Multiple Intelligences and the Unschooled Mind

May 01, 1992 3 min read

In 1988, a group of Indianapolis elementary teachers were so impressed with the ideas in Howard Gardner’s 1983 book, Frames of Mind, that they drove across the country to visit the Harvard psychologist in his Cambridge, Mass., office. When they returned home, they began to create a new public school--the Key School--based on Gardner’s theories of “multiple intelligences.’'

Gardner has not formed a network of schools to spread his ideas, but his theories--expressed in books, research papers, lectures, and demonstration projects--have influenced teachers and schools from coast to coast.

He argues that instead of having one all-encompassing mental aptitude that can be measured by an IQ test, people have multiple distinct intelligences--at least seven: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodilykinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. People possess these intelligences in varying strengths, giving everyone a unique “profile’’ of intelligence. The Key School, unlike most schools, provides children the opportunity every day to use and develop all of their intelligences.

For two decades, Gardner has tested his ideas through Harvard Project Zero, an interdisciplinary research group he co-directs that conducts various small-scale studies with teachers and students at different schools.

He is also an architect of Arts PROPEL, a pilot project in the public schools of Pittsburgh that has as its goal the creation of curricula and assessments that provide a much richer depiction than is now available of how children learn and grow artistically. Concerned that norm-referenced standardized tests are poor devices to measure artistic learning, Gardner has students in the program produce sketchbooks and journals, compile portfolios, and complete carefully sequenced classroom exercises. In this way, he says, they leave a series of “footprints’’ for teachers about how they are thinking and growing as artists.

In his most recent book, The Unschooled Mind, Gardner explores further the mismatch he sees between the way schools teach and the way students learn. He points out that children have accomplished a great deal by the time they come to school: They have mastered a complex language, have a pretty good idea about what is right and wrong, and can think about many complex things at high levels. “You should talk to 5-year-olds,’' Gardner says. “They’re very smart. They’ve got very powerful theories about how the world works, and they’ve got very powerful theories about people.’' Unfortunately, these theories are often flawed.

The problem, Gardner says, is that schools ignore the strongly held notions of kids; they treat children as if they are empty vessels waiting to be filled. As a result, he says, kids will grow up learning--but often not understanding--what they are taught in school while retaining their flawed intuitive theories for “real life’’ situations. Hence, Gardner argues, there is a 5-year-old in each of us that emerges whenever we are confronted with circumstances for which the artificial world of school did not prepare us.

For example, a 5-year-old and a college freshman may explain that it is warmer in the summer because the earth is closer to the sun. The child’s reasoning is that the closer one gets to a heat source, the warmer it gets. Although the freshman has learned in school that seasons result from the angle of the Earth on its axis as it circles the sun, he or she never really understood it, and so reverts to the childhood theory.

Gardner sees “genuine understanding’'--understanding that goes beyond repetitive learning and short answers--as the fundamental goal of education. “The gap between what passes for understanding and genuine understanding,’' he says, “remains great.’' The way to close that gap is for teachers to take seriously the ideas and intuitions of the young child and challenge and build on them.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Multiple Intelligences and the Unschooled Mind