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.

Schneider's From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse, Chapter 1: Bloom's Taxonomy

I hold some grudges when it comes to the topic of research to practice in education. A few highlights: A principal who (probably rightly) thought I was struggling to engage my students told me to watch Barbara Streisand's performance as a college professor in The Mirror Has Two Faces and "do what she does, because her students love her." The question, "Which academic journal did she read that in?" sarcastically crossed my mind, and no, I never watched the movie. At a state conference presentation about RtI, a presenter told us to only use research-based intervention strategies. When a teacher at my table asked, "How do we know if a strategy is research-based?" the presenter responded, "I figure if it's something you find in writing, and didn't just make up by yourself, then it's research-based."

My curiosity for research eventually landed me in graduate school and I now spend more time than ever thinking about the intersections of research and practice. When I saw Jack Schneider (@Edu_Historian) had a new book called From the Ivory Tower to the Schoolhouse: How Scholarship Becomes Common Knowledge in Education, I ordered it right away. Michael Pershan (@mperhsan) also picked up a copy and we're reading it together, taking turns reviewing and replying chapter by chapter. You'll probably want to read Michael's thoughts on the introduction and first chapter, as my post is partly a review of Schneider and partly a reply to Michael.

It would be rather pedestrian to write a book showing how education research doesn't make it into the world of K-12 education. If you randomly selected an article from an education research journal, and randomly selected a classroom, you'd be hard-pressed to find any impact of that article in that classroom. Repeat that process 5-10 times and you've got yourself a (lousy) book. Schneider, on the other hand, turns this on its head: he identifies four ideas from education research that have made their way into widespread practice. These four ideas have somehow beat the odds — odds determined not by a lack of teacher knowledge or interest in research, but, Schneider claims, the "fundamental separation of the capacities and influence needed to move research into practice" (p. 4).

The first of Schneider's four ideas to bridge the research-practice gap is Bloom's Taxonomy. I remember working with Bloom's Taxonomy as a student, perhaps as early as middle school. I certainly saw it in some of my teacher education courses, usually when we were learning to write educational objectives. Schneider, an education historian, reveals that the taxonomy wasn't never built for use in K-12. Instead, it was a tool for categorizing learning objectives for undergraduate courses and making comparisons across institutions. This was in the late 1940s, when behaviorist theories of learning said a learning objective should describe observable changes in student behavior.

Michael's review highlights two of Schneider's arguments for why Bloom's Taxonomy became well-established in K-12. First, teachers saw in the taxonomy support for things they were already doing, and second, the taxonomy "meant many different things to many different educators." Michael takes the bold step of wrapping these together as "Schneider's Dilemma," asking if there's much hope for changing practice if the only research teachers adopt is research that tells them to keep doing what they're doing.

I'm not quite ready to subscribe to the Schneider's Dilemma theory, and I'm not sure Schneider would be, either. This is just the first of Schneider's four cases, after all, so I'll withhold judgement for now. I see hints of ideas here that I've seen elsewhere, in particular Michael Apple's (1992) description of the 1989 NCTM Standards as a "slogan system," where statements or claims are general enough to get wide support without being specific enough to garner disagreement. Schneider offers many complimentary reasons why Bloom's Taxonomy became popular, including such things as the number and prominence of Bloom's grad students who could carry the taxonomy far and wide, and (more importantly) what Schneider calls transportability, a characteristic of an idea that makes it easy to convey to teachers, relevant across diverse contexts, and applicable on demand. Wrapping many of these reasons together, Schneider writes:
In short, the taxonomy was a shape-shifter. It seemed to address major questions about the process of schooling without proposing a major theory to be refuted. As a consequence, it was philosophically compatible among different—and sometimes ideologically opposed—groups, some of whom worked as teachers and many of whom worked in other positions. Yet despite all this inherent complexity, the taxonomy was, at its core, quite simple. Made up of six hierarchical categories, beginning with knowledge and ending with evaluation, it could be easily described, represented, and transported. (p. 35)
Michael is right to ask if Bloom's Taxonomy has done us much good for all its widespread popularity, but that's not really the question Schneider set out to answer. I'm okay with that: Asking how Bloom's Taxonomy gets into practice is different than asking if it's been used effectively, and I'm more interested in the first question than the second. Schneider says, "Without question, the taxonomy has had an uneven life in practice" (p. 49) and I have no doubt he's right. I'd like to believe that Bloom's Taxonomy has done more good than harm, even if it's shallowly used and applied in ways Bloom never imagined.


Apple, M. W. (1992). Do the standards go far enough? Power, policy, and practice in mathematics education. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 23(5), 412–431. doi:10.2307/749562