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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

An Educator's Journey Toward Multiple Intelligences

One teacher discovers a powerful alternative to education narrowly focused on high-stakes testing.
By Scott Seider
Assistant Professor of Education from Boston University
Credit: Getty Images

During my first year as a high school English teacher, I got into the habit each Friday afternoon of sitting in the bleachers and grading papers while the players on the freshman football team squared off against their counterparts from nearby towns. I had been assigned four classes of rambunctious freshmen, and several of my most squirrelly students were football players. I hoped that demonstrating my interest in their gridiron pursuits might make them a bit easier to manage in the classroom.

My presence at their games unquestionably helped on the management front, but a second, unexpected benefit emerged as well. A couple of those freshmen -- kids in my class who struggled mightily with subject-verb agreement and the function of a thesis statement -- had clearly committed several dozen complex plays to memory. During one particularly impressive series of plays, I remember thinking, "These guys are really smart! I'm underestimating what they're capable of!" And over the course of my first year in the classroom, that same thought emerged several more times -- at the school musical, visiting the graphic design class, and even just watching a couple of students do their math homework during study hall. Without my realizing it, my relationship with multiple-intelligences (MI) theory had begun.

Rethinking IQ

In 1983, Harvard University professor Howard Gardner published his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences that began with some simple but powerful questions: Are talented chess players, violinists, and athletes "intelligent" in their respective disciplines? Why are these and other abilities not accounted for on traditional IQ tests? Why is the term intelligence limited to such a narrow range of human endeavors?

From these questions emerged multiple-intelligences theory. Stated simply, it challenges psychology's definition of intelligence as a general ability that can be measured by a single IQ score. Instead, MI theory describes eight intelligences (see below) that people use to solve problems and create products relevant to the societies in which they live.

MI theory asserts that individuals who have a high level of aptitude in one intelligence do not necessarily have a similar aptitude in another intelligence. For example, a young person who demonstrates an impressive level of musical intelligence may be far less skilled when it comes to bodily-kinesthetic or logical-mathematical intelligence. Perhaps that seems obvious, but it's important to recognize that this notion stands in sharp contrast to the traditional (and still dominant) view of intelligence as a general ability that can be measured along a single scale and summarized by a single number.

Multiple Misconceptions

During my eight years as a high school English teacher and an administrator, MI theory came up periodically. Colleagues shared assignments with me that sought to tap into the multiple intelligences. At parent-teacher conferences, I fielded questions about whether schools today are too focused (or, alternatively, not focused enough) on verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. In professional-development seminars, I was urged to keep multiple intelligences in mind while developing curriculum.

I also assured my students that everyone is gifted in at least one of the intelligences -- a sentiment uttered with the best of intentions, but not entirely accurate.

Not only didn't I fully understand the theory, but when I began teaching at an urban public high school in Boston, I believed I had no time to concern myself with it. I was determined to help my students develop the tools they needed to make it into college: reading comprehension, writing skills, critical thinking, SAT vocabulary. I was certain there simply weren't enough hours in the day to foster students' musical intelligence or bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

And, then, in 2004, my views began to change. I started working on my doctorate at Harvard University and asked Professor Howard Gardner to be my adviser. My interest in working with Gardner had more to do with his work on ethics than on MI theory, but over the next four years, MI theory was like fluoride in the water. There was a constant clamor from educators across the globe to hear from him about MI theory. Working each day about 20 yards away, I couldn't help overhearing the uproar and, amid that din, I started to pick up on my own misconceptions.

What MI Is -- and Is Not

MI theory asserts that, barring cases of severe brain damage, everyone possesses all eight of the intelligences with varying levels of aptitude, giving each person a unique profile. And MI theory makes no claims about everyone being gifted in at least one of the intelligences.

The Bear Essence:

Some kids' minds dwell in the world of naturalistic intelligence, where they are often quick to distinguish patterns in nature.

