Throughout 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.
Brain World: I was interviewing John Medina the other day, and he told me he believes you are widely misunderstood. Is that something you agree with?
Howard Gardner: 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.
BW: In “Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice,” you talk about developing education in way that is geared to particular intelligences.
HG: 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.
BW: 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.
HG: 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.
BW: 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?
HG: 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!
BW: 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?
HG: 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.
BW: 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?
HG: 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. [multiple intelligences]. 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. [Multiple Intelligences] Around the World” describes the conditions and places where that’s most likely to happen.