Multiple Intelligences Theory in ELT: A New Model

Also published in Modern English Teacher Volume 17 Number 4

Multiple Intelligences in ELT: a Reappraisal.  

Our enthusiastic but all too often uninformed application of Multiple Intelligences Theory to ELT may actually have increased the intelligence bias it sought to diminish.

Practitioners ran to embrace Gardner’s nascent theory in the late 80s while the theory itself was still being refined. Gardner proposed seven initial intelligences, though suggested that this was not exhaustive – merely those that he had so far ‘proven’ via his battery of tests. So while absolutely viable and deeply challenging to existing ideas of intelligence, the schema was incomplete. Challenging the largely linguistic and logical bias of the IQ paradigm, Gardner posited the existence of additional intelligences each of which we possess in varying amounts due to both innate and environmental causes. The additional five were interpersonal, intrapersonal, visual, musical, and kinesthetic. Significantly, the idea of naturalistic and existential intelligences came later.  Still, even recent publications are hazy on the last two, particularly existential intelligence.

Prior to the suggestion of existential intelligence, facets of mystical or spiritual introspection were erroneously ascribed to intrapersonal intelligence. In reality, intrapersonal intelligence manifests in far more mundane ways, and would be typified by qualities of self-directed organization, planning and everyday awareness of one’s limitations – think librarian not shaman. While being the flip side of the interpersonal coin, it is not contrary to it: you can be high or low in both. In classroom terms, soul searching for answers to the big, though not necessarily spiritual, issues is the realm of existential intelligence, not intrapersonal. As such, early descriptions in ELT publications of the intrapersonal as being ‘dreaming’ and ‘deeply inside’ were highly misleading, if not damaging. While Gardner is hesitant to fully endorse his ninth suggested intelligence, I would suggest that it is vital to our understanding and analysis of classroom activity within a Multiple Intelligences framework.

When naturalistic intelligence was first proposed in the mid 90s, we struggled to find ELT applications. Seizing on Gardner’s description of the categorizing tendency of the botanist, we sought to reach out to our naturalistic students by having them categorize entirely abstract concepts like grammar. Nothing could be more alien to? the naturalistic student who, in a nutshell, is better reached through the engagement of the senses and discernment of discrete differences in nature (including synthetic products) as well as nature based themes.

The real issue though was our failure to simply examine what was happening in the classroom and how we could use the theory to balance our approach, as well as the assumption that teachers ‘teach to their intelligences’. My own qualitative research would suggest that this is simply not the case.

Some attempts had been made to analyze multiple intelligence bias in learning materials and resources. These studies suffered from a poor analysis of how activities actually manifest. The first flaw was to think of all activities as linguistic, simply because they in some way pertain to language learning. In fact, many activities are more logical than linguistic in nature. That is, an activity should be classified as linguistic if there is a real communicative process or outcome, and logical if the activity is a more analytically based puzzle. In other words, a comprehension-based reading activity may be classified as linguistic where a grammar cloze is logical. This is obvious but significant as, ironically, logical-mathematical intelligence in ELT was seen as one of those peripheral intelligences that are more difficult to stimulate in the classroom. We therefore actively sought to suggest extra logical activities; often in communicatively weak activity suggestions such as, say, calculating the percentages of tenses used in a text.

Now this was a? case of adding fuel to the fire. In fact, even in leading coursebooks, logical intelligence actually tops the ranks of intelligences catered for. Analytical puzzle based activities predominate.

The balance of  intelligences engaged by coursebook activities is clear in Figure 1 which illustrates the analysis of one month’s classroom work from randomly picked units in two leading ELT coursebooks and seven levels of an in-house series.

Figure 1: Coursebook

Size dictated by blog format.

Intelligences from left to right:

Linguistic
Logical
Visual / Spatial
Musical
Kinesthetic
Interpersonal
Intrapersonal
Naturalist
Existential

Logical and linguistic make up almost 60% of activities, the personal intelligences comprise around 25%. In other words, four of the nine intelligences make up almost 85% of classroom activity. Where the remaining intelligences are activated, this is usually in terms of theme rather than actual engagement of a skill pertaining to that intelligence – for example a unit on sport may appeal to kinesthetic intelligence, which is one thing, but may do little to actually activate any actual kinesthetic skills. Note also that of the five less represented intelligences, existential activties feature the most strongly, further emphasising the case for embracing this last tentative intelligence.

To a degree, this pattern of intelligences may be natural to the subject. On the other hand, consider how limited the range is in terms of potential appeal to the spectrum of intelligence in any one class.

It had been presumed that the teacher would supplement the coursebook, whether consciously or even randomly, to balance the ‘intelligences deficit’ implicit in the materials. At least we presumed that if a range of intelligences was not being addressed in the coursebook, a teacher might teach to their particular intelligences and therefore provide at least some redress to the bias. The thinking was that a teacher with higher musical intelligence may tend to complement the text with supplementary activities involving music of some form while in the next room the spatial teacher complements the same text with more visual based activities.

