Personalities: Howard Gardner

gardnerThroughout the 20th century, the American educational system was gripped by what one might call an IQ mania. If you studied in a public school, you probably remember the tests, and possibly your scores (in my school, scores were hidden, but we broke into the teacher’s desk during recess to find them). Before the age of neuroplasticity, mental capabilities were thought to be fixed, and IQ was destiny. The idea of an ultimate, universal ranking of intelligence was appealing to those attempting to create an efficient, organized educational system—but potentially damaging for children who were told, unequivocally, how smart they were (or weren’t). This unitary view of intelligence encouraged a system where standardized, one-size-fits-all tests could be applied to measure the progress of students and schools.
__ Howard Gardner, a researcher at Harvard University, had a very different view of what amounts to intelligence. His studies of artistically gifted children and people suffering from brain injuries revealed a rich diversity of the ways in which the brain can excel. In his landmark 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gardner proposed seven distinct types of intelligence: musical, kinesthetic (body), logical/mathematical, spatial, linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. The idea caught fire and became so pervasive that today the proposition that intelligence is not a single, fixed quantity is almost considered common sense. Gardner denies that he wrote the book to discredit the idea of IQ, but he has been openly critical of the hegemony of IQ, as well as standardized testing, and the memorize-and-regurgitate style of education, throughout his career.
__ After more than 25 years, Gardner has continued to develop his theories, and some private schools have attempted to model their educational methods on his ideas. Yet in American public schools, standardized testing plays a larger role than ever, thanks to legislation like No Child Left Behind. We recently checked in with Gardner to get his perspective.

I was interviewing John Medina the other day, and he told me he believes you are widely misunderstood. Is that something you agree with?
I don’t think I am widely misunderstood, but I am often interpreted superficially. I’m a psychologist, and multiple intelligence theory was developed as an alternative to a unitary intelligence view, which is pervasive in psychology. I don’t think I’ve made much of a dent in psychology, but I’m extremely well known in education, where my ideas have circulated more broadly.
__ But many people in education have never read my work directly; they get information secondhand. When they get the idea that intelligence is pluralistic, that’s fine. But when they go on to say that I have a specific education regimen, that’s not legitimate. But I don’t go around saying I’ve been widely misunderstood.

In 1993’s Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, you talk about developing education in way that is geared to particular intelligences.
I had the notion of individual-centered education: Irrespective of whether you have a curriculum that every student is required to master, we would try to find out how a person learns best.
__ If you are someone with incredible kinesthetic-bodily intelligence, and placed in a school that only values logical and verbal intelligence, you might have low self-esteem. If you have promise in an area, it’s almost cruel not to have a chance to develop that capacity. And of course, bodily-kinesthetic can be anything from doing surgery to being a football player. But the other thing that I devoted a huge amount of space to in The Disciplined Mind is that you can use people’s areas of strength as an entry point into traditional curriculum. There’s no reason why you couldn’t use your bodily intelligence to understand things about physics. It doesn’t have to come from a textbook or lecture.

But in that book, you also argue that’s learning-as-metaphor, and you have to bring the student back to physics or mathematics in order for the student to truly learn it.
That’s a good point. The way I would think about that now is, if you want to understand physics the way a physicist does, yes, you have to ultimately learn their language. On the other hand, if you want to understand how a lever works, you don’t have to know the formula. You have to understand weight and distance and fulcrum, and there are many ways to have that understanding.

In your writing, you specify different areas of the brain that correspond to different intelligences, either very specifically or roughly. If you’re teaching someone physics in a body-metaphorical way, do they use the logic/mathematical networks of the brain, or the kinesthetic networks?
I wouldn’t bother answering that question for pedagogical reasons, because I don’t think it’s necessary that the educators know neuroanatomy, although for research reasons I think it’s quite interesting. But a book that had enormous influence on me is called Half a Brain is Enough by Antonio M. Battro, about a child who had a hemispherectomy, and was living with only one brain hemisphere, yet if you looked at his performance it was very difficult to tell about his brain damage. That’s because the brain is very plastic and flexible. So if you look at that kid drawing and wonder if he’s using a particular area—the kid may not even have that hemisphere!