Credit: Getty Images

I also discovered that neither Gardner nor MI theory has ever argued that educators should spend equal amounts of time teaching to the eight intelligences, or that every lesson should provide students with eight options for demonstrating their learning. In fact, MI theory offers neither a curriculum nor a goal toward which educators are expected to strive. Rather, MI theory is an idea about the concept of intelligence. A psychologist by training, Gardner left it to educators to decide how MI theory can be useful in the particular community and context in which they teach.

Nowadays, as a professor of education myself, when students or colleagues learn that I trained with Gardner, I am often asked facetiously, "How many intelligences is he up to now?" In truth, the original formulation of MI theory included seven intelligences, and Gardner has added just one (naturalistic intelligence) over the past 25 years.

Many other scholars and educators have proposed other intelligences -- everything from moral intelligence to cooking intelligence to humor intelligence -- but none have provided compelling evidence to justify an addition to the list. That said, advances in fields like neuroscience and genetics may well lead in coming years to the identification of new intelligences or the reorganization of existing intelligences. Ultimately, what is important about MI theory is not the number of identified intelligences, but, rather, its core premise that intelligence is better conceived of as multiple rather than general.

Far-Reaching Impact

Since its inception 26 years ago, thousands of schools, teachers, and researchers across the globe have drawn on MI theory to improve teaching and learning. There are Howard Gardner MI schools in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington State and "multiple intelligences" schools in Bangalore, India, and Quezon City, Philippines. A 2002 conference on MI theory in Beijing attracted 2,500 educators from nine provinces and six neighboring countries. In 2005, a theme park opened in Nordborg, Denmark, that allows Danish children and adults to explore their aptitudes across the intelligences.

Some schools, like Indianapolis's Key Learning Community, aim to build all eight intelligences for each student. Others, like New City School, in St. Louis, focus on the two personal intelligences. Both schools are exemplary practitioners of MI theory.

It also happens that MI theory is used in ways that are neither educationally sound nor appropriate. Perhaps the most glaring example has been a state ministry in Australia that compiled a list of ethnic groups within the state as well as the particular intelligences that each group supposedly possessed and lacked -- a practice Gardner has denounced as a perversion of his theory.

In Gardner's view, MI theory is used most effectively by educators who have a particular goal they are seeking to achieve and who conceive of the theory as a tool for achieving this goal. For instance, at the start of the school year, an elementary school teacher might want to identify students' strengths and weaknesses among the eight intelligences. That teacher might carefully observe the students' activities and interactions on the playground during recess or, alternatively, ask both students and parents to fill out a short survey identifying what they believe to be their (or their child's) strengths among the eight intelligences. Such information can facilitate lesson and unit planning down the road.

Or perhaps a school leader or department head seeks to improve communication among faculty about student achievement. For this objective, MI theory could serve as a framework or common language for discussing the strengths and challenges of individual students. In this instance, the concept of multiple intelligences may not even be raised directly with students, but, rather, may serve as a tool for fostering dialogue and collaboration among their teachers.

The irony of MI theory's tremendous impact on the educational community is that the theory was not developed with educators in mind. Rather, Gardner wrote his 1983 book, Frames of Mind, with the goal of inciting debate among psychologists about the nature of intelligence. By and large, such a debate did not occur. The psychology community has demonstrated relatively little interest in Gardner's theory, perhaps because, in sharp contrast to the traditional IQ test, it offers no easy scale for measuring aptitude across the various intelligences.

In what amounted to a sort of grassroots uprising, however, educators at all grade levels in many types of communities have embraced MI theory with a genuine passion. In describing this groundswell of support, Gardner has often speculated that MI theory provided empirical and conceptual support for what educators had known all along: that the notion of a single, general intelligence does not accurately depict the children that educators see in their classrooms each day.

Perhaps it is for this reason that the earliest groups of educators to embrace MI theory were teachers whose daily work entailed supporting students with learning disabilities. Even more so than their general-ed colleagues, special educators see firsthand that youth who struggle with, say, language can simultaneously possess a strong aptitude for numbers or music or graphic design, and vice-versa. These teachers knew intuitively that IQ tests were not measuring what they purported to measure.

