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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Big Thinkers: Howard Gardner on Multiple Intelligences

Edutopia revisits its 1997 interview with the Harvard University professor about multiple intelligences and new forms of assessment. More to this story.
Transcript

Big Thinkers: Howard Gardner on Multiple Intelligences (Transcript)

Howard Gardner: We have schools because we hope that someday when children have left schools that they will still be able to use what it is that they've learned. And there is now a massive amount of evidence from all realms of science that unless individuals take a very active role in what it is that they're studying, unless they learn to ask questions, to do things hands-on, to essentially recreate things in their own mind and then transform them as is needed, the ideas just disappear.

The student may have a good grade on the exam. We may think that he or she is learning, but a year or two later there's nothing left. If, on the other hand, somebody has carried out an experiment himself or herself, analyzed the data, made a prediction and saw whether it came out correctly; if somebody is doing history and actually does some interviewing himself or herself, oral histories, then reads the documents, listens to it, go back and asks further questions, writes up a paper-- that's the kind of thing that's going to adhere, where if you simply memorize a bunch of names and a bunch of facts and a bunch of-- even a bunch of definitions, there's nothing to hold onto.

The idea of multiple intelligences comes out of psychology. It's a theory that was developed to document the fact that human beings have very different kinds of intellectual strengths and that these strengths are very, very important in how kids learn and how people represent things in their minds, and then how people use them in order to show what it is that they've understood. If we all had exactly the same kind of mind and there was only one kind of intelligence, then we could teach everybody the same thing in the same way and assess them in the same way, and that would be fair. But once we realize that people have very different kinds of minds, different kinds of strengths-- some people are good in thinking spatially, some people are good in thinking language, other people are very logical, other people need to do hands-on; they need to actually explore actively and to try things out-- once we realize that, then education which treats everybody the same way is actually the most unfair education because it picks out one kind of mind, which I call the Law Professor Mind, somebody who's very linguistic and logical, and says, "If you think like that, great. If you don't think like that, there's no room in the train for you." If we know that one child has a very spatial-- a visual or spatial way of learning, another child has a very hands-on way of learning, a third child likes to ask deep philosophical questions, a fourth child likes stories, we don't have to talk very fast as a teacher. We can actually provide software, we can provide materials, we can provide resources which present material to a child in a way in which the child will find interesting and will be able to use his or her intelligences productivity, and to the extent that the technology is interactive, the child will actually be able to show his or her understanding in a way that's comfortable to the child.

We have this myth that the only way to learn something is read it in a textbook or hear a lecture on it, and the only way to show that we've understood something is to take a short-answer test or maybe occasionally with an essay question thrown in. But that's nonsense. Everything can be taught in more than one way, and anything that's understood can be shown in more than one way. I don't believe because there are eight intelligences we have to teach things eight ways. I think that's silly. But we always ought to be asking to ourselves, "Are we reaching every child, and if not, are there other ways in which we can do it?" I think that we teach way too many subjects and we cover way too much material, and the end result is that students have a very superficial knowledge-- as we often say, a mile wide and an inch deep-- and then once they leave school, almost everything's been forgotten. And I think that school needs to change to have a few priorities and to really go into those priorities very deeply.

So let's take the area of science. I actually don't care if a child studies physics or biology or geology or astronomy before he goes to college. There's plenty of time to do that kind of detailed work. I think what's really important is to begin to learn to think scientifically, to understand what a hypothesis is, how to test it out and see whether it's working or not; if it's not working, how to revise your theory about things. That takes time. There's no way you can present that in a week or indeed even in a month. You have to learn about it from doing many different kinds of experiments, seeing when the results are like what you predicted, seeing when they're different, and so on. But if you really focus on science in that kind of way, by the time you go to college-- or, if you don't go to college, by the time you go to workplace-- you'll know the difference between a statement which is simply a matter of opinion or prejudice, and one for which there's solid evidence.

The most important thing about assessment is knowing what it is that you should be able to do. And the best way for me to think about it is a child learning a sport or a child learning an art form, because they're as completely un-mysterious-- what you have to be to be a quarterback or a figure skater or a violin player. You see it, you try it out, you're coached. You know when you're getting better. You know how you're doing compared to other kids. In school, assessment is mystifying. Nobody knows what's going to be on the test, and when the test results go back, neither the teacher nor the student knows what to do.