I asked a teacher team of 20 teachers, familiar with the theory, to analyse every supplement they had used to complement their coursebooks in the previous two weeks of their teaching, using the same rationale as I had used to analyze the coursebook intelligence bias. Figure 2 compounds these results with the average of the coursebook activities found in Figure 1.

Figure 2: Coursebook and Teacher Supplement Activities Combined

Size dictated by blog format.

Intelligences from left to right:

Linguistic
Logical
Visual / Spatial
Musical
Kinesthetic
Interpersonal
Intrapersonal
Naturalist
Existential

Startlingly, rather than leveling the intelligence playing field, supplementation actually exaggerates the existing implicit bias. Teachers are choosing to supplement the coursebook with activities that would appeal to a very similar ratio of intelligences to those already being presented within the coursebook.

Bear in mind that the teachers’ own self-assessed profiles were entirely mixed ( difficulties in truly assessing an individual’s MI profile duly noted). So when averaged together as a group there were no significant spikes – the intelligences were pretty even with both the mode and mean being 11%, and linguistic intelligence, as we might hope with language teachers, a little higher at 15%. But this in no way reflected the intelligence bias evident in their choice of lesson supplementation and adaptation. In other words, when viewed from a multiple intelligences perspective, contrary to individual’s own intelligence profiles, there is a collective and rigorous preconceived notion of appropriacy which significantly influences the way that coursebook writers write, editors edit, teacher teach and trainers train. But is it how learners learn? And are our lessons justified in this representation of intelligences?

We are, after all, teaching language which is obviously a linguistic pursuit, involves logical deduction and application of rules and presumably logical contrast with the first language, has communication at its root so is interpersonal, and involves self study and internalizing so has an intrapersonal element. It goes without saying that this is a classroom aimed at the study of language not, say, botany or ballet, and so certain intelligences will be represented more than others.

Unlike botany or ballet however, ELT students are generally non-specialists in so much as the students do not arrive at the school with a predictable profile pattern. They (generally) attend not because they are highly linguistic, logical, interpersonal and intrapersonal and drawn to language learning as a calling, but because learning English is essential to their current or future livelihoods. In fact, in the context of private or adult educational provision, the students are often present precisely because they did not excel within the structure of their previous language provision within school. Using the same indicative test that I had used with the teachers, I tested 100 students aged generally between 16 and 22 , and found that there was indeed an almost entirely even spread of intelligence types when averaged together. Again, both the mean and mode was 11%, with interpersonal a little higher and existential a little lower.

Obviously then, within most ELT contexts, our delivery of classroom activities is rather rigorously targeted to specific student types. While this is exactly the situation that we initially turned to MI to redress, I would suggest that we must do so with care. Every article or published resource on MI in ELT that I have seen highlights ways of addressing all the intelligences (usually omitting existential). As such this merely adds incrementally to the existing intelligence bias rather than acting as a leveler. Crucially, if we can accept that logical, linguistic, and the two personal intelligences are already well catered for, we need to dwell on activities that develop the remaining, generally neglected intelligences.

Tables 1 and 2 show an attempt to align the full range of MI precisely to language teaching.

I would suggest that for each intelligence there are four applications:

Intrinsic: ways in which the intelligence pertains to the process of language acquisition

irrespective of the classroom.

Thematic: the broad areas (topics/themes) that will appeal to a particular intelligence, whether or not the actual activities within the unit pertain to that intelligence.

Dynamic: generic classroom strategies, such as pair work or using flash cards

Activity: specific activities that appeal to an intelligence or range of intelligences.

Additionally, I have listed examples of potential generally non-linguistic (and highly optional) classroom resources.

I have divided the intelligences themselves into two categories: ‘core’, which comprises of the four well represented intelligences identified above as being central to our generic language teaching approach; and the remaining five intelligences which I have labeled ‘catalyzing’ as these are the intelligences that, while less intrinsically applicable to language, are ones that can be activated to catalyze language learning through inclusion of relevant thematic, dynamic and activity applications. Table 2 is therefore limited to these five intelligences. The resource suggestions column was entirely provided by the teacher team I work with when it occurred to us that buying more ELT support texts, and sadly even those directly addressing the theory itself, would little help to address the bias.

I therefore strongly recommend that we see any analysis of MI in ELT as incomplete unless all nine intelligences are included. More significantly however, if we wish to address the existing intelligence bias that seems to permeate every level of our sector of education, we must reduce our supplementation of the already lofty heap of core-intelligence based activities. Wherever possible, we should concentrate on designing courses, planning lessons and building a repertoire of techniques to catalyze the neglected five intelligences.

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