A Broader View

Perhaps the greatest contribution of MI theory, I would argue, has been its role over the past decade as a counterbalance to an educational climate increasingly focused on high-stakes testing, such as the IQ test, the SAT, and the various state assessments that have emerged from the No Child Left Behind Act.

Even if one believes that these assessments have contributions to offer to the practice of teaching and learning, it seems equally true that these tests have presented new challenges to the educational world as well. The IQ test and the SAT, two assessments unquestionably correlated with an individual's class status and schooling opportunities, have been utilized to declare some children intrinsically "smarter" than others and more deserving of seats in gifted-and-talented programs, magnet schools, and elite universities. Particularly in urban schools, the pressure from testing has narrowed the curriculum to focus on those subjects on which graduation and accreditation rest -- at the expense of art, music, theater, physical education, foreign language, and even science and social studies.

In the face of these powerful forces, MI theory has served as a reminder to educators to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual child and has also offered conceptual support for educators seeking to prevent individual students from being stigmatized by a low score on one of these standardized tests. On a schoolwide scale, administrators contemplating eliminating or reducing funding for the subjects not covered by state assessments are likely to hear protests (from parents, teachers, students, and even internally) about neglecting children's multiple intelligences. I would argue that MI theory has offered an important check on the standards-based reform movement that has dominated American education for the past decade.

Or, put more simply, MI theory has helped facilitate in the heads of thousands of educators the same sort of appreciation I experienced while watching my students march down the football field: "These guys are really smart! I'm underestimating what they're capable of!" MI theory is neither a curriculum nor a goal nor an endpoint, but it remains, 26 years after its birth, a powerful tool for helping educators to teach more effectively and students to learn more deeply and enduringly.

Scott Seider, a former public school teacher, is an assistant professor of curriculum and teaching at Boston University. He is coauthor of Instructional Practices That Maximize Student Achievement.

Go to "Teachers Are Taking Multiple-Intelligences Theory to Heart."

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

kathryn Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We have a number of videos where both Howard Gardner and Stephen Murdoch, author of IQ: A smart history of a failed idea talk in detail about multiple intelligence and the history and failure of the very idea of a mental IQ- thought they might be of interest...

http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=2078AA44CA74257C

best,

Kathryn Jones
Massachusetts School of Law

PM's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello! I am a fourth grade teacher in Bealeton, VA. I find Gardner's research to be very interesting and valuable to all teachers seeking to develop their students as "whole" individuals. During my undergraduate studies, I spent a good amount of time researching Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences. After the research, I was challenged to attempt applying these findings into the classroom I was student teaching in. I designed a lesson with various stations--each station representing a different intelligence. Through this I was able to observe various students excelling at different stations based on their intelligence strengths. Some students excelled at one station, while appearing to be completely uncomfortable in another. This experience has continued to run through my mind over the past two years of my teaching in my own classroom. Due to high stakes testing and the pressures involved with preparing students for these tests and covering extensive amounts of curriculum, I have not incorporated Gardner's findings into my classroom as much as I would have hoped. I try to compensate for this with more hands-on activities and student-led skits and presentations.

Interestingly, despite my attempts to vary my instruction and activities, I tend to gear my teaching in a way that worked for me as a student without fully realizing it. After taking the MI quiz provided, I became aware of my top areas of intelligence: "Intrapersonal", "Interpersonal", and "Verbal-Linguistic". Once I began looking into these areas of intelligence, I realized that they accompanied learning styles that greatly dealt with conversing, discussing, goal-setting, and self-monitoring. Upon reflecting, I truly do present a great deal of material in a discussion/question and answer format. I also assign a great deal of assignments and assessments that require students to be quite self-managed. Although I sit and help students set goals, I still expect them to then take the next step of managing themselves in a way that allows them to meet them.

