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Assessing the 20-Year Impact of Multiple Intelligences on Schooling

by Larry Cuban - 2004

The article analyzes one claim that I make about Howard Gardner's work on MI: Multiple intelligences has had the greatest influence on educators' beliefs and talk about differences in children's intelligence, moderate to high influence on the formal curriculum and instructional materials, and least influence on mainstream teaching and assessment practices. Based on that analysis, I ask and answer one question: Why has the influence of MI been highest on educators' beliefs and language and least on classrooms practices?

Howard Gardner’s reflections on the origins and unfolding of MI have given me much to ponder. I have personally found the theory powerful in my own work as an urban high school teacher and teacher educator. And I admire individuals like Howard Gardner who generate ideas that jolt mainstream thinking as he has done in K–12 education over the past 20 years. Many educators, policy makers, and informed parents can now say, without hesitation, and with much confidence that people differ in their abilities to solve problems and make contributions to society in diverse ways.

Note that no ‘‘but’’ follows these compliments. These statements are not some clever preface for an attack on multiple intelligences, as academics sometimes do. I mean what I have said, and I want Howard to know how much I respect his work.

What I will do is offer an impressionistic assessment of the impact of multiple intelligences on school reform from the perspective of a practitioner/scholar who has spent nearly 5 decades in and around public schools and has just begun to understand the full complexities of school reform. I focus on reform because Howard has spent a substantial amount of time in the 1990s actively involved in school reform and wrote two books and many articles on the subject.

I make one statement, ask one question, and offer one answer to that question. In referring to multiple intelligences, I use the initials MI as most scholars and practitioners do.

The statement is as follows:

MI has had the greatest influence on educators’ beliefs and talk about differences in children’s intelligence, moderate to high influence on the formal curriculum and instructional materials, and least influence on mainstream teaching and assessment practices.

Let me be clear on this statement. I do not hold Howard Gardner responsible for what has happened to MI as it has filtered into schools and classrooms or the various interpretations and misinterpretations that have occurred since 1983. As he noted, ‘‘[I] had noticed a number of misinterpretations of the theory-for example, the confusion of intelligences with learning styles’’ and practices that he found ‘‘offensive-for example, describing different racial or ethnic groups in terms of characteristic intelligences.’’

As Howard well knows, creating ideas is one thing, and being responsible for putting them into practice is another. From John Dewey and William Kilpatrick on progressivism to Mike Smith and George W. Bush on systemic reform, thinkers and doers have often gone their separate ways yet swore allegiance to the same idea.

After elaborating each part of the statement, I ask and answer one question: Why has the influence of MI been highest on educators’ beliefs and language and least on classrooms practices? So I now return to the statement ‘‘MI has had the greatest influence on educators’ talk and beliefs about differences in children’s intelligence.’’

A decade ago, Howard explained the popularity of MI among teachers:

Just as it would be unfair to blame me for the sometimes uncritically positive response to my ideas on the part of educators, it would be short-sighted to ignore the lessons drawn from the appeal to educators of the theory. . . . To begin with, MI theory does accord with the common sense extolled by [others]: People are different and have different minds. It is also a hopeful and optimistic theory, one that says one can build on strengths and that there are many ways to achieve self-esteem and to accomplish something meaningful in school and the world beyond. (p. 580)

I agree with his assessment. I have been part of teacher and administrator groups for many years, particularly in urban districts before and after MI registered on educators’ radar screens. Beyond my personal experience, one only has to cull teacher-written articles and testimonials to see the enormous influence that MI has had on how teachers, administrators, and teacher-educators talk about students’ capabilities.

MI has been a boon to teachers who recognize time and again in their gut that students whose homework leaves much to be desired, who under-perform in classroom activities, and who do poorly on most tests to the point that they eventually acquire official labels have different abilities that cannot be easily captured in homework, classroom tasks, and tests.

To those teachers, 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 those teachers who take the next steps to individualize their classroom practices and use instructional materials that embrace MI. So there is no question in my mind that educators’ beliefs about the varied capacities of their students and the addition of MI vocabulary to their talk about teaching and learning have been highly influenced by the theory. These beliefs and vocabulary have also trickled down to formal state and district written curricula and text materials, which is the second part of my statement: MI has had moderate to high influence on the formal curriculum and instructional materials.

If you browse the Web or search Google for MI, you will see the number of states, school districts, and individual schools-not to mention teacher- education programs-that contain curriculum guides, syllabi, units, and lessons drawing on versions of MI is large. State and local officials and teacher educators recommend to veteran and novice teachers approaches that incorporate MI. One social studies text I know well is called History Alive by Bert Bower and his associates; it grounds U.S. history units and lessons in MI. Classroom assessment tools have also been developed by Howard and his associates that use MI as a guide to measure students’ performance. Thus, my impression is that MI’s influence at the formal curricular level and actual lessons and materials has been moderate to high even amid standards-based reform, increased testing, and high-stakes accountability programs.