So what I favor is highlighting for kids from the day they walk into school what are the performances and what are the exhibitions for which they're going to be accountable. Let's get real. Let's look at the kinds of things that we really value in the world. Let's be as explicit as we can. Let's provide feedback to kids from as early as possible, and then let them internalize the feedback so they themselves can say what's going well, what's not going so well.

I'm a writer, and initially I had to have a lot of feedback from editors, including a lot of rejections. But over time, I learned what was important, I learned to edit myself, and now the feedback from editors is much less necessary. And I think anybody as an adult knows that as you get to be more expert in things you don't have to do so much external critiquing; you can do what we call self-assessment. And in school, assessment shouldn't be something that's done to you. It should be something where you are the most active agent.

I think for there to be longstanding change in American education-- that is widespread rather than just on the margins-- first of all people have to see examples of places which are like their own places where the new kind of education really works, where students are learning deeply, where they can exhibit their knowledge publicly, and where everybody who looks at the kids says, "That's the kind of kids I want to have." So we need to have enough good examples.

Second of all, we need to have the individuals who are involved in education, primarily teachers and administrators, believe in this, really want to do it, and get the kind of help that they need in order to be able to switch, so to speak, from a teacher-centered, "Let's stuff it into the kid's mind" kind of education, to one where the preparation is behind the scenes and the child himself or herself is at the center of learning.

Third of all, I think we need to have assessment schemes which really convince everybody that this kind of education is working. It does no good to have child-centered learning and then have the same old multiple choice tests which were used 50 or 100 years ago.

Finally, I think there has to be a political commitment which says that this is the kind of education which we want to have in our country, and maybe outside this country, for the foreseeable future. And as long as people are busy bashing teachers or saying that we can't try anything new because it might fail, then reform will be stifled as it has been in the past.

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Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor in Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also holds positions as adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University, adjunct professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine, and chairman of the steering committee of the graduate school's Project Zero.

He has written twenty books and hundreds of articles and is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, which holds that intelligence goes far beyond the traditional verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical measurements. Here he discusses student-directed learning, multiple intelligences, and a different approach to assessment.

 

  1. On the importance of engaging students actively in what they are studying.
  2. On the characteristics of student-directed learning.
  3. On the theory of multiple intelligences.
  4. On technology and multiple intelligences.
  5. On the need for fundamental change in the curriculum.
  6. On how assessment in school differs from assessment in other arenas such as sports or music.
  7. On the need for a new approach to assessment in schools.
  8. On what needs to happen in order that long-standing change occurs in public education.

1. On the importance of engaging students actively in what they are studying.

We have schools because we hope that some day when children have left schools that they will still be able to use what it is that they've learned. And there is now a massive amount of evidence from all realms of science that unless individuals take a very active role in what it is that they're studying, unless they learn to ask questions, to do things hands on, to essentially re-create things in their own mind and transform them as is needed, the ideas just disappear. The student may have a good grade on the exam, we may think that he or she is learning, but a year or two later there's nothing left.

Back to Top

2. On the characteristics of student-directed learning.

If, on the other hand, somebody has carried out an experiment himself or herself, analyzed the data, made a prediction, and saw whether it came out correctly, if somebody is doing history and actually does some interviewing himself or herself -- oral histories -- then reads the documents, listens to it, goes back and asks further questions, writes up a paper. That's the kind of thing that's going to adhere, whereas if you simply memorize a bunch of names and a bunch of facts, even a bunch of definitions, there's nothing to hold on to.

Back to Top

3. On the theory of multiple intelligences.

The idea of multiple intelligences comes out of psychology. It's a theory that was developed to document the fact that human beings have very different kinds of intellectual strengths and that these strengths are very, very important in how kids learn and how people represent things in their minds, and then how people use them in order to show what it is that they've understood.

