Schneider's From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse, Chapter 2: Multiple Intelligences

In my last post I reviewed the first chapter of Jack Schneider's From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education. There Schneider describes how Bloom's Taxonomy, despite never being designed for K-12 use, managed to make it way into practice at all educational levels. In Chapter 2, Schneider looks at Howard Gardner's Multiple intelligences, another idea that made its way from the research world into K-12 classrooms.

Howard Gardner (CC BY-NC-ND by The Aspen Institute)
Schneider suggests that the success of multiple intelligences is as much a product of an age as it is a product of a scholar. It certainly helped that Gardner was a Harvard professor with a MacArthur "genius grant," but the year of publication — 1983 — plays a big part in the theory's success. The U.S. was well into the "back to basics" era that began in the 1970s, and 1983 was the year A Nation at Risk declared that the country's future depended on the reform of schools to make them economic drivers, namely by focusing on math, science, and technology. This focus on curriculum, especially a focus on a narrow part of the curriculum, is not what progressive educators want to hear. Progressives, in the tradition of Dewey, want to focus on students and their experiences, where curriculum plays the lesser role as merely the means to potentially many learning ends.

According to Schneider, many of these progressive educators were in independent/private schools and they became the early adopters of Gardner's theory. For those schools and teachers, multiple intelligences was a way to distinguish their philosophical stance on education from that of the oncoming (and still ongoing) accountability movement in public schools. Tuition-paying parents certainly didn't object to the idea that their children could be intelligent in more than one way, and the theory seemed to validate the idea of getting a well-rounded education.

The growth of multiple intelligences beyond independent schools, says Schneider, is owed to the transportablility of the theory. Like Bloom's Taxonomy, multiple intelligences is summarized by a limited set of categories with seemingly self-evident descriptions. It's not specific to a particular content area or grade level and matches what teachers see in practice: that different students have different ways of learning and develop different kinds of talents. As with Bloom's, transportability comes with risks of misinterpretation, as Schneider describes:
Multiple intelligences was a theory with different uses for educators. It could challenge the validity of tests, open up standardized curricula, and defend cherished beliefs about teacher professionalism and student ability. But whatever the use, it was a theory philosophically compatible among public school teachers. And it was highly transportable—seemingly easy to understand from the names of its "intelligences" alone. The ironic downside of this, of course, was that it could also be used as a bulwark against real deliberation or debate. As Gardner himself wrote, "It is possible to wave the MI flag without having to think, change, or grow." Though likely not a majority, that was certainly true for some. (p. 64)
In the latter part of this chapter I was surprised and impressed by Schneider's description of how consultants and professional developers played a major role in spreading the use of multiple intelligences. Schneider gets my skepticism of all-too-typical PD:
Competing with one another for often lucrative contracts, third-party providers have a strong incentive to entertain their clientele without asking too much in return, and to develop a message general enough that it can be adapted in multiple settings. Thus, despite research indicating that effective professional development is time-intensive, context-specific, and content-rich, a great deal of training relies on traditional methods of delivery and is strongly shaped by consumer desire. (p. 69)
For those looking for an educational disaster narrative, Schenider's description of how some consultants and authors twisted multiple intelligences is interesting reading. Gardner's role in this is equally interesting, as he seems to sway between defending his theory and supporting those who sometimes misinterpret it for their personal gain. Schneider asserts that Gardner "was not in control [of the interpretation of multiple intelligences], and that perhaps he never had been" (p. 73).

If there was one thing I wish Schneider would have expanded upon, it would have been the commingling of multiple intelligences and learning styles. It's addressed in a couple of paragraphs but only briefly. I'd guess that Schneider could have a chapter dedicated to how theories of learning styles became pervasive in K-12 education, but it might have been too similar and perhaps redundant next to a chapter on multiple intelligences. Similarly, other often-believed theories (like right-brained/left-brained) might have fit in Schneider's book, but I'll take this chapter as representative of the lot. I can always look for additional commentary elsewhere, such as in a recent blog post titled Can Teachers Stop Believing in Nonsense? that addresses common K-12 misapplications of neuroscience.

As I spend more time in the research world, I have an opportunity to not only learn more about theory, but to get to know the researchers behind those theories. Some are at peace with the idea that others will "do what they will" with their work, while others want more control. Gardner took an active role in promoting his work, either directly or through the work of others, and I think he was right to do so. Academics are notoriously poor marketers of their work, which causes useful and legitimate research to get lost among the better-promoted work of think tanks or others whose marketing exceeds their scholarship. Part of the problem is a mismatch of incentives, but I think Gardner, for his struggles, did get some things right: write for a wide audience, advocate for your work, use your work to advocate, and support others who make productive adaptations to your work.

Reminder: Michael Pershan (@mpershan) and I are reading this book together, and for this chapter it's his turn to reply to my post. Keep an eye on his blog at for his follow-up.