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Learning Theories & Neuromyths

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences

I first encountered Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences when I was working at Manhattan High School and a teacher who I had worked with closely was interested in how I would “score” on it. I liked (and still like) this teacher and she was happy when she was able to guess things correctly about me, so I took her test. She gave me a sheet with a grid of the Multiple Intelligences, I circled statements that were most accurate, and she scored it. She was happy that she had identified me as a Visual-Spatial person, and said it was indicative of high intelligence that I scored highly in the other areas. I was glad that she was happy, but I was highly suspicious of the value of the test. Full disclosure: I’ve been given IQ tests that actually measure specific abilities. This test didn’t measure anything other than one’s perception of one’s capabilities (which is pretty biased, and is going to be wrapped up in personal mythologies and generalizations like “I’m a math person”, “I’m good at sports”, “I’m not brainy”) and enjoyment of certain activities. This seemed pretty meaningless to me, so I wanted to see if there was anything to support this idea of Multiple Intelligences outside of the field of education. I was also worried about how it could be used to pigeonhole kids either through self enforcement or teacher bias. It also plays into the false notion that abilities (and by extension, intelligence) are fixed or inherent values.

Educators are on the whole very supportive of Multiple Intelligences, probably because it can hypothetically help with the idea of differentiated learning and “learning styles”. However, it also encourages the vapid relativism that is all too often found in schools: “Everybody is a genius”, gold stars for everyone, etc. If everyone is a genius, the word loses all of its meaning. We would never assert that everyone is a champion athlete or a hero.

People are insecure about their intelligence in American culture, it’s one of the reasons why intelligent and creative people are ostracized and undervalued. Because Americans see intelligence as something we are born with (which is true to an extent, nature and nurture both play a part), this flies in the face of our meritocratic values: being “smart” seems unfair. So we compensate for our insecurities: we buy into pseudoscience like Baby Einstein, BrainGym, Left Brain/Right Brain dominance, that we only use 10% of our brain; we post feel-good quotes on Facebook like “Everybody is a Genius” and falsely attribute them to Einstein, we watch trivia shows and over-congratulate ourselves when we get the correct answer, we laugh at the ridiculous caricatures of intelligent people on the TV and think how superior we are to those weirdos who are “too smart for their own good” (Big Bang Theory, the “Straw Vulcan” trope, etc.). We do everything but value learning and intelligence. I’m not saying that individual Americans don’t value learning and intelligence, plenty of us do, but the culture as a whole does not. We wouldn’t have such poor funding for the arts and sciences, underfunded schools, No Child Left Behind, early high school start times, or any standardized testing if we actually valued learning.

Which brings me back to Multiple Intelligences. Gardner argues that the link between cognitive abilities is weak, and that his Multiple Intelligences are distinct cognitive abilities. It is far more likely that the opposite is true: neuroimaging studies and intelligence testing do not support the idea of distinct abilities, but a general intelligence (Carol, 1993, p. 624-625). Additionally, Gardner’s categories are almost identical to ones proposed by Plato 2500 years ago (Geake, 2008, p. 126). A lot has happened in scientific discovery since then, especially in the field of neurobiology. Furthermore, Gardner’s definition of “intelligences” is highly subjective.

John B. Carroll absolutely slays the concept of subject-based abilities in his book, Human Cognitive Abilities: A Survey of Factor-Analytic Studies:

…any ability refers to variations in performance on some defined class of tasks. If there is such a thing as mathematical ability, it would refer to…those tasks normally taught and assigned in mathematics courses in school, at different grade levels from elementary to graduate school. Such tasks might differ markedly in their characteristics and requirements; it is not a forgone conclusion that there is only one mathematical ability…mathematical tasks involve a variety of abilities, not only higher-order abilities, but also lower-order abilities such as induction, sequential reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and sometimes visualization. [As well as] specialized mathematical knowledge…“Mathematical ability,” therefore, must be regarded as an inexact, unanalyzed popular concept that has no scientific meaning unless it is referred to the structure of abilities that compose it. It cannot be expected to constitute a higher-level ability. Similar statements could be made about other everyday concepts like “musical ability,” “artistic ability,” “creative ability,” “problem-solving ability,” and the like (1993, p. 626-627).

And to all this criticism you might say, “Well, I don’t care. I use this theory in my classroom and it works/my teacher said it works, so I’m going to use it.”  However, though practicality is always important in the classroom, it’s clearly not the only concern. Being unconcerned with science as it portains to education is wrong-headed, and “undermines the professionalism of teachers.” (Geake, 2008, p. 124). Our profession needs to increase its rigor, especially in the current political environment that seeks to strip us of any shred of autonomy. Entertaining pop-science theories will not help with this. As Geake points out on the subject of neuromyths, “The phenomenon of their widespread and largely uncritical acceptance in education raises several questions: why has this happened?; what might this suggest about the capacity for the education profession to engage in professional reflection on complex scientific evidence?” (2008, p.124).

