25th Anniversary of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory

| February 23, 2008 | 9 Replies

The Wall Street Journal has published a short article commemorating the book in which psychologist Howard Gardner announced his theory of the “multiple intelligences”: Frames of Mind (1983).   [I'd recommend starting with Gardner's 2000 sequel: Intelligence Reframed].

This WSJ article is light-hearted, though it makes some serious points along the way.   It reads as though the writer had an epiphany when he finally realized that multiple intelligence theory does not hold that every child is a genius.  Gardner’s theory doesn’t hold that all children are equally capable.  Rather, MI theory holds that there are many ways to measure intelligence (at least nine major ways, according to Gardner) and that these multiple intelligences don’t meaningfully meld into any sort of all-purpose single score.  Gardner’s main point is that the traditional alleged all-purpose intelligence rating (think of the score of an old-fashioned IQ test) that many educators have traditionally labelled general intelligence is a real world fiction that stigmatizes many children who are brilliant in many ways that society values highly, though they might not excel at math or reading.

In sum, there are a variety of ways in which children (and adults) excel or flounder, and we are better off recognizing a reality-based multi-scale spectrum rather than jamming all of our children under a single scale that measures only few of the well-substantiated intelligences recognized by Gardner:

[Gardner] noted that, while some parents might recoil from an intelligence theory that brings so many into the fold, others might dislike that it opens up new vistas in which their children prove to be below average. I hadn’t thought about that. Contrary to popular misperception, Mr. Gardner explained, MI [multiple intelligence] theory doesn’t mean that every child is outstanding at something. Some children can be below average at everything. My heart sank. . .  Alas, here was the kindly Harvard psychology professor hinting that, while there are more avenues to genius, there are also more opportunities to prove oneself stupid.

[Note:  There is an excellent grade school in my city (St. Louis, Missouri) that utilizes a curriculum based on Howard Gardner's multiple intelligence theory:  New City School. ]

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Alison says:

    I've read bits and pieces of the theory, heard interviews with him and some other supporters from Harvard, and I think it's a terrific advance that's been far too slowly adapted. Sure, some parents will balk at their children being labeled in any way that doesn't make him look like a shining star, but knowing his strengths and weaknesses will allow more targeted teaching that will work better for the child. I know that some early-learning teacher training programs already include information on how to identify different learning styles to help teachers direct their lessons more effectively. Add in an understanding of different intelligence types, and classes can be more effective and orderly. Plus, instead of children failing over and over because they can't overcome an inherent weakness, they'll be able to take pride in succeeding in their strong areas.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    The problem with assessing children is that there are distinct and basic physiological mental changes that occur with

    Puberty

    Adolescence

    Education

    Maturity

    That might all belie early aptitude/intelligence test results. Unless, of course, the results are used to carefully control what a child has access to; limiting him (it? <sup>him</sup>/<sub>her</sub>?).

    If the tests are used to detect special abilities for advanced education/training, fine.

    If the tests are used to decide who not to bother with, not so good.

    Brooke McEldowney (author of comics such as Pibgorn and 9 Chickweed Lane) recently published a strip defining "Public Education" as The bureaucratic process of replacing an empty mind with a closed one.

    (See the original before March 22, '08)

    I'd hate to have multiple intelligence testing used as a tool in this process.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Here is a 2004 paper in which Howard Gardner sets forth more detail on his theory of the multiple intelligences. The title: "Frequently Asked questions – Multiple Intelligences and Related Educational Topics."

  4. TonyC says:

    I'm a consultant, and need to engage with (and teach) people in all walks of life, from many different educational backgrounds and with the entire gamut of abilities.

    I've often found that traditional approaches to 'change management' and communication are extremely limited, and follow time-worn pedagogical pathways. Alternate approaches that leverage peoples 'multiple intelligences' do work in my experience.

    Certainly since re-discovering his theory in the late 90's, I've found myself re-assessing my own communication style to better suit the real multiplicity of people: rather than talk to their 'stupid' facets, I try to engage their intelligent ones!

    It makes for a lot more work for me – and requires to to leverage others in the creation of materials (to counter my own 'low intelligence areas'!) So it also benefits repeatability (communication requires documentation which ensures longevity of knowledge)

    In the end the benefits greatly outweigh the costs. I find I think more broadly about the mechanism of communication, and assess the results more correctly. I also find that my 'students' have greater success in acquiring the new knowledge, or change. I also have a greater body of knowledge and material upon which to build subsequent engagements.

