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School & District Management

Staying Power

By Debra Viadero — June 04, 2003 11 min read
The theory of multiple intelligences, which turns 20 this year, remains popular even as skeptics question author Howard Gardner's claims.

In 1983, when Howard Gardner published Frames of Mind, the first book to lay out his theory of multiple intelligences, he wasn’t expecting to rack up any sales records. None of his half-dozen previous books had drawn much attention beyond his own field. He figured this one, aimed as it was at psychologists like himself, would do no better. He was wrong.

The book created a buzz, though not in the way he might have hoped. It was educators and parents, rather than academics, who bought copies of the book and took his theory to heart.

As Gardner explained his idea, people are endowed with seven separate, equally valid, forms of intelligence. (He has since added an eighth.) Athletes and dancers, for example, might be particularly adept at exploiting “bodily-kinesthetic” intelligence, while lawyers, public speakers, and writers might demonstrate the traits of “linguistic” intelligence. The challenge for educators, Gardner argued, was to figure out how to capitalize on those intelligences in the classroom.

Teachers might, for example, use one intellectual strength to bolster another and form a bridge for students to learn subject matter with less appeal for them.

“Multiple intelligences” soon entered the popular lexicon of education.

In the name of multiple-intelligences theory, artwork blossomed on school walls, and music wafted out of social studies and mathematics lessons. Entire schools were built around Gardner’s idea. The book itself went through dozens of printings and has sold 300,000-plus copies around the world. It’s been translated into Chinese, Czech, Norwegian, and at least 10 other languages. Whether one subscribes to the theory or not, few can deny that it has made an indelible mark on contemporary education.

Now, as the theory marks its 20th anniversary, educators and academicians have begun to take stock of Gardner’s concept and its rapid rise to recognition. That success story has been as puzzling to academic experts as it was at first to Gardner himself. The theory, after all, came with no program or model for educators to replicate. It came, initially, with no organization to promote it or to provide teacher training. And it came without much in the way of research to prove that students in classrooms modeled on the theory did better academically than children in other sorts of classrooms.

While off-the-shelf school improvement programs with more experimental research to recommend them struggle to get a foothold in schools, Gardner still gets mail almost daily from educators around the world eager to translate his thinking into practice.

“Teachers need something to hold on to to help them make sense of the vast amount of differences they see in school,” says Patricia Alexander, a professor of human development and a distinguished scholar at the University of Maryland College Park. “Until something better comes along, I think multiple-intelligences theory is here to stay.”

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

Gardner, who is a professor of education and cognition at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, marks a milestone of his own this year: He turns 60.

A serious pianist in his youth, Gardner brought to his studies of intelligence a love for the arts. He also brought an academic background in developmental psychology and neuropsychology, acquired in part by studying normal and gifted children and brain-damaged adults. He had chronicled how strokes crippled some cognitive functions, such as speech and writing, yet left others completely intact, and how autistic children could be emotionally impaired yet extraordinarily gifted at solving mathematical problems or playing the piano.

In 1979, with a five-year grant from a Dutch foundation, Gardner began to pull all those life strands together. He drew from experimental studies in anthropology, neurobiology, cognitive psychology, and other disciplines—and multiple-intelligences theory emerged.

In the name of multiple-intelligences theory, artwork blossomed on school walls, and music wafted out of social studies and mathematics lessons. Entire schools were built around Gardner's idea.

Besides bodily-kinesthetic and linguistic intelligences, Gardner postulated, humans possess at least five other, separate intelligences. They include: musical intelligence; spatial intelligence, which is important for pilots and architects, for instance; logical-mathematical intelligence; intrapersonal intelligence, or the capacity to know oneself; and interpersonal intelligence, which is commonly thought of as “people skills.” In later years, Gardner added the intelligence of the naturalist—the ability to recognize and classify flora and fauna. He also offered some preliminary evidence for yet one more. In individuals, he suggested, all seven—or eight—intelligences are unevenly distributed, coexist, and can change over time.

The idea was revolutionary, because traditional psychologists defined intelligence more narrowly. They called it “g,” for general intelligence, and measured it with IQ tests focused on just two of the intelligences Gardner identified—logical-mathematical and linguistic skills. By using the word “intelligences,” rather than talents or abilities, Gardner had challenged some long-established notions in the field, commentators have suggested.

“I am quite confident that if I had written a book called Seven Talents,” Gardner recently wrote looking back over the 20 years, “it would not have received the attention Frames of Mind received.”

The theory also threw down the gauntlet to traditional educators at a time when the headline-making critique ANation at Risk— issued the same year—had already sent them casting about for better ways to teach. Like the psychologists, schools emphasized only linguistic and logical- mathematical intelligences. With Gardner’s theories, however, the intellectual strengths of musicians, athletes, social leaders, and others could also have a valued place in the classroom.

“Howard gave us an explanation of what every sentient human being knows—mainly, that individuals come with different kinds of skills in understanding themselves and the world around them,” says Patricia Albjerg Graham, a research professor of the history of education and a former dean of the Harvard graduate school of education.

Mindy L. Kornhaber, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University in University Park who worked with Gardner for more than 11 years, has co-conducted her own studies on why teachers embraced the theory so quickly.

Besides validating what they saw in their own students, she says, the theory complemented beliefs and philosophies teachers already had, such as the idea that all children can learn. Teachers also already had practices in their repertoires that meshed with the theory—approaches like project-based and hands-on learning. Multiple intelligences gave them a way to sift through those “teaching closets” and organize what they had, Kornhaber notes.

