American Psychological Association

120th Annual Convention
Orlando, Florida, August 2-5 2012

Theory of Multiple Intelligences: First 29 Years


Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner

Theory of Multiple Intelligences: First 29 Years

Howard Gardner, of Multiple Intelligences fame - as its originator - spoke now on his own definitions and observations, regarding the concepts and implementations of his 'MI' theory, over nearly thirty years.

Interestingly, like me, Dr. Gardner had just watched
Drew Westen (political consultant) talk about the dynamics at play in Washington politics and public perception, as reported above, 'here and now'. He alluded to some of Dr. Westen's points and also mentioned other influential works such as Malcolm Gladwell's 'Outliers', which relates to the topic in that Gladwell describes a larger context for 'success' than any single intellectual factor.

Dr. Gardner described the development of his model over the past (nearly) 30 years, sharing some highlights of his career and key influences. At Harvard, where he teaches in the Graduate School of Education, he became absorbed in Project Zero, which explored the nature of autistic thinking. Four years ago he wrote a children's book, while immersed in work with brain damaged children. "Every day I was seeing kids who were good at an art form but not other things." He'd already been familiar with the seminal work of Oliver Sacks (for example, 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat'), and appreciated the fact that "the way the mind and brain work isn't always intuitively clear". [A slide shows one result of his interest in the nature of cognition among those with significant brain damage: his book, 'The Shattered Mind'.]

Now, from the man who coined the term and created the theory, here's Dr. Howard Gardner on the meaning and applications of 'multiple intelligences'.

The Theory: MI

Gardner began by saying he surely wasn't the first to look at differences; there was Thorndike's work, based on 'evolutionary evidence' involving prodigies, learning disability, autism... now add to this the question of "What kind of abilities and roles are valued by different cultures?".

And speaking of culture, and reflecting the evolutionary impact of today's world:

"I think in the digital world there may be other intelligences beneath the surface."

A broad perspective on 'intelligence' requires, Gardner argued, an inter-disciplinary effort (biology, anthropology etc.), "beyond psychometric testing and beyond sensory modalities". With this in mind, he has elaborated a "set of 8 specific criteria for what is/is not an intelligence".

The Definition

Gardner provided his own definition of 'an intelligence':

"An intelligence is the biopsychological potential to process information in certain ways, in order to solve problems or fashion products that are valued in a culture or community."

In his model, one thinks "of several relatively independent computers, not a single all-purpose one." He rejects the notion of 'g' as the single ruler of our intellect, as if we have "a single all-purpose computer inside our skull."

Up on the big screen (and in the image below on our smaller screens), Dr. Gardner showed a list of his 8 multiple intelligences, and a corresponding lifestyle which might capitalize on a particular intelligence:

Our 8 Intelligences:

1. Linguistic ---- poet

2. Logical-mathematical ---- scientist

3. Musical ---- composer

4. Spatial ---- architect

5. Bodily-kinesthetic ---- dancer

6. Interpersonal ---- leader

7. Intrapersonal ---- reflective individual

8. Naturalist ---- botanist

Gardner noted that the first two, for example, may overlap or supplement each other, although they "may or may not correlate", experimentally. Think of law professors. They need both skills, the verbal and logical in order to be successful. Dr. Westen, he noted, illustrated some of the dynamics in his look at lawyer-turned-President Obama. Neither candidate in this case seems to be strong on the Intrapersonal dimension, having self-awareness.

Gardner cited several similar or parallel notions of particular intelligences, such as the focus by Goleman on interpersonal/social intelligence. Gardner has also been struck by the possibility of a 'pedagogical intelligence', derived from his observations of children: for example, "a 4 year old can teach a 2 year old, but differently than teaching a 6 year old." Should we go on to posit a 'spiritual intelligence'? Existential intelligence?

Dr. Gardner paused to announce, with a smile:

"News Flash! I am no longer in the business of announcing new intelligences - that's up to you."