My teaching will be affected by the idea of Multiple Intelligences, because I will continue to encounter many teachers who wholeheartedly believe in it and other neuromyths. I will do my best to explain why these myths are not supported by scientific evidence and how they can do harm in the classroom when applied in certain ways. I will differentiate my instruction based on the individual children in my classrooms: challenge their weaknesses and comfort-zones, and encourage their strengths.

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy

As an artist, I am flattered that creating is at the top of the list, but I definitely don’t think that creating always requires higher order thinking from analyzing. Indeed, being adept at finding information on the internet can require higher order thinking skills, because it can involve complex connections, applying previous knowledge, and evaluating search results. It’s far from lower-order thinking. In art class, we create and then analyze the created work by critiquing it. All of these things in the Taxonomy are important, and they need to be utilized when crafting lesson plans, but the hierarchy feels arbitrary and it encourages thinking about these skills as distinct entities instead of being highly related and connected when engaging in almost any task.

Dale’s Cone of Experience and Universal Design for Learning

6a00d8341cf01053ef00e54f6ee8c08833-800wiDale’s Cone of Experience and the bastardization of the original diagram is a great example of a neuromyth. It also mirrors what happened to the diagram of the 5 tastes on the tongue.

The myth of the tongue map

Both are a great lesson as to why good design is really important to infographics and diagrams. Ambiguity can easily lead to misunderstandings. There is no rational I can think of for why the information Dale was presenting was shaped as a cone. Both examples can also be used to teach media literacy.

Universal Design for Learning looks legit. The three guidelines are:

  1. Provide Multiple Means of Engagement
  2. Provide Multiple Means of Representation
  3. Provide Multiple Means of Action & Expression

By giving more options you allow for more individualized learning. It seems very straightforward and well done.

My Theory of Choice: Flow

Flow was first described by researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, but has been expanded upon by other researchers. It describes an intense, highly motivated, highly focused state of mind where the sensation of time can cease to exist. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a very addictive state, an ecstatic state, that all artists strive for, because it is when our best work is done and when we are the most productive. Regularly experiencing flow greatly increases one’s feeling of well-being. It doesn’t just happen to artists, but to everyone. You can even experience flow while cleaning a house; you just get into a rhythm and things seem to get accomplished effortlessly. This also mirrors the state of “hyper-focus” that people with ADHD experience (though they are probably not identical brain states). It’s also similar to the Zen Buddhist state of “no mind”. When applied as a learning theory, educators seek to create an environment where flow can be experienced and thus enable the learner(s) to become very immersed in the task at hand.

” Challenge vs Skill Level and Emotional States (Oliverbeatson, 2015)

Adequate skill level and challenge level are very important to this, because if the skill level of the learner is high and the challenge level of the task is low then the learner will become disengaged and just finish the task if they are motivated by points, or not finish the task if they view it as being below them. This is especially relevant in teaching gifted students. However, if the skill level of the learner is low and the challenge level of the task is high, the learner may experience anxiety and shut down. This may lead to negative thoughts towards a subject (math, art, etc.) or erode the student’s self esteem. This supports Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development model. Passive activities such as teacher lecture or watching a video are not conducive to initiating flow.  Things that teachers can do to encourage flow in their classrooms are:

  1. Providing students with immediate, informational feedback. This helps to increase the intrinsic motivation of the student.
  2. Encouraging students to persist, and emphasizing the importance of trying new solutions and building on multiple failures.
  3. Valuing and encouraging cooperation over competition.
  4. Supporting student autonomy.
  5. Tempering new challenges to match students’ skill levels.
  6. Emphasizing the importance of the material.
  7. Focusing on understanding the principles, instead of memorizing facts.
    (Schweinle and Bjornestad, 2009).

Practical considerations for applying flow in the classroom include length of class period. Flow can be experienced during a 30-45 minute period, but block scheduling can make better use of it, as it will account for time to get into the right brain state and let the learner experience it for longer. This is why art studio classes are 3 hours long and why students will often stay much longer (5-8 hours) if time allows and they get into the flow state. Cultivating a supportive, respectful classroom environment is also crucial, but that should be a high-priority concern for all educators.



Carroll, J. B. (1993). Human cognitive abilities: A survey of factor-analytic studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Geake, J. (2008). Neuromythologies in education. Educational Research,50(2), 123-133. doi:10.1080/00131880802082518

National Center on Univeral Design for Learning. (2014, December 11). UDL Guidelines: Theory & Practice Version | National Center On Universal Design for Learning. Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines_theorypractice

Oliverbeatson. (2015, January 5). [Challenge vs. skill, showing “flow” region.]. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Challenge_vs_skill.svg

Schweinle, A., & Bjornestad, A. (2009). Flow Theory. Education.com. Retrieved from http://www.education.com/reference/article/flow-theory/

TED. (2008, October 24). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXIeFJCqsPs

Thalheimer, W. (2006, May 1). People remember 10%, 20%…Oh really? [Web log post]. Will Work At Learning. Retrieved from http://www.willatworklearning.com/2006/05/people_remember.html

Tongue map. (2015, April 3). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 05:40, April 20, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tongue_map&oldid=654814937

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