Which brings me to the point of where MI influence has been least apparent-actual classroom practices. This is the last part of my statement: least influence on mainstream teaching and assessment practices.

In making the claim, I do recognize that there are many different versions of MI schools and that Howard and other reformers came together in the early 1990s to develop programs various sites across the country. The results, I believe it is fair to say, are underwhelming as captured by various researchers and acknowledged by Howard himself. For example, less than a decade ago, Howard quoted his colleague Mindy Kornhaber, saying that ‘‘one reason for the success of MI is that educators can cite it without having to do anything differently’’ (p. 580). At about the same time, in a series of video conversations with Howard, he noted that MI had become fashionable among educators. He went on to say, ‘‘It’s very superficial. I mean, people label a kid as being linguistic or bodily kinesthetic but then teach just the way they did before.’’ Reports from progressive-minded teachers in the past 5 years further testify to a hardening of traditional practices in the face of high-stakes testing for their students, creating even more difficulties for those who seek to use MI as a tool for engaging students in deeper understandings of academic content.

After elaborating on each part of the statement, I now come to the one question I ask: Why has the influence of MI been highest on educators’ beliefs and talk and least on classroom practices?

My answer comes from several insights that I, Dave Tyack, Milbrey McLaughlin, Dick Elmore, David Cohen, and others have gained from investigating policies aimed at changing teaching and learning and the journey those policies have taken in reaching the classroom door. One insight, simply stated, is distinguishing between policy talk, policy adoption, and policy implementation.

Differentiating between talk about a reform, its adoption, and eventual implementation is important because too many smart policy makers, business leaders, and journalists, even after all of these years of policy studies, mistake the pervasiveness of reform talk for policy adoption. Even worse, when adoption of a policy occurs, these highly educated folks err in thinking that classroom practice has changed. So the variation in the influence of MI that I described is, in part, due to the substantial slippage between pervasive policy talk, partial policy adoption, and little policy implementation.

But describing is not explaining. Why does this slippage occur? I and many others who have tried our hands at reforming classroom practices have learned-and I suspect that Howard is in this group-that districts, schools, and classrooms are nested organizations with robust structures, hierarchies, and cultures that, more often than not, transform powerful ideas into familiar practices.

This is not to argue that teachers and principals are pieces of driftwood tossed about by powerful waves. Collective action by teachers and administrators can make a difference. Nor do I argue that all school organizations are pathological, malevolent or hostile to change. While that may be accurate for particular school systems, that is not the case for most districts and schools. Anyone conversant with efforts to improve corporations, hospitals, courts, and governmental organizations knows that these institutions, like schools, when faced with determined reformers have shaped changes to fit existing practices. And each of us also knows of those organizational basket cases (i.e., districts, schools, and classrooms where few of us would dare to work) that can be turned into excellent places for students and teachers. Still, all of these are the exceptions.

What I have found discouraging is that policy makers and reform-minded elites intent on putting their favored program into practice often overlook or minimize the powerful hold that larger societal values and organizational norms and structures have on those working within the institution. In their eagerness to install changes, they often disregard the multiple purposes that schools serve, how schools are organized, and the social and political contexts that shape both curriculum and classroom practices.

And here let me turn to MI as an example of what I mean. I could just as well use other examples of reforms, such as computers in classrooms or science curricular reforms. MI is an instance of a reform aimed at altering substantially classroom teaching and learning and as a reform can illustrate, as similar ones have done, the sturdy and enduring nature of district, school, and classroom organizations.

To make this point, join me in a thought experiment. Let us imagine a situation where MI is not only viewed as the best practice by policy makers, administrators, practitioners, and parents but that psychologists, sociologists, and educational researchers have said unequivocally that MI is exactly what teachers need to know and use in their classrooms. Not only do the experts, practitioners, and parents agree that MI the best tool for guaranteeing each child access to the larger world of disciplinary knowledge and skills, but they also swear that MI offers children many chances to make contributions to the larger culture. Finally, civic, business, and foundation leaders have pledged to supply resources to help make MI a part of each teacher’s classroom in the nation. Yes, I know this has the trappings of a fairy tale, but bear with me.

Even with these most favorable of conditions where scientists, policy makers, elite opinion makers, parents, and practitioners agree on MI being both worthwhile and correct and with resources made available for implementation, I argue that were cheerleaders for MI to visit teachers they would again see much variation in use of MI in classrooms and far more classrooms where little trace of MI could be observed. Why is that so?

