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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

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Cherri Rorvik's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just want to tell Howard Gardner thank you for all that you have done and continue to do for education.

Keith Jaeger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach at several universities and at the top of every syllabus you'll find Dr. Gardner's quote,

"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. 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 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, 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."

This brilliantly stated two paragraph quote often generates hours of discussion. It contains the best justification for PBL I've been able to find.

Diane Santurri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have recently taken a class which focused heavily on Howard Gardner and his multiple intelligences theory. Thank you Mr. Gardner for all of your research. As an educator in Technology at a Univeristy, this research provides me with the knowledge that software and other forms of assessment are necessary in order to guide students in their understanding. My class taught me that formative assessment in varied ways will provide students different opportunity to "show" or demonstrate their understanding through the edit, revise, edit techniques available through different forms of web 2.0 tools as well as softwares. In my class, I find that software and web 2.0 tools provide a perfect outlet for a student that is a kinestic or visual learner. Choice of assessment by the student would be a perfect way to allow the student to truly use their skills knowledge and demonstrate their learning.

Diane Santurri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have recently taken a class which focused heavily on Howard Gardner and his multiple intelligences theory. Thank you Mr. Gardner for all of your research. As an educator in Technology at a University, this research provides me with the knowledge that software and other forms of assessment are necessary in order to guide students in their understanding. My class taught me that formative assessment in varied ways will provide students different opportunity to "show" or demonstrate their understanding through the edit, revise, edit techniques available through different forms of web 2.0 tools as well as softwares. In my class, I find that software and web 2.0 tools provide a perfect outlet for a student that is a kinestic or visual learner. Choice of assessment by the student would be a perfect way to allow the student to truly use their skills knowledge and demonstrate their learning.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you that we should use the model of practical demonstrations of learning, such as the skating or football examples. However, as adults we usually have choices in what areas we will be measured in. For instance, I would completely fail tests about auto mechanics, microscope skills, and even digging a posthole. I can choose to pay someone to do these things for me, or learn the bare minimum, or trade services. However, schools require that students be measured on everything they learn, constantly. It is the required nature of it, and the ubiquitous belief that failure in any area is not acceptable, that is most disturbing for many students, affecting their self-esteem, their motivation, and sometimes even their will to continue living. Many, many students give up when faced with the impossible task of succeeding at everything, all the time.

The only people I have seen defending student's right to their own interests and abilities (and inabilities) are homeschoolers and some very radical school personnel. This seems to me to be the only way to apply your recognition that we try to teach too many subjects and too much material. Students, themselves, should be able to choose their specialities just like adults can. Then their multiple intelligences can shine through all the dinginess that comes from overload and not caring about what they are studying.

Jane Gootherts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Karen that the area of schooling in which we see the student applying self interest study and integrating subjects successfully is Home Schooling. After reading the points of Howard Gardner, I am encouraged to continue on with my 15 years of Home Schooling. The buy in of his method goes beyond the school staff and needs to be integrated by the parents of the student who must take ultimate responsibility for the education of their child. I tutor too many public school educated children who lack skills, indicating a gap of learning. What to do?

Johnny Allen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Karen, I do agree students need to not have to learn so much, but the basis for the public school education is to provide the most broad liberal education possible. I am a high school teacher now, if I was to choose when I was in middle school or high school I would not be where I am now. I feel I have a positive impact on my students and work to build esteem issues as much as possible. It is not the school which demoralizes students, it almost always begins at home. I was not educated enough, had not experienced enough to make life long decisions at that age. I do not feel we should expect our young persons to grow up even sooner than we do now. We can anrrow subjects a lot, that would be a benefit. Mr. Gardner's theroies are the most influencial theories I have studied and they are applied into every public school class I have observed.

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