Pilot schools have been created based on the ideas of multiple intelligences. To what extent have you seen your ideas being adopted in the past 25 years?
In summer of 2009, we published a book called Multiple Intelligences Around the World. There are 42 people writing from 15 different countries, describing multiple intelligences practices in China, Japan, Australia. To me, this is stunning. The last thing I thought 25 years ago is that some idea I developed would be influencing schools all across the world. As a meme, it’s been quite astonishing. The idea has become pervasive. For example, speaking of someone’s musical intelligence today wouldn’t surprise anyone, while 25 years ago the notion would have been unknown. Even people who have never heard of my books have a sense that the standard view of intelligence is not the ultimate story. Many educators and writers on education use the language. But I’ve stated from the beginning that I’m not a school person, I’m a thinker and a scholar, and the most I ever do is try to give it a push in the right direction.

One of your motivations was to eliminate the idea of a universal intelligence and the IQ test, and rail against the idea of one-size-fits-all standard education. Although your ideas have become very well known, at the same time, No Child Left Behind and standardized testing is bigger than ever in the United States. Why do you think that is?
I like to quote Winston Churchill: “Americans always do the right thing, after they have tried every other alternative.” I think the current educational prescription is completely wrong and short-sighted, but it’s going to have to run its own course. I’ve never been a proselytizer for M.I. What I’ve often said is, all I want to do is leave a space for people who want to explore these ideas to be able to do so. The book M.I. Around the World describes the conditions and places where that’s most likely to happen.

Which isn’t necessarily in the United States?
Well, it’s more likely in independent schools than public schools. It’s more likely in affluent suburbs, or with people learning with kids with disabilities—populations where it’s more difficult to ignore individual differences.

Even if you haven’t pressed for it, do you have an ideal educational institution in your head?
One, I’ve never been deluded enough to think I could run a school. Two, multiple intelligences cannot be the key idea of a school. The key idea of a school has to be what you want an educated person to be. Only after you state your educational goal can we talk about how multiple intelligences might help you achieve it. If your goal is to have high standardized test scores, that’s very different from wanting people who can work together effectively in a community. The goal has to come first. So when people say, I have an M.I. school, I smile and say, that’s nice, but what I’m really interested in is your educational goal, and what are you trying to achieve with your population.
__ All that said, after 25 years I can boil down the two basic educational implications of M.I. theory which I would pursue: individuate and pluralize. Individuate means whenever possible try to teach individuals in ways they can learn, and comfortably show what they’ve learned. One group that’s always had individual education was the wealthy, because they hired tutors. We can now individuate for any person who has access to a computer. The possibility of individuating has become greater in the past 20 years than in all of human history. Pluralize is the other side of the coin. It means anything that’s worth teaching can be taught in a number of different ways. Math, physics, music, astronomy, psychology—there’s nothing of any importance which can only be taught one way. If you teach pluralistically, two wonderful things happen: One, you reach more kids, because some learn better bodily, some artistically, some learn through groups, etc. Two, it shows you really understand something. Because when you really understand something, you can think about it in lots of ways. You can talk, joke, write, make a diagram, etcetera. So anyone who takes M.I. very seriously—I’ve never said this before—needs to figure out what his or her education goals are, and how to achieve those goals through individuation and pluralization.
__ What I don’t say is that you need to learn the Articles of Confederation or all the English kings, because now anyone who has the slightest amount of disposable income can own a personal digital assistant which can call up that information. So it’s a total waste of time to memorize that stuff. Learning how to learn and acquiring a desire to keep learning is what schools ought to be about.