“Teachers began to sort through these intuitive practices to see what was handy,” she says. “And, when you see what’s organized, you also begin to see what’s missing from the closet.” In the bargain, her studies have shown, teachers began to make some real changes in classroom practice.

The going got tougher for the theory in the 1990s, as the national movement to make schools accountable for their students' progress on standardized tests took hold.

The first school to build itself around the theory was the Key Learning Community, a public magnet school in Indianapolis. Now, 20 years later, the theory still guides the school’s hiring, scheduling, and curricular practices, says Chris Kunkel, Key’s vice principal. Once an elementary school, Key has since added a middle and a high school. It maintains a student waiting list numbering in the hundreds.

“It’s so incredible for kids to understand that if they happen to not have a strength in math or English, they’re still OK and still smart in other ways,” Kunkel says.

But the theory has had less staying power in some other schools, according to Kornhaber of Penn State. Of five multiple-intelligences schools that she profiled for a forthcoming book on the subject, four abandoned the theory after new principals took over.

Now, it’s hard to say just how many schools or teachers nationwide still model their practices on Gardner’s theory, though subscribers to electronic mailing lists maintained by enthusiasts of multiple-intelligences theory number in the thousands. In truth, the going got tougher for the theory in the 1990s, as the national movement to make schools accountable for their students’ progress on standardized tests took hold. (In Singapore, China, Taiwan, and other countries, however, the theory seems to be more popular than ever.)

“This is a theory that—like most doctrines that emerge out of the progressive education tradition—is not a comfortable fit in an era of standards-based reform,” says Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant U.S. secretary of education in charge of research under President Reagan.

“Standards-based reform essentially believes kids ought to all end up learning the same things, and multiple- intelligences theory thinks kids are so different from one another that they shouldn’t all end up learning the same things,” adds Finn, who is now the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Finn and other skeptics point to a lack of experimental studies backing up the theory that would show students learn more when teachers try to capitalize on their individual intellectual strengths.

“Howard’s is an interesting theory and it’s well-received, but there’s not a lot of empirical research for this,” says Alexander of the University of Maryland. “He’s a theorist, and he’s put out a theory that has some appeal, and it’s up to others to test it.”

Evidence From Neuroscience

For his part, Gardner has never thought it made sense to test his theory with the kind of rigorous experiments that policymakers in Washington are now demanding.

“The way the U.S. Institute of Education Sciences would think about it is, ‘OK, if multiple-intelligences theory is good, let’s take 20 classes and have 10 taught in the MI way and 10 not taught in the MI way,’” he says. “Then you think, ‘What would it mean to teach in a non-MI way?’ and that’s kind of a senseless statement. You want the kids to like you, so you’re using interpersonal intelligence and you use books that have pictures. How do you isolate all that?”

Still, he says, that’s not to say a well-designed experiment couldn’t some day overcome such issues.

Some evidence supportive of his theory, nonetheless, is dribbling in from neuroscience, where researchers are using newer brain-imaging technology to study the neural pathways that are activated in the brain when people undertake different kinds of activities. Some of those studies suggest that language, musical abilities, the ability to use movement, and mathematical abilities may indeed operate through separate neural systems.

‘Multiple intelligences is a wonderful tool, but you still need lots of traditional teaching going on.’

“Everything should suggest that further investigations in experimental and clinical neuropsychology will yield more evidence supportive of multiple intelligences,” says Antonio Damasio, a neurology professor at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City.

Some of the criticisms of multiple-intelligences theory over the years, in fact, may stem as much from the way schools have implemented the idea as from the idea itself.

Because the theory never became embodied in a set program, teachers were free to interpret Gardner’s writings any way they liked. The Key school, for example, hires teachers who are experts in particular intelligences so that they can teach core academic concepts eight different ways. At the New City School, a small, private school in St. Louis that also has modeled itself on Gardner’s theory, educators simply try to hit on all eight intelligences in the course of a day, concentrating in particular on the personal intelligences.

“Multiple intelligences is a wonderful tool, but you still need lots of traditional teaching going on,” says Thomas Hoerr, New City’s principal.

Over the course of two decades, Gardner admits, he has cringed at some of the ways teachers have interpreted his work—all the mnemonic devices set to music, the aimless crawling and moving about in the classroom, the labeling of children as “spatial” or “linguistic.” The worst, he says, was the group of Australian educators who used the theory as a basis for classifying entire racial groups.

The misinterpretations led Gardner seven years ago to develop a summer program for teachers interested in the theory, to put out case studies of schools that seemed to be using the program with success, and to launch Project Spectrum, a tool for measuring young children’s intellectual profiles.

Gardner is leaving it to others, though, to come up with multiple- intelligences programs for schools, to update the theory with new research, and to design experiments to test it.

“I’m really much more interested in affecting the way people think about things than I am about telling them what to do,” he says.

And his restless mind has since taken him to other intellectual pursuits, such as studying creativity, extraordinary achievement, and ethical decisionmaking. But he knows that he will always be known as the “father of multiple intelligences.”

In fact, he’s scheduled to be on hand this month when the Key Learning Community graduates the first class of students to be taught for their entire school careers by teachers relying on multiple-intelligences theory.

One of the soon-to-be graduates is Peter Reynolds, who started at Key as a 1st grader. “I think it’s given me a better understanding of how to work in groups, to know everyone’s weaknesses and strengths, and how to work around challenges,” says the well-spoken senior.

When he sees Howard Gardner at his school next month, he says, he hopes to shake his hand.

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.

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