If we all had exactly the same kind of mind and there was only one kind of intelligence, then we could teach everybody the same thing in the same way and assess them in the same way and that would be fair. But once we realize that people have very different kinds of minds, different kinds of strengths -- some people are good in thinking spatially, some in thinking language, others are very logical, other people need to be hands on and explore actively and try things out -- then education, which treats everybody the same way, is actually the most unfair education. Because it picks out one kind of mind, which I call the law professor mind -- somebody who's very linguistic and logical -- and says, if you think like that, great, if you don't think like that, there's no room on the train for you.

Back to Top

4. On technology and multiple intelligences.

If we know that one child has a very spatial or visual-spatial way of learning, another child has a very hands-on way of learning, a third child likes to ask deep philosophical questions, the fourth child likes stories, we don't have to talk very fast as a teacher. We can actually provide software, we can provide materials, we can provide resources that present material to a child in a way in which the child will find interesting and will be able to use his or her intelligences productively and, to the extent that the technology is interactive, the child will actually be able to show his or her understanding in a way that's comfortable to the child.

We have this myth that the only way to learn something is to read it in a textbook or hear a lecture on it. And the only way to show that we've understood something is to take a short-answer test or maybe occasionally with an essay question thrown in. But that's nonsense. Everything can be taught in more than one way. And anything that's understood can be shown in more than one way. I don't believe because there are eight intelligences we have to teach things eight ways. I think that's silly. But we always ought to be asking ourselves, "Are we reaching every child, and, if not, are there other ways in which we can do it?"

Back to Top

5. On the need for fundamental change in the curriculum.

I think that we teach way too many subjects and we cover way too much material and the end result is that students have a very superficial knowledge, as we often say, a mile wide and an inch deep. Then once they leave school, almost everything's been forgotten. And I think that school needs to change to have a few priorities and to really go into those priorities very deeply.

Let's take the area of science. I actually don't care if a child studies physics or biology or geology or astronomy before he goes to college. There's plenty of time to do that kind of detailed work. I think what's really important is to begin to learn to think scientifically. To understand what a hypothesis is. How to test it out and see whether it's working or not. If it's not working, how to revise your theory about things. That takes time. There's no way you can present that in a week or indeed even in a month. You have to learn about it from doing many different kinds of experiments, seeing when the results are like what you predicted, seeing when they're different, and so on.

But if you really focus on science in that kind of way by the time you go to college -- or, if you don't go to college, by the time you go to the workplace -- you'll know the difference between a statement that is simply a matter of opinion or prejudice and one for which there's solid evidence.

Back to Top

6. On how assessment in school differs from assessment in other arenas such as sports or music.

The most important thing about assessment is knowing what it is that you should be able to do. And the best way for me to think about it is a child learning a sport or a child learning an art form, because it is completely unmysterious what you have to be to be a quarterback or a figure skater or a violin player. You see it, you try it out, you're coached, you know when you're getting better, you know how you're doing compared to other kids.

In school, assessment is mystifying. Nobody knows what's going to be on the test, and when the test results go back, neither the teacher nor the student knows what to do. So what I favor is highlighting for kids from the day they walk into school the performances and exhibitions for which they're going to be accountable.

Back to Top

7. On the need for a new approach to assessment in schools.

Let's get real. Let's look at the kinds of things that we really value in the world. Let's be as explicit as we can. Let's provide feedback to kids from as early as possible and then let them internalize the feedback so they themselves can say what's going well, what's not going so well.

I'm a writer and initially I had to have a lot of feedback from editors, including a lot of rejections, but over time I learned what was important. I learned to edit myself and now the feedback from editors is much less necessary. And I think anybody as an adult knows that as you get to be more expert in things you don't have to do so much external critiquing, you can do what we call self-assessment. And in school, assessment shouldn't be something that's done to you, it should be something where you are the most active agent.

Back to Top

8. On what needs to happen in order that long-standing change occurs in public education.

I think for there to be long-standing change in American education that is widespread rather than just on the margins, first of all people have to see examples of places that are like their own places where the new kind of education really works, where students are learning deeply, where they can exhibit their knowledge publicly, and where everybody who looks at the kids says, "That's the kind of kids I want to have." So we need to have enough good examples.

