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Interview with Howard Gardner

Interview with Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner, director of the Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, introduced the theory of multiple intelligences in 1983.

Can you give a shorthand version of your theory of multiple intelligences?

Multiple intelligences is a psychological theory about the mind. It’s a critique of the notion that there’s a single intelligence which we’re born with, which can’t be changed, and which psychologists can measure. It’s based on a lot of scientific research in fields ranging from psychology to anthropology to biology. It’s not based upon based on test correlations, which most other intelligence theories are based on.

The claim is that there are at least eight different human intelligences. Most intelligence tests look at language or logic or both – those are just two of the intelligences. The other six are musical, spatial, bodily/kinestheic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.

I make two claims. The first claim is that all human beings have all of these intelligences. It’s part of our species definition. The second claim is that, both because of our genetics and our environment, no two people have exactly the same profile of intelligences, not even identical twins, because their experiences are different.

This is where we shift from science to education. If we all have different kinds of minds, we have a choice. We can either ignore those differences and teach everybody the same stuff in the same way and assess everybody in the same way. Or we can say, look, people learn in different kinds of ways, and they have different intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take that into account in how we teach and how we assess.

So how should teachers who believe in your theory change their approach to teaching?

Multiple intelligences (MI) is a tool. It’s not a goal. That means that you have to decide what you want to teach, and that should be based on what you think is important. Nowadays often it’s other people who are telling us what to teach. That’s not what I favor. But whoever makes the decisions, once those decisions are made, that’s when MI can come into action.

In my own work, I’m a proponent of teaching for understanding, which means going deeply into topics so that students can really make use of knowledge in new situations. This is very, very different from most teaching, where people memorize material and can reproduce it on demand but can’t make use of it in new situations. That’s what understanding entails. If you favor education for understanding the way I do, then MI can be extremely helpful. Because when you are teaching a topic, you can approach the topic in many ways, thereby activating different intelligences. You can provide analogies and metaphors for different domains, invading different intelligences, and finally, you can present the key ideas in a number of different languages or symbol systems, again activating different intelligences.

But obviously you can’t do that if you’re going to spend five minutes on a topic and then move on to something. Then you’re almost constrained to present it one way, which is usually verbally, and to give people a short-answer test. You can see that I’m very much in opposition to the current state and national trends, which create more tests, often of a short-answer sort, favoring coverage or noncoverage and not probing deeply into what people really understand.

Can standardized tests ever hope to measure children’s full intelligence?

I’m not in favor of tests that are designed to measure people’s intelligence, because frankly I don’t care what intelligence or intelligences people have. I care whether they can do things which we value in our culture. What good is it to know if you have an IQ of 90 or 110 – or even if you can jack it up to 120 through a lot of training – if, in the end, you can’t do anything.

I think our assessments ought to focus on the kinds of things we want people to understand, and they ought to give people a chance to perform their understandings. Because, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you have an IQ of 160 if you sit around and do nothing. What’s important is whatever IQ you have or whatever profile of intelligences you have, that you can demonstrate knowledge and understanding of things that matter.

So do you think the high-stakes testing movement that we’re seeing now is going to force people to abandon different approaches to teaching?

Yes. Current approaches almost inevitably push people to teach to the test, because those tests are so high-stake both for students and for teachers. Now, in principle, one could have assessments which probe understanding, and they could even be standardized. I would be much more in favor of those assessments. But those assessments would have to give people lots of choices. Because, say you’re doing American history, you have to say to people, “I want you to discuss, let’s say, the role of immigration in America, but you can discuss it with reference to any one of 20 different groups or 20 different issues." If, on the other hand, you require people to know all 20 different groups and all 20 issues, then obviously, they can’t know very much about any one of them. It’s just a very superficial, Jeopardy-style knowledge.

Now let’s be clear about this: Assessment is fine. Even standardized assessment is fine, if it looks at things which are important and allows us to probe in-depth what people understand. But if it’s just whether you memorized the encyclopedia and can spit it out, it’s of no value, because a year later, even six months later, you’ll have forgotten everything because you will not have had any kind of understanding.

How do you respond to those who say that MI theory is appealing, but there’s no proof to back it up?

There’s no short answer to that question. To begin with, it’s a scientific theory, and so it needs to be evaluated on the basis of the science on which it draws. And I think it does quite well in terms of the scientific evidence, even the evidence that’s accumulated since the theory was first propounded 20 years ago. I have a new book coming out this fall called Multiple Intelligences Reframed, where in fact I discuss a few new intelligences, and also discuss the scientific evidence for it. So when people say it hasn’t been proved, we first have to say what’s the scientific evidence for and against it--and I think the scientific evidence stacks pretty well.

Now, I’ve never espoused a particular program in schools. There are no Gardner schools, and there is no MI approach. So when people say it hasn’t been proved, it’s a senseless statement. What you have to say is, “Has this particular implementation of MI theory, in this particular place, produced better student learning?”

When I was interviewed by Time magazine and asked about the effects of MI in schools, I was very cautious, because even if those schools are doing wonderfully, we don’t know for sure whether it’s because of MI. There are a hundred different things that could be going on in those schools.

I was criticized for being honest. The implication was that if I lied and said these schools are better and we know it’s because of MI theory, then therefore the theory would have been proved correct.

So this question is much more detailed and technical than the question itself implies. But if you want a flip answer, the flip answer is, if we know the other approaches haven’t worked because we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in if they had, then you’d be a fool not to try something new.

But as I hope I’ve made clear to you, there isn’t a single MI approach. Basically, the idea is if you value the differences among students and take them very seriously, that should have implications for how you present material. That’s the only absolute implication from the theory. But whether you teach seven courses or eight courses or you teach something seven ways or eight ways, or you teach to strength or you teach to weakness, those are all decisions made by educators. They don’t follow from the theory.

