Multiple intelligences on steroids

June 29, 2010 | By | 1 Reply More

Professor of Cognition and Education Howard Gardner has made a strong case that “general intelligence” is a socially stifling concept, even a dangerous concept. He argues that there is much more to being “intelligent” than mastering the academic content that we have traditionally measured, topics such as reading, writing, and math.  I find Gardner’s arguments intuitive.  After all, many people struggle with traditional subjects, but they are incredibly proficient (geniuses, if you will) at interpersonal skills (think of community organizers) or spatial skills (think of carpenters).  Gardner has set forth the  criteria for what constitutes an intelligence:  “There are at least eight discrete intelligences, and these intelligences constitute the ways in which individuals take in information, retain and manipulate that information, and demonstrate their understandings (and misunderstanding) to themselves and others.”

To be clear, an “intelligence” is far more than a skill set for Gardner.  Here he describes it in even more detail here:

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’ve put forth a candidate set of intelligences that are said to have their own characteristic processes and to be reasonably independent of one another. Over time, the particular intelligences nominated, and their degree of dependence or independence of one another, will be more firmly established.

How does Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory compare to traditional methods of defining and measuring intelligence? The traditional approach involves assigning an overall score (e.g., an IQ score) to each person, thus characterizing the degree to which that person is smart. What’s wrong with this approach whereby we assign a “general intelligence” (or “g” score) to each person?

MI theory questions not the existence but the province and explanatory power of g. ‘g’ is a statistical outcome and its strength varies to some extent on the assumptions that are built into the factorial model being employed. We do not really understand what is measured by ‘g’—it could be anything from sheer intellect to motivation to skill in following instructions to the ability to shift facilely from one kind of problem to another.

I’m going to make an over-generalization, but it might be one to which you can relate. Imagine your class valedictorian from high school–you know, that student who aced all of those tests, including standardized tests.  Now consider . . . Was that person adept socially? Was he or she artistic or an athletic “genius”? Was he or she in tune with nature? He or she was probably not equally capable in each of these areas. Therefore, why assign the label “smart” to the student who excels at math, reading and abstract thinking, and disparage the student who excels at emotional IQ, spatial skills or athleticism, but who only does passably at traditional academic subjects? Gardner comments:

I am uncomfortable with the assumption inherent in g: that an individual who has a high ‘g’ could be equally accomplished in any intellectual area. MI theory is an extended argument against this all-purpose view of intellect.

The theory of the multiple intelligences recognizes many forms of intelligence (Gardner has recognized at least eight so far:

  • Spatial
  • Linguistic
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Kinesthetic
  • Musical
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalist

The theory of multiple intelligences then goes on to urge that we evaluate each other by this wider range of competencies, rather than sizing up everyone in the room by how they would do on a standardized IQ test.

The theory of the multiple intelligences is a double-edged sword for those who want to be seen as achievers. Yes, those who have traditionally been recognized as “intelligent” will still be at the top of the heap, but only within a particular intelligence or two.  But they can’t any longer claim their superiority based on their standardized IQ scores, because IQ scores only measure a narrow range of competencies. There’s a lot more work to be done for one to be recognized as an all-round “intelligent” person. Many of those who don’t excel at traditional IQ tests might also benefit from Multiple Intelligence Theory. No longer should they be labeled as “not intelligent” across the board. Many of them excel at other types of valuable skills, and they they should be recognized for these proficiencies.  We never ever ask about IQ scores when we consider the genius of John Lennon, Martin Luther King, Ansel Adams, William Shakespeare, Michael Jordan or Abraham Lincoln. In fact, we would probably hesitate to make any of these people take a standardized IQ test because such a narrow test would probably declare that many of these geniuses were geniuses in the IQ sense, which would, of course, cast judgment on our stifling narrow method of defining and measuring intelligence via IQ tests.

The Multiple Intelligence theory is thus liberating in that it allows us to fine-tune what we mean when we label someone as “intelligent.” But Gardner was just getting us started.   What if you are an organization looking for people to run your organization?   You’d likely be seeking competency_wheel-1certain “competencies.”  Microsoft, working with Lominger, a leadership development firm, set out to define these competencies, which then led to a fascinating list of  “educational competencies,”  which define the full range of characteristics needed to help a school district achieve its organizational goals and vision.  I believe that Microsoft came up with an excellent list of qualities that individuals need in order to help school districts succeed in the 21st  century. These qualities, or success factors, are:

1. Individual Excellence: Ability to achieve results by working effectively with others in various circumstances.

2. Organizational Skills: Ability to communicate by various means within different organizational settings.

3. Courage: Ability to speak directly, honestly, and with respect in difficult situations.

4. Results: An emphasis on goal-oriented action.

5. Strategic Skills: An array of skills used to accomplish focused, longer-term goals.

6. Operating Skills: An array of skills used for daily management of tasks and relationships.

But there’s still more.  The above six categories are just the basic categories.  Each of them branch out into yet other, more specific skills.   They are often displayed graphically on the Educational Competency Wheel. The Microsoft Education Competencies were designed to help educators and administrators develop their professional skills and proficiencies. They were also designed to help school districts and other educational organizations “find the right job candidates fill key jobs.”  I found the Wheel to be a humbling one as well as a tool that should inspire us to teach others and improve ourselves in the many ways that I had not previously considered. Truly, I don’t know any person who excels in most of these areas.  Take a tour around this wonderful Wheel, then ask yourself the extent to which we need each other, in that it is a rare human being who excels at all of these qualities.

Many of us have come a long way from the traditional method looking to IQ tests to determine who is “smart,” and that is a good thing, because the traditional way of evaluating each other blinded us to many of the geniuses among us.   For those of us who did well on the IQ tests, it also blinded us to the many areas in which we, ourselves, could use improvement. These new methods of evaluating intelligences and competencies should tell us that we are all special education projects, and that most of us have valuable qualities to offer, even if we struggled at filling in those little circles with our number 2 pencils.


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Category: Education

About the Author ()

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 lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
    ― Albert Einstein

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