Second of all, we need to have the individuals who are involved in education, primarily teachers and administrators, believe in this, really want to do it, and get the kind of help that they need in order to be able to switch, so to speak, from a teacher-centered, let's-stuff-it-into-the-kid's-mind kind of education to one where the preparation is behind the scenes and the child himself or herself is at the center of learning.

Third of all, I think we need to have assessment schemes that really convince everybody that this kind of education is working. And it's no good to have child-centered learning and then have the same, old multiple-choice tests that were used fifty or a one-hundred years ago.

Finally, I think there has to be a political commitment that says this is the kind of education that we want to have in our country, and maybe outside this country, for the foreseeable future. And as long as people are busy bashing teachers or saying that we can't try anything new because it might fail then reform will be stifled as it has been in the past.

Back to Top

Comments (47)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Kim Mccollum's picture

Hats off to this brilliant man! I for one know that all people do not learn the same, and have been frustrated when children are expected to all learn and think the same. I know this interview is from 1997, but it still holds so true today, 13 yrs. later! Wishing more "higher ups" would study Gardner's theories and use common sense when making laws, standarads and cut budgets!

Roger Allen's picture

I have a new approach that will very significantly improve the effectiveness of teaching. It is accomplished by using what we now have available but using it in a much different way. It is like connecting the same dots but connecting them differently. If you would like to know about this I can be contacted at developer@att.net. I would be very surprised if this message gets to you and even more surprised if you responded appropriately because those who read this will be able to "know" that it could not be a realistic approach to improving our education system because if they can not conceive of it being so, it just can't be but I'll give it a try anyway.

Gary Latman's picture
Gary Latman
English Teacher / Technology Coordinator / Instructional Technologist

Sure we can better reach our students by identifying and teaching to their strengths, recognizing their varied learning styles and intelligences, but we are evaluated by how successful our students are at taking standardized tests. And when the students come from disadvantaged homes with a myriad of social problems and bring these problems to school without available and appropriate social services and resources to address these problems, much of what I plan and no matter how inventive I am at addressing each student's MI, my success as a teacher might be limited, and by the narrow tools presently used for evaluation, I might be considered a failure as a teacher.

Our Secretary of Education has a plan for teachers at schools like mine: turn us around, that is, displace the entire faculty and bring in new and younger teachers, for surely the problem lies with the teachers. These and other policies, that do not address the numerous reasons our students are falling behind in the global classroom, doom us to providing students a second-rate education, who are subsequently limited in scope, lacking the skills, inventiveness, and imagination necessary for global competition.

Let's have successful educators guiding our cities' school systems, not political appointees.

Rax-Ann Miller's picture

Every child learns so differently that it has become quite difficulty to fully assess how students are learning without taking into consideration their individuality. The generalized test are meant to test everyone at the same level in the same way but, how are we making sure that those who aren't good test takers are getting the best out of this way of assessment. How are these students being reached on a daily in their class room much less on a state wide exam?

Jamie Kociuba's picture
Jamie Kociuba
doctoral student

It was not until I learned in college about Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences that I truly appreciated my talents rather than my failures. As I learned to focus on my intelligences and strengths, I was able to use them in strengthening my learning in my own way. If we could only harness this kind of self-awareness in the school systems and invite students to pursue their own styles and freedoms as a learner, we would see higher achievement and thinkers at deeper levels.

Patricia Kokinos's picture
Patricia Kokinos
Author, speaker, former teacher/admin., school change activist

Thanks for the great quote, Jamie. I just posted it anonymously on my Facebook page for ChangeTheSchools, my own little homegrown campaign to change people's minds about the kind of schools we CAN create for our kids and our future. We've moved on from the Ning I posted last year and have recently come together on Facebook, so please come by and add your name to the list of people who want humane, creative, personalized, and collaborative schools to maximize the potential of EVERY kid, teacher, parent, and community. Find us at http://facebook.com/ChangeTheSchools !! Patricia Kokinos http://ChangeTheSchools.com

Jake Staab's picture

I think something we can all agree on is that the educational system in the United States has its flaws. However, to enact the reforms it needs, we should not take a feel-good theory such as Multiple Intelligences and make that the norm for education.

