Expert Testimony

January 01, 1996 5 min read

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 students singing the names of the state capitals. And he cringes when he meets a teacher who points to a student and says, “That’s Sally. She’s spatial but 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 ideas relate to real-life classrooms. In an essay published in the November issue of the educational journal Phi Delta Kappan, Gardner attempts to dispel seven myths that have grown up around his seven intelligences. His goal: to clarify his ideas for educators who have so enthusiastically embraced them.

Gardner first gained a popular audience in 1983 when his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences was published. In the book, he suggests that everyone possesses seven intelligences or intellectual “potentials.’' A poet may be strong in linguistic intelligence, while a violinist’s expertise might stem from musical intelligence. The skilled athlete demonstrates aptitude in the bodily/kinesthetic intellectual sphere. 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 dem-onstrate special competencies in their understandings of themselves and others are tapping into the personal intelligences.

Gardner believes that all of these intelligences are unevenly distributed, coexist, and can change over time. The job of educators is to capitalize on students’ individual intellectual strengths.

“Because I was critical of current views of intelligences within the discipline of psychology, I expected controversy among my fellow psychologists,’' Gardner writes in the Kappan essay. And he got it. Psychologists still argue, for example, over whether Gardner’s musical intelligence is a true intelligence or a simple talent.

What Gardner did not expect, however, was the hearty welcome his ideas received in schools. Frames of Mind has sold roughly 127,000 copies and been translated into several languages. A subsequent book, Multiple Intelligences: Theory and Practice, has sold nearly 53,000 copies.

Over the past 12 years, Gardner has learned about hundreds of classroom incarnations of his theories. Although some of those efforts were exemplary, others were, well, odd. But for the most part, the psychologist has refrained from criticizing or endorsing. “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, at the time, considered it presumptuous to offer advice to teachers. But in the intervening years, the Harvard-based Project Zero, a cognitive research center Gardner co-directs, has conducted more than a dozen classroom-based studies. As a result, Gardner and his colleagues better understand the 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. Exercise, of course, is not a bad thing, Gardner writes in his essay. But random muscular movements, he adds, have nothing to do with the cultivation of the mind.

Almost as jarring was the way teachers were using certain mnemonic devices to tap the intelligences. “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 link certain intelligences to various races. They also suggested 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.

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 in this manner, but that has not deterred at least one small company from creating its own tests. In his essay, Gardner points out that “multiple-intelligence theory represents a critique of ‘psychometrics-as-usual.’ '' Rather than devise a traditional battery of psychological tests to determine if students are spatially oriented or musically inclined, he writes, educators should let students explore activities geared to a particular intelligence and see how they negotiate.

Gardner also clarifies that the intelligences he has identified are not domains, disciplines, or learning styles but potentials that people can tap or maximize with the right environment. He even suggests that there may 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 end states.’' 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.

Despite all the misinterpretations, Gardner has 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.’'

--Debra Viadero

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Expert Testimony