How can people sort through all the MI stuff that’s out there?

As a matter of principle, I don’t endorse any commercial products, so no conclusions should be drawn one way or the other. I would say that it probably is a big mistake to rely only on one person or one book. In the new book, Multiple Intelligences Reframed, I list almost 100 books on the topic and hundreds and hundreds of articles, and so I think any smart consumer ought to:

o Look at a number of different publications,
o Visit a number of different schools or go to a number of different workshops--God knows there are enough of them,
o And most important, start a learning community at your own school, where you read some of the texts, hopefully including mine, where you talk about the ideas, where you examine your own intelligences--where you’re strong, where you’re weak, how that affects your teaching, what you might do differently if you had a different set of intelligences. Watch some of the teachers, exchange and trade classes, and then begin to try things out with kids and see whether, if you take a more pluralistic approach, that you achieve greater success with kids with whom you’re not having success.

There’s no point in doing anything with MI if you think you’re doing a great job. You just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s when things aren’t going as well as you want, when there are certain kids who you’re not reaching, or you have kids who are excited but they’re not able to demonstrate their understanding, then you’ve got a problem. That’s when I think you should look at ideas like MI and see if they’re useful.

I have another book coming out this year, called The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand. And in that book, I talk about what understanding is, and how elusive it is, and how we can approach deeper understanding for our kids. At the end of the book, I show how to take three topics, one from science (the theory of evolution), one from the arts (the music of Mozart), and one from history (the Holocaust), and really engender deep understandings by taking an MI approach very seriously. It's not only what I mentioned earlier – the entry points, the analogies, and the model languages – but also giving students lots of different ways of showing how they understand something.

I was once interviewed on radio about MI. I said I bet you could teach about the Civil War using dance, and I got lots of hate mail. I thought about it for a while, and I thought about the Spanish Civil War and the painting Guernica. And I said I bet you more people understand more about the Spanish Civil War from Picasso’s Guernica than from reading the textbook on the topic. Almost anything can be illuminated in surprising ways if you open up your mind to the variety of intelligences.

Where is it said that the only way to learn about something is to read a chapter on it and answer a set of short-answer questions? Certainly in other countries, they don’t do that. But part of our numerical, standardized test bias is many people think that’s the only way to show something. And the greatest paradox is that people who were often the worst students when they were young are the ones who believe that the strongest, whereas people who were better students, who had more of a liberal arts education, understand that the questions we ask are more important than the answers that we come up with, and the more ways that we can think about something, the deeper our understanding is.
What do you say to people who say that linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences are more important than the other six?

There’s no question that if you have a certain combination of language and logic, you’re going to be facile in handling the kinds of tests we usually give, and as long as you stay in school, you’ll think you’re smart. If you ever should walk out into the street, you might be in for a huge shock. Conversely, if you’re not good in language and logic in school, you’ll have a harder time because you’ll think you’re dumb, and you kind of have to get through school to show what it is that you can accomplish in life.

However, there’s a very important distinction between the intelligence and the domain. An intelligence is a way of processing, which your mind/brain has. A domain is a subject or topic that you want to master. Any domain can be mastered through a lot of different intelligences. You don’t have to use language and logic.

So if you’re trying to understand history or science or arts, you can use intelligences like spatial intelligence or musical intelligence or personal intelligence or the naturalist intelligence. A large part of education, whether it’s self-education or scholastic education, is figuring how to get your particular mind/brain to learn what it is that it needs to learn.

So if you’re not very good in language and logic, you’ve got three choices: one is to punt, the other is to improve those--and if you can improve them, great--and the third is to say, well I can learn about things in other ways. Let’s see whether I can use those other ways to do a better job.

I’m very bad with maps, spatial kinds of things, geometry. I try to exercise my spatial muscles, and they’ve probably gotten somewhat better. But there are lots of other ways to find your way around besides maps, and it’s often very good to use the intelligences that are there.

Indeed I often say that if anybody doesn’t believe in multiple intelligences, they should go on an automobile ride with three other people and get totally lost and see how each person tries to get back home. That will make them an instant convert to the theory of multiple intelligences. People do not think the same way.

What does a first grade teacher need to know about MI compared to, say, a high school biology teacher?

The very basic claims that I talked about, namely that we all have these intelligences but that we differ from one another. I think that’s clearly something everybody should know. But the task of a first grade teacher is not identical to that of a high school teacher. One thing which I think the United States is very bad on is most first grade teachers don’t know what’s going on in high school and vice versa, and I think we both lose that way. I’m in favor of what are called pathways, where you really think education through from K to 12.

That being said, I believe that the purpose of later education – middle school, high school, and beyond – is to master the disciplines. So the question that I confront in The Disciplined Mind is, how can our knowledge, given the intelligences, help us learn to think like a historian, like a scientist, and so on? If we don’t change the way people think about those things, then school is a waste of time after elementary school.

On the other hand, in elementary school, that’s basically not a time for disciplined learning. It’s a time for getting excited about learning, to be curious about things, to be motivated, to want to find out more, and then to begin to introduce some very gross distinctions – like the difference between something that happened that we’re trying to describe historically and something that was invented, like a fable. That’s the kind of thing that kids need to begin to understand when they’re 8, 9, 10, 11 years of age, because otherwise they won’t understand history.

Similarly, science consists of claims for which evidence exists, and you can accumulate more evidence, for or against a particular point. That’s very different from something that’s just a question of opinion or belief. And again, that’s the kind of thing that should be handled in the elementary years because otherwise you’ll never be able to learn the disciplines.

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