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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

An Interview with the Father of Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner reflects on his once-radical theory.
Owen Edwards
Credit: Peter Gregoire

On the 26th anniversary of his book Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner discussed the impact and evolving interpretation of his groundbreaking theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner, the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, answered our questions in a wide-ranging conversation via email.

Your book presented a theory that seemed at once novel and also self-evident. Do you think teachers have found it daunting as well as liberating?

One reason for the popularity of the idea of multiple intelligences is that it can be summarized in a sentence. So the idea of a number of relatively independent cognitive capacities is not in itself daunting. What is daunting is the notion that one should therefore change one's pedagogy, curriculum, or means of assessment. But the theory says nothing about educational practice per se; it is a theory of how the human mind is organized.

Many teachers who believe in the idea of multiple intelligences complain that assessing a student's intelligence and responding with activities and curricula isn't feasible in typical classrooms. Is this a legitimate concern?

Of course, if you draw the inference that education should be individualized, an MI education for 25 or 40 kids in a class can sound daunting. It's certainly easier to individualize if you have one or just a few youngsters in your charge. But particularly in the era of new digital media, individualizing has become much easier.

There is no reason algebra needs to be taught in just one way. If software exists, or can be created, to teach algebra in numerous ways, what possible objection could there be to such individualization? And even when the software does not exist, there are many ways in which one can individualize -- for example, by having students help one another, breaking the class into "jigsaw" groups, presenting ideas in multiple ways, and so on.

I think that the problem is not changing because of MI; it is changing for any reason. Most of us would prefer to do just what we've been doing before, whether or not it has worked well.

It's been noted that many psychologists responded to Frames of Mind unenthusiastically. Was that a surprise to you? As educators have embraced the concept, has the psychology community come around?

I was somewhat surprised that the response on the part of educators was much warmer than the response on the part of psychologists. But in view of what I have just said, maybe I should not have been surprised. Why should psychologists -- and particularly psychometricians, who make their living giving IQ tests -- want to change their idea of how the mind is organized and how its capacities should be assessed?

I don't think MI theory has won many converts among hardcore psychologists, though it is typically mentioned in textbooks -- perhaps because it is hard to ignore a theory that has gained so much attention in the wider community. But the "action" is no longer in psychology -- it is in neuroscience and in genetics. In the long run, those disciplines will ascertain what is valuable and valid in MI theory, and what is of limited use or wrongly construed.

With human intelligence such a subtle and expansive phenomenon, how were you able to limit your list to the original seven? Is MI some sort of psychological string theory, with possibly infinite universes to be discovered?

After 25 years, I've added only one intelligence (the naturalist intelligence) and am considering another (the existential intelligence). And so the prospect of a geometric progression seems most unlikely. In the short run, I don't think we (as a species) are going to discover or evolve new intelligences. What happens, instead, is that already-existing intelligences get mobilized for new purposes.

Should schools try to cater to individual intelligences, or emphasize the classic idea of well-rounded students? How does a teacher respond to a student's strengths without giving up on weaker areas?

Again, this is a question of values, not a question of science or of expertise. I can envision a situation whereby parents might want to cultivate an area of strength, or whereby parents would prefer to opt for well roundedness.

My own philosophy: When children are young, we should encourage well roundedness. As they grow older, it becomes more important to discover and cultivate areas of strength. Livelihood and happiness are more likely to emerge under those circumstances.

Finally, is there a way hard-pressed teachers can use a simple, efficient approach to assessing intelligence and educating accordingly?

I don't think any teachers -- hardworking or lazy -- should adopt any educational approach unless they see the reasons for it and are helped to gain competence in that approach. This is as true for MI as it is for cooperative learning or character education or preparing for the SAT. I am not interested in efficiency per se; I'm interested in whether the approach has value and whether its results can be observed in a reasonable period of time.

I apply the three-year test. If you return to a school after three years, you want to determine the following: Does anyone even remember the initiative? Are people doing the same thing that they were three years ago? Is there a deepening process, in which the MI applications have engendered learning on the part of staff and students, and are there plans to go forward? Both St. Louis's New City School and the Key Learning Community, in Indianapolis, continue to evolve after 20 years of MI implementation because they have become learning organizations -- an imperative today.

In light of the above question, is there a potential problem if less is expected from a student in certain areas of study because they are not his or her innate intelligence(s)?

The term "innate intelligence" harbors a bunch of presuppositions. All of us have the range of intelligences; we differ only in how easily and how swiftly particular intelligences develop. The term innate has a death sentence quality, which I reject.

That said, the challenge in education is to help students develop valued areas of knowledge, skill, and values. I don't care which intelligences are mobilized, so long as the requisite knowledge or skill or values are attained. And that is why one can learn history or math or science or values using a variety of entry points, pedagogies, and forms of assessment.

But what about the fact that teachers are so pressed for time?

A teacher who is a keen observer can learn to distinguish different intellectual strengths and styles on the fly; there is no need to resort to expensive and time-consuming assessments. I can learn a lot about the intelligences of a young child just by spending a few hours with her in a children's museum. And as for teaching in multiple ways, it is better to teach in two ways than in one, and it is better to make use of other resources -- human or digital -- rather than to try to do it all on your own.

Owen Edwards is a contributing editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian magazines.

Comments (10)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

James Mac Shane's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have become aware of two aspects of intelligence that may be understood as basic to MI. One is the naturally evolved communication/problem solving sequence of body language, oral language, the Arts: dance,drama, music, visual arts (graphic and sculptural) and the abstract written and numerical. Humans solve problems by communicating to ourselves and with others.

The second is the naturally available rational powers: analyzing,classifying,comparing,deducing,evaluating,generalizing,imagining,inferring,recalling, and synthesizing. These intellectual powers are available to all humans. It is the human conscious choice of there use that is the base for our intellectual development.