    On a very personal note – I was shocked(!) to discover that I wasn't a super genius in every facet of human endeavor! I guess I won't be getting that Nobel, after all, the Pulitzer will just have to wait, and I'll never be in any 'hall-of-fame'. C'est la vie!

    • Erich Vieth says:

      My kids go to a school based on Gardner's approach (New City School, in St. Louis). One thing that occurred to me is that Gardner's theory is a double-edged sword (as you suggest). Yes, many of us have some learning strengths. But in other ways, we are ALL special needs students.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's some pointed criticism of Howard Gardner's theory of the multiple intelligences, by Christopher Ferguson of the Chronicles of Higher Education. In Ferguson's view "The theory of multiple intelligences fundamentally conflates intelligence and motivation."

    Ferguson proposes sticking with a simpler definition of intelligence: "Intelligence: an innate cognitive ability that powers learning. Perfect? No. But that's basically it." Why is "g" (general intelligence) the way to go?

    Aren't there plenty of Ph.D.'s who can't fix their cars? Sure, but the majority of them could learn if they were so inclined. An individual with low "g" is going to struggle at both book learning and auto repair

    Here is another excerpt from Ferguson's article:

    [E]mpirical evidence to support multiple intelligences was largely absent. As Waterhouse put it, the theory is "persisting without adequate evidence" — and was likely to continue to do so, she added, because of the "good news stories" it provides. By contrast, a wealth of evidence supports the existence of "g," which, contrary to the claims (or wishes) of some people, remains a strong predictor of academic performance, job performance — particularly in highly technical careers or those requiring decision making — and other markers of "success."

    Another issue with the theory of multiple intelligences is that too many of the categories correlate too highly with one another to be separate intelligences. Cognitive performance on skills related to verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, and visual-spatial tasks, as well as many memory tasks, tends to be highly related. In other words, it goes back to "g."

    The remaining intelligences have nothing to do with intelligence or cognitive skills per se, but rather represent personal interests (for example, musical represents an affinity for music; naturalistic, an affinity for biology or geology) or personality traits (interpersonal or intrapersonal skills, which correspond best to the related concept of emotional intelligence).

    http://chronicle.com/free/v55/i39/39ferguson.htm

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    More on the Ferguson article:

    As I read the Chronicles article, I noticed that Gardner anticipated many of these arguments long ago. That's why Gardner worked so hard to define intelligence. Gardner would find Ferguson's definition reductionist, I assume. It's like trying to define one's grandma in terms of sub-atomic particles.

    Ferguson is also obsessed with the need for intelligence to be "innate." I think that Richard Nisbett's new book demolishes that obsession (re the twin studies). Those problems aside, Ferguson's suggestion that ALL displays of intelligence are powered by "cognitive ability" is uninteresting to me, arguably tautological.

    Christopher Ferguson: “Intelligence: an innate cognitive ability that powers learning."

    Compare to Gardner's definition of intelligence, which is far more useful in the real world, and isn't obsessed with innateness, which is an additional (warranted) benefit, in that it doesn't lock people into who someone else defines them to be. It gives many of us (not all) the ability to retool, to become experts in 10,000 hours, etc. It is not elitist . . .

    Here's Gardner's definition of intelligence: [from http://www.howardgardner.com/FAQ/FREQUENTLY%20ASK... ]

    Fundamentally, an intelligence refers to a biopsychological potential of our species to process certain kinds of information in certain kinds of way. As such, it clearly involves processes that are carried out by dedicated neural networks. No doubt each of the intelligences has its characteristic neural processes, with most of them quite similar across human beings. Some of the processes might prove to be more customized to an individual. The intelligence itself is not a content, but it is geared to specific contents. That is, the linguistic intelligence is activated when individuals encounter the sounds of language or when they wish to communicate something verbally to another person.

    However, the linguistic intelligence is not dedicated only to sound. It can be mobilized as well by visual information, when an individual decodes written text; and in deaf individuals, linguistic intelligence is mobilized by signs (including syntactically-arranged sets of signs) that are seen or felt.

    From an evolutionary point of view, it seems probable that each intelligence evolved to deal with certain kinds of contents in a predictable world. However, once such a capacity has emerged, there is nothing that mandates that it must remain tied to the original inspiring content. As the term has it, the capacity can be exapted for other purposes. I assume, for example, that mechanisms related to the recognition of species in nature are now regularly used in recognizing commercial products (the so-called naturalist intelligence is used in the cultural world). Also some of the most powerful human systems—like written language—came about not directly through evolution but through the yoking of visual-spatial and linguistic capacities which had evolved for different purposes.

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