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Howard Gardner is the cognitive psychologist who revolutionized our thinking about human intelligence. He didn’t agree with the notion that humans possess a single intelligence (IQ) that can be measured using a single linear scale. His exhaustive research provided a much different theory of human intelligence. And this theory expanded and changed the way we think about education and student learning.
Gardner is a Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero (an educational research group at Harvard). Most recently, Gardner was named the Brock International Prize in Education Laureate for 2015. Impressive credentials.
When I first saw Howard Gardner speak at a school near Portland, Oregon in the early 1990s, I was surprised to see a short, bespectacled, mousy little man walk to the podium. His presence wasn’t compelling, neither was his soft voice. But his message was. His book, Frames of Mind (Basic Books, 1983, rereleased in 2011) had caused much discussion in educational circles. He claimed that he could identify at least seven intelligences in humans, using strict criteria that defined an “intelligence.”
The thing that struck me most about Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences was that of the original seven he had identified, only two were important in our educational system. Standardized tests and measures of IQ favored people with strength in Verbal-linguistic and Logical-mathematical intelligences. Students demonstrating those skills tended to do well. Students without a strong focus in those skills, even if they were very strong in other intelligences (Musical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Spatial-Visual, Intrapersonal, or Interpersonal) might be thought of as less intelligent and could easily fall through the cracks. “Dr. Gardner says that we should also place equal attention on individuals who show gifts in the other intelligences: the artists, architects, musicians, naturalists, designers, dancers, therapists, entrepreneurs, and others who enrich the world in which we live.” Thomas Armstrong, American Institute for Learning and Development, 2013
Over the years, Gardner published several additional books about multiple intelligences (MI). Following Frames of Mind (now available for Kindle), he published Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice (Basic Books, 1993), The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (Basic Books, 1995, 2004, 2011), and Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (Basic Books, 2000). His original theory hasn’t changed much, though he has added one new intelligence: Naturalist. He is exploring a ninth intelligence, Existential, but that one doesn’t meet all of Gardner’s criteria. He claims he has now identified 8 ½ intelligences. J
It has been over 30 years since Gardner’s first book on intelligence was published and on the surface at least, many educators have embraced his theory. But MI theory has been linked in some people’s minds with other educational concepts such as learning styles. Gardner would like to set the record straight, “one unanticipated consequence [of interest in the theory] has driven me to distraction—and that’s the tendency of many people…to credit me with the notion of ‘learning styles’…” Not so, he says. You can read Gardner’s in-depth analysis of the differences between MI and learning styles in Valery Straus’ article, Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple Intelligences’ are not ‘Learning Styles,’ Washington Post, 2013.
The good news is that educators are still discussing Gardner’s theory and trying to figure out how to put it into practice. More good news is that this is happening at his own school, originally formed in 1975 as The Children’s Learning Workshop in Scranton, Pennsylvania (where he is from) and reorganized in 2005 as the Howard Gardner School for Discovery. In 2012, the School for Discovery became a public charter school in Scranton, called the Howard Gardner Multiple Intelligences Charter School (HGMICS). (http://howardgardnerschool.com/) As a laboratory charter school, HGMICS’ mission is to improve the practice of teaching. I’m hopeful that Gardner and his colleagues will guide the rest of us to incorporate the Theory of Multiple Intelligences into common educational practice.