For now the heart of MI theory remains the 8 key intelligences: "Everyone in this room has 8 intelligences... they make us human, cognitively speaking." Moreover, referencing twin studies as well as observation, "No two people--not even identical twins (or clones) -- have exactly the same profile of intelligences."

A slide onscreen shows a Rorschach ink blot, and is labeled:

"The Middle 1980's - 'MI' as an Educational Rorschach..."

Dr. Gardner described how oftentimes his theory served within educational systems in a way he did not envision, and his ideas were implemented in ways he did not see as necessarily helpful, especially when applied rigidly. It became a sort of movement, or mantra, "We need to teach in 7 ways" (there were 7 at the time). The thing is, "I didn't say any of that!" Over 10 or 15 years he has been interested in how his ideas have been implemented educationally. In particular, consider these 'two educational claims' about the necessary components for teaching and learning.

    Individualize: Learn as much about each learner as you can, present materials in an intelligence-friendly way and assess that way as well.

    Pluralize: Decide what is truly important and present that content in a number of ways, addressing the relevant intelligences. "Note: NOT 'learning styles'!"

That is from onscreen. Continuing, Gardner underscored the point:

"If you try to cover too much stuff, a year or two later there will be nothing left - unless you re-learn it. [Two benefits of pluralization are that] you reach more people. If you teach pluralization you teach learners what it means to really learn something well...understanding is always multi-faceted." And he repeated, "Multiple intelligence is NOT learning styles!" If your 'musical computer' works well, embrace it. (Learning styles may be real factors, and 'playfulness', for example, may be an avenue of engagement, or style, but not an intelligence.) He sees the concepts continue to be confused.

In reflecting on how his work has been read, implemented, and mis-implemented, Gardner noted that his work has generally been much more readily embraced by the educational community than by psychology. He offered 'three speculations' as to why:

1. Psychology has a vested interest in the theory and technology of IQ and IQ tests ('moving gravestones in a graveyard')

2. New tests of intelligence(s) are expected to correlate with standard measures

3. Psychologists would like an experimental test of MI and it is not that kind of a theory -- it's a synthesis of much data and will eventually be judged on its utility

Still, even as his work may be mis-applied, many have reported amazing results from its application. He did a BBC show where the host noted how test scores went up 'because of Gardner'. Given his healthy skepticism, he replied that he'd be happy to take the credit - but not the blame.

Traveling Memes

Next Gardner addressed what he called (onscreen) 'Traveling Memes', or mission statements. He shared the mission statement as he described in 1983, guiding his work with the Key Learning Community: " research and develop innovative practices in teaching to celebrate diversity in our population and our communities and to personalize education by building upon each student's strengths in the following areas: Linguistic, Musical, Logical-Mathematical, Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Naturalistic, Interpersonal and Intrapersonal..."

Moving forward, some images of adaptations of his concepts from around the world - an image of an ad in Macau for condensed milk, said to have the magic power to develop all 8 intelligences, a work, by Michael Moore ('Stupid White Men'), Frames of Mind, and a book he co-edited, 'Multiple Intelligences Around the World'. He has visited China frequently, observing a popular class (in 2004) where classes involved all students drawing a goldfish. Why so popular in China? One reason may be the strong belief (elsewhere as well, of course) that 'my child is very special'. Or, 'my child is not so good in writing, but is very smart interpersonally'.

And then there is the 'Piaget Question', or 'American Question': How do you test it? Gardner spoke of Project Spectrum, the Explorama at DanfossUnivers in Denmark, and various applications in pre-schools, particularly the Montessori method. "We had a naturalist corner... lots of board games... both logic and social intelligence. [And some manifest this a bit differently: "they realize they can cheat if they understand better" than their peers. "We discourage this."]

Now turning to the future, and 'Intelligences for Tomorrow', beginning with "some speculations about 'MI' and the concept of intelligence(s) in the future." He begins by consideration of 'the breadth of the concept (emotional, moral, creative?) and the issue of 'pure' versus 'contextual' assessment. Do we want finer categories (e.g., 'financial intelligence'; he quipped that perhaps 'if you have this one you can buy the others'.) "Intelligences for what?" He thinks, much as he respects him, "Goleman ['EQ'] conflates prescription and proscription - you can have a good computer used for destructive ends."