As a college student, who at one time attended a school which used MI theory as basis for education, I feel that I have a unique insight to how it works realistically. The main problem, in my view, is that Howard Gardner's dream of MI cannot be implemented and be successful by itself. It would be great if every day, children went to school and analyzed texts, conducted experiments, and took a hands on approach to their education. However, what are they going to analyze and how will they know what is happening in their experiments? Eventually teachers are going to have to give lectures and assign readings in textbooks to give their students the background for the hands on analysis which should follow. At the school I attended, even as a ten-year old, I understood how abstract and poorly defined this theory was. It was poorly implemented, and to this day, I feel that Gardener's theory cannot seriously be considered a legitimate alternative to traditional education.

As a specific example, in this video, Gardner states that the scientific method should be the basis for an elementary to high school science education. He states that the details can wait until college. This idea of a scientific education is ludicrous. How does one conduct these said experiments without the background knowledge of the definitions and details Gardner insists are not important until later. How can one analyze their experiment as he wishes without having taken the time to learn the basic concepts which are involved. In an ideal world, every science student will be conducting hands on experiments in every field, but how can this be accomplished without your teacher giving lectures and students reading their textbooks in order to understand the underlying processes which they are testing. Gardner says this will lead to a better memory of what we learned, but I as a sophomore in college has no recollection of any outcomes from the experiments I conducted in high school.

Along similar lines, it is my opinion that the lecture and detail-based method of teaching is the norm in the United States because that is the way that most students learn the best. It is not unreasonable to think that this method has evolved over hundreds of years of teaching because it is a better method for teaching most people. I have always excelled through this method, and many people I know have too. My point is that while some do not respond well to the current system, lets not simply reinvent education because the minority of student are not excelling. Adding aspects of Gardner's theory could improve the system, but let us realize that using it as the basis for learning could then alienate the children such as myself who have excelled in the current method.

One aspect of Gardner's idea which I feel can have an immediate effect is his idea of student-teacher feedback. Constructive feedback from teachers is much more effective than seeing what problems you missed on a multiple choice test. The communication between these two could give a student more keys for understanding what they should do and more information on teacher's expectations. While in theory this should help, in practice, it was not effective. At the school I attended this system of increased feedback turned into a system of what felt like was teachers tattling on me to my parents. The fact that I talked to much my Media and Communication class or that I didn't raise my hand enough in Math class gave me no improved understanding of my preferred method of learning.

In conclusion, I feel that Gardner's ideal method of teaching would hinder the educational growth of more people than it would help. After having experienced his Theory in action, I can state first hand that I did not have all the necessary skills to excel at the next school I attended. While, his ideas of inclusion and an engaging education are great goals, their implementation has led to a school in which only 23% of its children passed the 2008-09 spring ISTEP (Indiana's State Standardized Test). That is 40% lower than the state average. I don't care if you do not believe that standardized tests are the best way to assess students, but a 23% pass rate is unacceptable.

Jamie Kociuba's picture
Jamie Kociuba
doctoral student

Thank you Patricia, what an honor!=) I am in the process of starting some research for my doctoral program. The research will focus on the affects of training educators in instructional methods that integrate experiential learning. What are your thoughts on how Multiple Intelligences fit into the realm of experiential learning?
Jamie

Barry Kort's picture
Barry Kort
Volunteer Science Educator at the Boston Museum of Science

Jamie, please join us on Facebook to discuss pedagogical alternatives such as Simulations, Virtual Reality Systems, StoryCraft, Dramaturgy, and the Bardic Arts in general as a way to reach out to learners who are not well served by the traditional classroom teaching model.

Jamie Kociuba's picture
Jamie Kociuba
doctoral student

4/30/11
Barry, thank you for the invitation. I use simulation in my classroom as much as I can as an effort to provide my students with some lifelong learning skills that they will never forget. In providing these opportunities, students develop their comprehension and can utilize their own skills in understanding and developing through content, rather than have it fed directly to them. It must be very interesting to be a Volunteer Science Educator at the Boston Museum of Science. I do say that I wish to have a similar experience. Nontraditional methods of teaching exist, just not in abundance. When these methods are in place, and fed with enthusiasm, students come away successful.

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