But is teaching harder if education is pluralized? Aren’t you requiring teachers to be very flexible and have skill in several different intelligences?
Well, I put it the other way around: Anybody who can only teach something one way has a flimsy control of the subject matter. I’d say we are trying to make education teacher-proof. The best educational systems in the world are ones in which teachers are highly professional, and that means being flexible in how you present material. If the kid can’t learn in one way, you don’t just repeat yourself or say, “You’re stupid.”
To promote reform, do you hope the schools that adopt M.I. programs demonstrate their efficacy with results that are strong enough to catch on?
__ That’s my own bias. I’m for the magnetic boutique. That’s a place that is so strong and good that when people see it, they’re stunned but say, “We can do that, too, if you help us.” The best example I have is a place I’ve been working with for 30 years, a place in Italy called Reggio Emilia—they have fantastic schools for young kids there. They have no interest in proselytizing, yet people from all over the world make pilgrimages. It’s the best-known early-childhood education program in the world.
__ It’s the opposite of scaling up. Scaling up is when somebody does something impressive, and regulation gets passed that everybody has to do the same thing. I don’t think it ever works. The magnetic boutique is when you do something very special very well, and people hear about it, are inspired, and want to try to do it themselves.
You isolated seven intelligences: linguistic, logical, mathematical, spatial, music, body/kinesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal. Fifteen years later, you added a natural intelligence. Are there others under consideration?
I considered existential intelligence—the ability to ask the big questions. But I still cling to the idea that intelligence is most persuasive when you can find parts of the nervous system that are dedicated to that kind of thing.

What about moral intelligence?
I don’t think that any intelligence is moral or amoral. Intelligences are computational capacities, and it’s how you use those capacities that is what we call moral or ethical. Both Nelson Mandela and Slobodan Milošević have a lot of interpersonal intelligence: They know how to move people. Milošević used it to ferment hatred and commit ethnic cleansing; Mandela brought a split country together. The intelligences were similar, but the uses were very different. So intelligences are not moral or immoral, it’s the uses to which they’re put. This flies in the face of what a lot of people in my field now talk about—the moral instinct, and so on.

Which is the view that morality has developed through evolution.
That’s right. Of course there’s something to that; that’s why I introduced the distinction between neighborly morality and the ethics of roles. There’s no doubt that, as a species, we evolved to know the people in our neighborhood, and if we cheated them too much we were likely to be cheated, so a rough reciprocity is our primate legacy. But in any complex society, there are decisions we have to make in which our neighborly instincts are no help at all, which are what I call the ethics of work and the ethics of citizenship. These are completely cultural things: to know what a journalist or citizen should or shouldn’t do. What we learned as primates is not going to be any help there.

So what are the implications of neighborly morality and the ethics of roles in terms of creating a more ethical society?
Well, in the past 15 years I’ve been working with colleagues on what I call the “GoodWork Project.” Fifteen years ago it was a time in the United States where people were saying, “Government is bad, regulation is bad, markets are good, everything is best left to supply-and-demand.” Now, I’m a beneficiary of markets and so are my colleagues, but we are absolutely convinced that you cannot run a society only on a market basis. You cannot run a society where the only people that can get medical care, education, and legal representation are those who can afford it. We recently saw that everything will go off a cliff if you leave it up to market forces. So the GoodWork Project is an empirical project—we interviewed over 1,200 people in nine different professions over a 10-year period, trying to understand what good work is, and how to achieve it. And recently my own group has been looking at good citizenship.
__ GoodWork is the combination of Three E’s: Excellence, Engagement, and Ethics. Work qualifies as good if it is technically excellent, if it’s personally engaging and meaningful, and if it’s carried out in an ethical and responsible way. A person is a good citizen to the extent that, one, he’s informed and knows the laws; two, cares about them; and three, doesn’t just act in his own self-interest. Here, again, is where the market stuff is flawed. According to economic textbooks, people working in their own self-interest produces a viable society. But if you go back and read Adam Smith, you’ll find that isn’t what he thought at all. He presumed that people would be civic-minded, which doesn’t have anything to do with self-interest in any narrow sense.
__ So for 10 years we studied good work and good citizenship, and for the past five years my colleagues and I have been traveling the world and trying to teach young people—and some who aren’t so young—to become good workers and good citizens. We just launched, in the autumn of 2009, the GoodWork Toolkit website. Go to, and you can see where we’re trying to work with the rest of the world on these big issues. bw


  1. The reason why these ideas haven’t been widely accepted in the field of psychology is probably because psychology has concentrated on mental illness rather than mental performance – intelligence and positive psychologies are not given enough attention and it is likely that this is due to many psychologists’ aversion to such topics as genius and intelligence.

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