the learning styles theory and I’d like to follow that with something that is often mistakenly used as a kind of learning styles theory: the multiple intelligences theory by Howard Gardner.

What does it state? That we should look to more than just IQ in education. Gardner thought it too narrow to see ‘intelligence’ as one single thing. So he added different modalities of intelligence, such as:

  • musical-rhythmic
  • visual-spatial
  • verbal-linguistic
  • logical-mathematical
  • bodily-kinaesthetic
  • interpersonal
  • intrapersonal
  • naturalistic

This list has been adapted a few times; somebody even suggested adding gastronomic intelligence.

In an interview with Kathy Checkley in 1997,1 Gardner explained that this theory shouldn’t be used as a learning style approach:

A myth that irritates me is that people place my intelligences on the same footing as learning styles. Learning styles say something about how people approach everything they do. If you are good at planning, people expect you to have a plan for everything you do. My own research and observations lead me to suspect that this is a wrong assumption.

But there are more issues than this. In my book,2 we’ve already debunked this theory; but little did we know that Howard Gardner would drop a tiny bombshell a bit later in a kind of memoir looking back at his academic life.

I want to share with you three telling quotes by the man himself. One of our criticisms was that the word ‘intelligence’ is a bad choice as it suggests a predictive power – which Gardner’s theory does not have. Now Gardner explains:3

I termed the resulting categories ‘intelligences’ rather than talents. In so doing, I challenged those psychologists who believed that they owned the word ‘intelligence’ and had a monopoly on its definition and measurement. If I had written about human talents, rather than intelligences, I probably would not have been asked to contribute to this volume.

Ok…but it gets worse. Did he test his theory?

I readily admit that the theory is no longer current. Several fields of knowledge have advanced significantly since the early 1980s.

Nor, indeed, have I carried out experiments designed to test the theory. This has led some critics to declare that my theory is not empirical. That charge is baloney! The theory is not experimental in the traditional sense (as was my earlier work with brain-damaged patients); but it is strictly empirical, drawing on hundreds of findings from half-a-dozen fields of science.

Oh, but should his theory be used today? Well, again, Gardner himself:

At the same time, I readily admit that the theory is no longer current. Several fields of knowledge have advanced significantly since the early 1980s. Any reinvigoration of the theory would require a survey similar to the one that colleagues and I carried out thirty-five years ago. Whether or not I ever carry out such an update, I encourage others to do so.

And that is because I am no longer wedded to the particular list of intelligences that I initially developed. 

Myth-busting multiple intelligences this time requires only that we use the original author himself. Now for the truth inside the myth. Even in our book, we don’t want to call this theory a complete myth, but instead label it as ‘nuanced’. Why? Well, the basic idea behind this theory is that people are different, and maybe you’ve noticed – they really are. People have different interests, different abilities, different moods, etc.

So, for example, taking into account the difference pupils have in their prior knowledge can be very productive for their learning. When pupils have less prior knowledge, for example, a more teacher-directed approach could be warranted.4


Checkley, K. (1997) ‘The first seven…and the eighth: a conversation with Howard Gardner’, Educational Leadership 55 (1) pp. 8–13.

De Bruyckere, P., Kirschner, P. A. and Hulshof, C. D. (2015) Urban myths about learning and education. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.

Gardner, H. (2016) ‘Multiple intelligences: prelude, theory, and aftermath’ in Sternberg, R. J., Fiske, S. T. and Foss, D. J. (eds) Scientists making a difference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 167–170.

For example: Yates, G. C. and Hattie, J. (2013) Visible learning and the science of how we learn. London: Routledge.

See also: Ritchie, S. (2015) Intelligence: all that matters. London: Hodder & Stoughton.