Recipe for Realism

Multiple intelligences. Why has the idea always made me want to laugh? Because I’m a mean rotten swine, that’s why. Obviously. Yes but also because it is quite funny. It’s so easy to think of more of those alternative intelligences. Watching tv intelligence, eating intelligence, using the potty intelligence.

Now, one aspect of the general idea seems perfectly unexceptionable.

Gardner’s ideas appealed to many traditional teachers who extolled hard work but also had some students who did better on tests if multiplication tables were set to music or works of literature were acted out in class.

Well, obviously – if it works, do it. (That is, do it if you can, which seems unlikely when most teachers have classes of 30 to 35 students, five times a day. When are they going to get the time to teach everyone differently?) But that’s a different thing from drawing large conclusions about multiple intelligences.

This summer, two university professors accused Gardner, 61, of encouraging elementary school teaching methods, such as singing new words or writing them out with twigs and leaves, for which there is no scholarly evidence of success. Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in the journal Education Next that Gardner’s theory “is an inaccurate description of the mind” and that “the more closely an application draws on the theory, the less likely the application is to be effective.”

And Gardner says one thing that’s slightly alarming.

He added that “the standard psychologist’s view of intelligence is a recipe for despair. It holds that there is but one intelligence and that intelligence is highly heritable.”

Yes but…the fact that something is a recipe for despair is a separate question from whether there is good evidence for it or not. Sad to say, there are a lot of accurate descriptions of the world that are indeed recipes for despair, as well as hopeful ones that are not accurate. Gardner’s benevolence is a good thing, but benevolence-driven research can get things badly wrong.

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