What response would you get, Gardner queried, if you ask kids who the smartest man is today? Bill Gates, most likely. Gardner gave a nod here to Malcolm Gladwell's hugely influential book, 'Outliers', which profiled Gates and other superstars, noting not only intelligence, but the importance of being 'in the right place and time'. And what if you were born 100 years ago...

"You're so well-behaved! But a few of you are tweeting! I'm reading what you say! Any of you know what 'books' are?"

Now we take for granted things like computers, distance learning, iPads and phones. "You can keep on learning indefinitely, or until you become senile." A slide illustrates 'what happens to multiple intelligences at older ages'. In sum, they are internalized; they may 'go underground' but don't disappear. "Personalized mental representations continue and perhaps even become more differentiated. [And] computers, distance learning may nourish these different profiles."

Some final thoughts before concluding and opening up to some questions: Firstly, one can consider people as diverse as a Mandela or a criminal against humanity, without regard to a specific intelligence - "intelligences are essentially amoral." Gardner himself aspires to "push in a positive way rather than say 'oy vey'" and strives to encourage what he terms,

The 3 E's of Good Work: "Excellent in quality, technically; Personally engaging, meaningful; and Carried out in an ethical manner." Just as one can continue to learn, "It's never too early to nurture the good worker."

"Question: Would you rather know last year's grades, or IQ? No two people have the same profile. Psychologists have some interest but educators, much more so."

"A closing thought': 'Intelligence plus character - that is the mark of a true education.' The source: Martin Luther King, Jr."

And now, a brief Q&A with Howard Gardner:

Q: What are your thoughts on the highly gifted?
A: You can guess - I think highly gifted prodigies occur in different sectors; socially they don't need special attention... [But] you can't assume like Terman that if you get an IQ test everything is fine.

Q: Is there a 'sexual intelligence'?
A: Is it about humor, or sex? [Perhaps also involved in 'performance skills' would be] interpersonal intelligence and verbal intelligence, maybe artistic...

Q: In couples therapy, we see logical people and sensitive people. Are they different styles?
A: I don't like the word 'styles'! But awareness can help... I don't think you need to know MI theory to have a good marriage, but it probably doesn't hurt.

Q: Isn't it true that IQ is not based on biology, but on behavior? Citing Anastasi, for example...
A: Sounds like Sternberg. An intelligent person adapts to the environment, or if you are fortunate/powerful enough, gets the environment to adapt to you. My hesitancy: I don't think there's such a thing as adaptability per se. I might be color blind, deaf... but...

And time was up for this event.


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2008 Convention Highlights:
Grand Theft Childhood | Opening | Malcolm Gladwell | College Success, Love, Hate, More | My Life With Asperger's
My Space, You Tube, Psychotherapy, Relationships... | Aaron T. Beck - 2008 | The Mind and Brain of Voters

2009 Convention Highlights:
Internet: Pathway for Networking, Connecting, and Addiction | Opening | Virtual Psychology & Therapy | Q&A with Zimbardo
Seligman: Positive Education | Future of Internet Media | Sex, Love, & Psychology | How Dogs Think

2010 Convention Highlights:
Online Support Groups & Applications | Evidence & Ethical Practice | Opening Ceremony | Sir Michael Rutter: Resilience
Group Memory | Psychology in the Digital Age | Steven Hayes: What Psychotherapists Have that the World Needs Now

2011 Convention Highlights:
2011: eHealth Odyssey | Googling, Twittering, Poking | Zimbardo: Reflections + Enduring Lessons from 40 Years Ago: Stanford Prison Experiment
Opening | Avatar-based Therapy | Canine Cognition: Chaser | Aaron T. Beck @90 | Cavanagh: Computerized CBT | Seligman: Flourish
PsychTech: Virtual & Augmented Reality | Relationships 3.0 | POKE ME: Social Networks & Kids | Telehealth & Telepsychology Licensure - Barriers and Possible Solutions

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