The short answer is twofold. In a society driven by competition and individualism, tax-supported public schools have acquired multiple purposes that practitioners struggle with daily to reconcile in their classrooms. Second, organizational structures and norms, reflecting larger cultural values, play a large part in shaping what teachers do in their classrooms. This political and institutional side of schooling mirrors larger cultural values and tends to be ignored by reformers intent on substantially changing classroom practices. Let me elaborate this short answer.

Consider what is expected of public schools. Parents want public schools to provide a safe and healthy place 8 or more hours a day for their children. Parents expect schools to equip their children with the knowledge and skills that will give their sons and daughters a competitive edge in the climb up the socioeconomic ladder to financial and social success. Taxpayers and parents expect students to become literate adults who reason clearly, think independently, and carry out their civic obligations. Both want graduates of schools to meet workplace and university requirements. Thus, schools are to build citizens, prepare workers for the job market, cultivate children’s moral character and potential, while giving each child a competitive edge in scaling the social ladder. These multiple purposes, conflicting as they are, need to be seen as grounded in larger societal beliefs about the virtues of competition and individual success.

Now consider how district and school organizational structures, also grounded in the larger social ethic of individual success and competition, have influenced how teachers have taught. Structures refer to the 150-year-old age-graded school with self-contained classrooms, a curriculum divided up into chunks for each level, 50-minute periods at the secondary level, and large classes. Within and around the age-graded school structures, cultural beliefs and norms have evolved over time about the importance of individual growth and competition, winners and losers among children, which students are the best to teach and which are hardest to teach.

Within the age-graded school structure, the teacher manages 25 to 40 or more students of approximately the same age who involuntarily spend- depending on their age-anywhere from 1 to 5 hours daily in one room. Teachers face intense conflicts. They must cope with a crowd in a classroom while creating individual personal relationships; they have to cover academic content while cultivating depth of understanding in each student; they have to socialize students to abide by community values while nurturing creative and independent thought. These contradictory classroom tasks, unlike anything policy makers, administrators, and foundation-funded reformers have to face, require careful expenditure of a teacher’s time and energy.

In these overlapping school and classroom structures, teachers have learned to cope with conflicting and multiple demands by inventing resilient, imaginative, and efficient teacher-centered practices to deal with conflicting obligations and managing diverse students in a small space for extended periods of time.

So in trying to finesse conflicting goals within an age-graded school structure and adhering to powerful cultural norms, teachers have forged out of their experiences an awareness about which innovations they will try out in their classrooms and adapt to their circumstances.

Thus far my answer stresses that the many purposes of schooling, larger cultural values, and structures of the age-graded school produce certain regularities in instruction and position the teacher as gatekeeper for permitting and excluding reforms from her classroom.

As I see it, MI with its focus on helping teachers see individual student’s strengths has to be located within this larger political, institutional, and cultural context to understand why teachers’ practices vary so much in their response to MI, even under the most favorable of conditions-the fairy tale I spun earlier.

In short, MI and other reforms aimed at helping individual children achieve full potential of their diverse abilities often take little notice of institutional norms and structures. In doing so, such reformers unintentionally bolster the already strong societal values of individual success and competition embedded in those very school structures, routines, and teacher cultures. Like many other similar reforms, MI in accepting rather than challenging existing school structures, fortifies the school’s institutional task of sorting out, through competition, which students are the winners and which are the losers.

Now, I am not making a case that multiple purposes and structures determine everything that occurs in schools. Or that teachers are helpless leaves in the winds of impersonal imperatives. What I want to stress is that reformers eager to change teachers’ classroom practices and improve how students learn need to take seriously the classroom, school, and district contexts while keeping their eyes on the connection between their reform and how it fits or doesn’t fit the larger context in which teachers must act daily.

I come to the end my remarks. In responding to Howard’s reflections I concentrated on his ideas and efforts to reform classroom practices. My response should not take away from the substantial contributions that Howard Gardner and MI have made to the changes in professionals’ and parents consciousness about children’s intelligences and what could occur in schools.

In studying the history of school reform, MI is merely one case among many that have tried to alter substantially what has occurred in the nation’s classrooms. My claims about differences between reform talk, adoption, and implementation or the importance of alignment between school structures, cultures, and the thrust of the reform come directly from my work and that of other historians who care, as Howard Gardner does, about what happens in schools and classrooms. I thank Howard for his contributions to our knowledge of children’s intelligences. Should he venture again into school reform, I would love to continue this conversation.


Gardner, H. (1994). Multiple Intelligences: The theory into practice, a symposium. Teachers College Record, 95(4), 580.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 1, 2004, p. 140-146
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11515, Date Accessed: 12/7/2021 9:39:45 AM

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