Judith Warner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Concern Parent: I would like to share my thoughts. I believed that multiple intelligent it discipline the flexibility that these students face everyday a classroom with a more creative learning environment. I had the opportunity to visited Bronx Regional High School. I was honored to had step into classroom 205. I was amazed the details illustration was impressive. I was experienced the passion and dedication is in the heart and mind of a teachers reaching today student. I think with better theory of Howard Gardner should be implemented in every High School.

Judith Warner

Fawibe obafemi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

it is such a pity that gifts or talent are unusually classified with academic brilliance when there are other aspects of being talented.

Bob Alexander's picture
Bob Alexander
Consultant for the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network

Just to keep things balanced...While attending a conference where he was the keynote speaker, Howard Gardner refused to do a 15 min. podcast interview with me while I was working for NCDPI. "I couldn't possible do that." Ironically, the topic of his keynote the next day focused on how important it was to get his work out to teachers. I'm just sayin'...

Joan D Ziff's picture

26 years ago, I attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education and heard about a man named Howard Gardner, was developing this idea of MI. On one of my first days as a student there, I sought him out, just to talk with him and find out what it was that he was doing. He didn't know me from Adam (still doesn't as my "major" there wasn't in his area of expertise) but 26 years later, as a teacher and now a film producer of a "writing to read" series of training programs for k teachers, i am still convinced of his incredible insights and ability to embrace the human potential for excellence and happiness in acquiring and accessing universal, as well as specific disciplines of knowledge. Anyway, after 7 years of being out of the classroom, I am returning once again to a "regular" classroom to embark on teaching 1st graders....i am currently looking for an excellent model lesson to nip the job in the bud, so to speak....I would like to do a language arts type of lesson for around 15 summer school 5 and 6 year olds, scheduled for the end of this month (july 2011). if anyone has any suggestions, i would love to hear from you....Of course, i am open to embracing the MI "philosophy" in my lesson! Thank you, in advance, for any interesting ideas/advice.

Rohit Sood's picture

This Q & A has done a lot of good for me in understanding the MI theory better. Coming from a background in progressive education, MI has helped me to make learning more meaningful & measurable.Look forward to our interaction during your visit to India. Thank you Prof.

Rohit Sood
Mirambika(A Free Progress School)

babygrl0981's picture
babygrl0981
Single mom of 2 middle-school boys and full-time student in Payette, Idaho

I have found myself amazed with the study's of MI, honestly I don't see how anyone could deny it. I am just starting back to school, I graduated high school 11 years ago. Really scared of failing but my heart has always been with teaching ever since I was a little girl, I hate to say this but due to all the budget cuts and where we are all being left it(at least in my area)has left very few GREAT TEACHERS around here. I'm lucky enough to have a very gifted young boys who is in 5th grade right now but they would comfortably move him up if I would let him. I just believe he's not emotionally ready for Jr High yet. I would love to see more school accually all schools start teaching with MI in mind, I believe if we could make more kids feel better about themselves and have a sence of accomplishment we'd probley have a lot less of our children running around joining gangs and getting into the long battle drugs can bring. I hope we don't loose all the teacher who do it for the kids, money is always important but it can't buy happiness or family or moral support and those are the things I believe our children need more of these days

babygrl0981's picture
babygrl0981
Single mom of 2 middle-school boys and full-time student in Payette, Idaho

I have found myself amazed with the study's of MI, honestly I don't see how anyone could deny it. I am just starting back to school, I graduated high school 11 years ago. Really scared of failing but my heart has always been with teaching ever since I was a little girl, I hate to say this but due to all the budget cuts and where we are all being left it(at least in my area)has left very few GREAT TEACHERS around here. I'm lucky enough to have a very gifted young boys who is in 5th grade right now but they would comfortably move him up if I would let him. I just believe he's not emotionally ready for Jr High yet. I would love to see more school accually all schools start teaching with MI in mind, I believe if we could make more kids feel better about themselves and have a sence of accomplishment we'd probley have a lot less of our children running around joining gangs and getting into the long battle drugs can bring. I hope we don't loose all the teacher who do it for the kids, money is always important but it can't buy happiness or family or moral support and those are the things I believe our children need more of these days

"Professor" Paul O. Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul O. Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University

Absolutely! Every school should use the MI Model in their instruction. I've been teaching for 30 plus years. I ran into the MI Model back in the mid 80's when it was first published. My education science professor John E. Hurne Ph. D. had been on staff before with Robert Yager and Howard Gardner. Dr. Hurne helped me get miles ahead with this type of instruction. I've had tremendous success since then. Of the 3000 plus students that I've had in the last thirty years, about 1/5 of them are either medical doctors or practicing in an Allied Health Profession. I figure, I must have done something right for many of them to have gone that far. Most of my teaching tenure has been in West Texas. I worked as a Biology/Anatomy & Physiology Teacher at MOJO Odessa Permian the "Friday Night Lights" School for 15 years between 1982 and 1997. That school was known for more than just football. Many of our students went to UIL State Science Competition and more than 85% of them went to college. I believe it was all due to the MI Model that we started to use back in the late 80's at MOJO. It has been an awesome adventurous ride teaching with the MI Model. Visit my on-line Biology Class at www.virtualscienceuniversity.com Good luck in college! You will do awesome in the classroom. Your children have already exposed you to the MI Model. Best Wishes and Happy Thanksgiving!

babygrl0981's picture
babygrl0981
Single mom of 2 middle-school boys and full-time student in Payette, Idaho

You gave me so much motvation! I just hate to see what's happening to the ones who teach our children, and it's great to hear how amazing you have done.

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