A Glitch in the American Educational System

Amanda Siegel  |  December 11, 2013  |  6 min read  ・  in op-ed


Six blind men lived in a village.  One day the villagers told them that, for the first time, there was an elephant in the village.  The blind men had never encountered an elephant before.  They decided that even though they would not be able to see it, they would go and find out what it felt like.  Each of them touched the elephant.
The one who touched its leg said, “the elephant is like a pillar.”
The one who touched its tail said, “the elephant is like a rope.”
The one who touched its trunk said, “the elephant is like a thick tree branch.”
The one who touched its ear said, “the elephant is like a big hand fan.”
The one who touched its belly said, “the elephant is like a huge wall.”
The one who touched its tusk said, “the elephant is like a solid pipe.”
The blind men argued about this, each one insisting he was right, until a wise man who was passing by helped.  He explained they were all correct.  The elephant has many facets and together they make up the whole.

~ Jain parable
Like the blind men, each with a different perspective that altered his view of that elephant, the American educational system is hampered by its restrictive view of intelligence – a view that excludes consideration of critical facets of what it means to be “smart.”  The most common conception of “intelligence” follows the traditional definition:  “the ability to learn or understand [information] or to deal with new or difficult situations” (Merriam-Webster, 2013).  This definition focuses on linguistic and logical skills (Gardner, 1983) and is reflected in the approach of school systems and the views of society as a whole.  Simply put, individuals who possess strengths in these particular areas are considered intelligent, while those lacking in these areas are not.  However, this approach, unnecessarily narrow and rigid, is flawed, for what if the strengths that are lauded are actually an arbitrary subset of a broader spectrum of abilities? Has society agreed to focus exclusively on one part of the elephant?  And, in doing so, are we doing a disservice to those whose talents lie in other areas? That’s what psychologist and Harvard University professor Howard Gardner thinks. 

When Gardner thinks of “intelligence,” he envisions a construct radically different from the traditional view.  To Gardner, a person is intelligent if he or she is able to, “create an effective product or offer a service that is valued in a culture,” or possesses “the skills that make it possible for a person to solve problems in life,” or has “the potential for finding or creating solutions for problems” (PBS, 2013).  First presented in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind:  The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardner formulated his theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) which holds that individuals possess eight different kinds of intelligence.  Gardner’s thesis, which has been well-supported by considerable evidence in the years since it was introduced, points to a serious problem in our country’s educational system: The traditional approach to education in America is biased in favor of individuals who possess intellectual strengths in areas representing a relatively small subset of the full range. 

Gardner’s theory of MI proposes eight different types of intelligence:  linguistic intelligence, mathematical intelligence, musical rhythmic intelligence, bodily kinesthetic intelligence, spatial intelligence, naturalist intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence, and interpersonal intelligence (Gardner, 1983) and as such provides a framework for classifying a student’s broad profile of strengths.  This information, in turn, can be used to customize the way the student is educated. Linguistic intelligence involves strength in writing and speaking.  Linguistic learners have the greatest success in classrooms in which lessons are taught through lectures.  Similarly, musical rhythmic learners also benefit from lectures and auditory lessons, as well as skilled music classes. Musical rhythmic learners thrive in chorus or band programs and have more success in completing work while listening to music. Students who are mathematically intelligent tend to be very successful in mathematics and sciences classes and excel when lessons are presented via numbers, rather than letters and words.  Bodily kinesthetic learners show a proclivity towards physical activity. For this reason, it is particularly challenging for bodily kinesthetic learners to sit through long classes and lectures and maintaining their concentration and focus. Intrapersonal learners are far more successful working individually, without the consultation of others. In contrast, interpersonal learners are inclined towards working with others, usually in small groups, to achieve educational goals. Students with naturalist intelligence are able to put forth their best work when working outside in nature.  Spatially intelligent learners enjoy their greatest success while mentally visualizing scenarios. Spatial learners often experience the greatest success in mathematics and science courses, similar to mathematical learners.  Unfortunately, such an enlightened approach is seldom realized in the typical American classroom.

Traditional educational methods prescribe that classrooms are arranged with rows of desks facing a blackboard.  A teacher stands at the front of the room and lectures for the duration of the class period.  Students are expected to listen and take notes, under the assumption that this will best facilitate their comprehension of the material presented.  Although this method has proven successful for linguistic and musical rhythmic students, it is not equally well suited to all students.  In short, the system is designed to best tap into students with particular learning styles.  Students with other intelligences, such as bodily kinesthetic or naturalist, are punished in a sense by being forced to learn in ways that do not maximally tap into their particular areas of strength, essentially robbed of the ability to reach their full academic potential.

Students whose strengths lie outside those areas traditionally associated with academic excellence are often not considered smart.  Although they may have considerable strengths in many other domains of intelligence, the disconnect between their profile of abilities and the environment in which such students are expected to learn may leave them and their teachers with the impression that they are less capable than they actually are.  Such students might not only be robbed of the ability to be recognized for their strengths, but they may also internalize the belief that they are not intelligent, leading to decreased motivation which might further diminish their academic success.

Schools must heed the imperative of identifying and nurturing the gifts of all students, regardless of the areas in which those strengths lie.  Every student in our country has the right to be educated in the way that will most likely lead to success. Society as a whole will surely benefit from an approach that taps into and brings out the best in every learner.  It is time for our school systems to heed the  scientifically validated work of Howard Gardner.  It is time to consider the entire elephant.






  • Gardner, Howard.  Frames of Mind:  The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.  New York:  Basic Books, 1983.

  • "Intelligence." Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, 2013. 29 Sept. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intelligence>.

  • PBS, Educational Resources: Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory. PBS, 2013. 29 Sept. 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/education/ed_mi_overview.html>.