Howard Gardner has had enough of watching children crawl around on the classroom floor in the name of his theory of multiple intelligences. It would suit him just fine to never again hear of students reciting the state capitals in song. And he cringes when he meets a teacher who points to a student and says, "That's Sally. She's spatial, but she's not linguistic," as if those were immutable intellectual qualities.
"Sometimes," Gardner says, "I say to my staff sort of sotto voce, 'My God, what have I wrought?"'
That is why the Harvard psychologist is breaking a long, self-imposed silence to set the record straight on how his popular theory plays out in real-life classrooms. In an essay scheduled to come out this month in the journal Phi Delta Kappan, Gardner sets out to dispel seven myths that have grown up around his seven intelligences in hopes of clarifying his ideas for the educators who have so enthusiastically embraced them.
Gardner first gained a popular audience for his theory in 1983 when he published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In that book, he suggested that everyone possesses seven intelligences or intellectual "potentials."
A poet, for example, may be strong in linguistic intelligence, while a violinist's expertise might stem from musical intelligence. The skilled athlete, on the other hand, demonstrates aptitude in the bodily/kinesthetic intellectual sphere. (Hence, all the misguided crawling about in classrooms.)
The traditional A student exhibits proficiency in the logical-mathematical area. For chess players and architects, it's spatial intelligence that comes into play. And people who demonstrate special competencies in their understandings of themselves and others are tapping into the personal intelligences.
All of these intelligences are unevenly distributed, coexist, and can change over time. The job of educators, Gardner wrote, is to capitalize on students' individual intellectual strengths.
"Because I was critical of current views of intelligences within the discipline of psychology," Gardner writes in his essay, "I expected controversy among my fellow psychologists." And he got it. Psychologists still argue, for example, over whether musical intelligence is simply a talent, rather than a true intelligence.
From Theory to Practice
What Gardner did not expect, however, was the hearty welcome his ideas received in schools. Frames of Mind sold roughly 127,000 copies and has been translated into several languages, according to Basic Books publishing. A subsequent book, Multiple Intelligences: Theory and Practice, has sold nearly 53,000 copies.
Gardner himself has read, seen, and heard of hundreds of classroom incarnations of his work over the past 12 years. Although some of those efforts were exemplary, others were, well, odd. Still, Gardner mostly refrained from either criticizing or endorsing them.
"I think it's important to bear in mind that, when I wrote the book, I was really writing as a psychologist, and I saw it as a contribution to our understanding of the mind and our understanding of intelligence," he says. "In retrospect, there's been a huge gap between psychological theory and its implications in practice."
Not a practicing teacher himself, Gardner says, at the time, he considered it presumptuous to offer advice to teachers. But, in the years since, researchers at Project Zero, the Harvard center on cognitive research that Gardner co-directs, have conducted more than than a dozen classroom-based research projects. And Gardner and his colleagues at the center are better now at navigating once-unfamiliar classroom terrain.
Gardner decided to speak out last year after receiving five unsolicited videotapes in one week from teachers trying out his ideas.
"One of the things that drove me bananas in these tapes was to have kids crawling around the floor aimlessly and calling it bodily/kinesthetic intelligence," he says. "Don't read me as saying exercise is a bad thing," Gardner further elaborates in his essay. It is just that random muscular movements have nothing to do with the cultivation of the mind.
Almost as jarring to Gardner were efforts to tap the intelligences as mnemonic devices. "It may well be the case that it is easier to remember a list if one sings it, or even if one dances while reciting it," he writes. "However, these uses of an intelligence are essentially trivial."
Gardner stumbled across more disturbing interpretations of his work in Australia, where educators and commercial developers of educational programs were invoking his name in connection with a project called "accelerative learning." (Not to be confused with Stanford University professor Henry Levin's "accelerated learning" program.) In their materials, program proponents had gone so far as to list various races and the kinds of intelligences they possessed. They also suggest that students' intellectual traits can be inferred from their eye movements.
"It was a total mishmash of science and pseudoscience," Gardner says of the program, which Australian education officials have since curtailed.
No Tests, Please
Among the myths Gardner wants to put to rest is the belief that a battery of tests should be developed to gauge students' capabilities in each of the seven intelligences. Gardner has already turned down commercial test developers looking to cash in on his theory, but that has not deterred at least one small company from creating its own tests.
"Multiple-intelligence theory represents a critique of 'psychometrics-as-usual,"' Gardner writes. Rather than devise a traditional battery of psychological tests to determine if students are spatially oriented or musically inclined, he says, educators would do better to let students explore activities geared to a particular intelligence and see how they negotiate.
Gardner also wants it known that intelligence is neither a domain nor a discipline nor a learning style. It is a potential that can be tapped or maximized with the right environment.
And, he adds, contrary to what his critics charge, the theory is not necessarily incompatible with "g," the classical psychological term used to describe general intellectual ability. Gardner just thinks that general ability, which is measured through traditional IQ tests, does not cover all the intelligences that people possess.
In his essay, Gardner also suggests there may yet be an eighth intelligence: that of the naturalist. "Every little kid can tell the difference between different kinds of plants and animals or distinguish dinosaurs from one another," he says. "Certain people have this kind of intelligence in abundance. I found that someone like Charles Darwin or E.O. Wilson couldn't be explained in terms of the seven multiple intelligences."
Gardner's practical advice to educators, however, is to think of multiple-intelligence theory in terms of "desired endstates." If schools value musical intelligence, for example, then they should cultivate it. But there is no reason to represent every lesson in seven--or eight--different ways.
The key is to personalize the teaching that goes on in classrooms. For its part, Project Zero is making plans to give better guidance to schools. Among those efforts will be summer seminars for teachers and formal networks of educators. At least these teachers will be getting the message straight from the center, Gardner figures, rather than from other adaptations of his work.
Despite all the misinterpretation, Gardner says he's taken to heart the overwhelming response to his theory.
"I'm very moved by the number of people who come up to me and write to me and say, 'This made a difference in my life."' he says. "People are freed by the notion that just because they weren't academically talented in a certain school, they lack merit."