Overall, it was exciting for me to read this article and revisit the idea of the Multiple Intelligences. It reminded me to be open when considering all of my students' thinking and to continuously strive to meet different students' intelligences and learning styles without being biased by my own.

jordan w's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

cooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool

Brittany's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with this completly. I do think we all have multiple intelligence's and different ways of learning but from a teachers point of view each generation is going down hill and getting less intellegent and less active i personally hope they use this to help make the school system stonger instead of saying not having one intellegence is fine because you have another. I hope it helps us to better educate students and properly understand cerian need without taking away from the certian knowledge that every student should have and not destroy everything school stands for
Lord help us all

Ms. G's picture

Amen to that. UNDERSTANDING should comes first and understanding is far from knowledge which most fails to see.

Chris McA's picture

[quote]I have always wondered why Dr. Gardner called these eight areas intelligences rather than strengths or aptitudes. It seems to me that the use of the term intelligence has garnered criticism for this theory.[/quote]

I once asked Howard Gardner that very question and he answered "If I titled it 'Multiple Abilities' it would have sold zero copies." That reply told me a lot about his motivation and perhaps, only perhaps, why he is so willing to promote an idea that has no research to support it.

Debra Fein's picture

I have always believed so strongly in this theory for all different kinds of minds. If it were applied on a wide scale, who knows what children can really learn?

Orlando Diaz's picture

The more I read about Dr. Gardner's theory of "multiple intelligences", the more I learn to apply it in my own classroom. Test scores alone do not tell the whole story on how we learn. Dr. Gardner's theory has taught me to rethink my philosophy of education. I have realized that teaching with Dr. Gardner's theory of "multiple intelligences" in mind, is a more humanistic way of teaching and learning.

Becky G's picture
Becky G
adjunct faculty, university level

There is much research that supports Gardner's Theory. Here is a link to an article with some research: http://www.edutopia.org/multiple-intelligences-brain-research

In general, I believe Gardner was deliberately trying to be provocative and engage psychologists in a discussion about intelligence by calling his concepts "intelligences." I support this approach. He will be the first to tell you that his theory was not focused at educators, and he had no idea that his ideas would "catch on" as they have, thus selling books. :) Good for him to have such a positive outcome that was not expected! Wish I had thought of it!

Chris McA's picture

You're absolutely right that students often need to have info presented in more than one way. If thinking about Gardner helps you do that, then there's nothing wrong with that. In the interests of giving credit where credit is due, note a few things about Gardner's work:
You've put your finger on a very important topic when you bring up the issue of theory. BUt, theory is more than you've described it: it's a set of general statements that organize and explain varying observations and data, and allow us to make predictions. This is the standard definition from Psy (Gard's field). Trouble is, with Gard's work, it doesn't reach the level of a theory in Psy (just one of the reasons why Psy doesn't take Gard seriously). First, he makes specific claims (e.g., there is a "naturalistic intelligence") and second, he doesn't define his concepts in testable terms. Thus, no predictions can be made.
As for the something Gardner repeatedly implies, that his idea of multiple-component intelligence is new, that's just not true. A researcher named Thurstone said it in the 1930's. Moreover, Cattell's ideas of MI have actual data to back them up - something Gardner's does not (there is NONE).
As for presenting things in different ways, (e.g., modality effects) there are records of modality issues in education going back to the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Gard's been around for a while, but....
It may seem like I'm giving Gard a hard time here, but that's for two reasons that I have yet to hear anyone refute (even Gard when I've spoken to him). 1. Gard has taken a LOT of money from schools, and 2. he has given them nothing they couldn't have gotten someplace else (and likely far better). After years as a classroom teacher, then full-time professor, then research scientist, and now public-school teacher again, it is abundantly clear to me that Gard's idea of MI can best be described as pseudoscience (horoscopes, palm reading, speaking to the dead, etc). I know that's awfully harsh, but that's where the facts (like those I gave above and many, many more) all lead.
If you've got more up-to-date info than I've got, or if you have a different, valid, evidence-based way to interpret the facts, let me know. I'd like to keep learning more about Gard's MI ideas, I love thinking and talking about it.

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