Books that have been important to me #7 Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind. The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

In the middle 1990s I was asked to give a plenary address at an education conference, and you can find its text here, or if the link doesn’t work, by going in the masthead to my Writings, then to Educational, then to ‘Who Counts?’ What follows here is based on that speech.

The beginning of my speech was based on a series of questions that had troubled me throughout my working life, as to just what ‘intelligence’ was, and why it was so important. I was usually near the top in my classes at school, but rarely at the very top. Some people were just better than me, no matter what the area was. Since I was a competent junior representative tennis player, it was true there, too. There were better young juniors than me, better pianists, better students. At the University of New England, it was often the case that the highest performers in our subjects were external students, primary school teachers, some of them. What were they doing winning the prizes?

I was led to Howard Gardner’s book and it was a revelation. I had assumed (indeed, I had been taught) that there was a thing called the IQ, and that explained everything. I had been tested on it, and had a high score. I was an undergraduate at uni, which was corroborative. I did well there, and so on. IQ must work, though it didn’t answer all the questions by any means. I was eventually to meet Howard Gardner, and attend one of his postgraduate seminars at Harvard, which I enjoyed. But it was his theory that grabbed me, and I have stuck to it ever since.

To summarise, Gardner said that there are seven ‘intelligences’, or intellectual domains or capacities, and we all have them. They are linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, intra-personal, inter-personal. In more recent years he has added a ‘natural’ intelligence (those who are at ease, in tune with, the natural world) and half another one, ‘spiritual’ which is what it looks like, and is only a half-intelligence because while you can possess it, you can’t be taught it to effect. It doesn’t matter how many times I read the Bible, I don’t believe — at least, so far that has been true. Yet I could, I think, teach it, and many much better-versed people than I do so every day.

Three aspects are supremely important in his view of intelligence. The first is that the IQ test is based on only two of these capacities, the linguistic and logico-mathematical. The second is that you can’t have them all in abundance, because each requires teaching, learning and time if we are to develop these capacities properly. We all specialise, and that means we tend to be good at two or three, but not at all seven or eight. The third is, nonetheless, that they are all present in all of us, unless we have been brain-damaged.

And that leads to what I think is Gardner’s strongest and most startling claim: whatever differences may initially appear, early intervention and consistent training can play a decisive role in determining the individual’s ultimate level of performance. And further: if a particular intellectual skill is important to a society, and if sufficient resources are devoted to it, and if the individual is motivated, and if proper learning is available, then nearly every normal individual can obtain impressive competence in an intellectual or symbolic domain.

It is important to recognise what he is not saying: that anyone can be a winner. If tennis is important to the society (and it is), and if you want to be a good tennis player, and if there are courts handy and an excellent teacher, and your parents and peer group keep encouraging you — then you will be an excellent tennis player. Will you win Wimbledon? No idea, and he isn’t saying you will. But if it were not so there would not be such an array of good tennis players, good writers, good scientists, good painters, good sculptors, good whatevers. As we educate more and more people for more and more years, all this is bound to happen.

I should have said a little more about the intelligences. Linguistic intelligence is competence in language, both written and oral/aural; musical intelligence is obvious, and Mozart and Bach are arguably its greatest exemplars. Logico-mathematical intelligence is what it sounds like, while spatial intelligence is the kind of competence possessed both by good engineers and by good sculptors. Bodily-kinesthetic competences are the kind demonstrated by ballet-dancers, painters, actors, acrobats and sports-people generally. The personal intelligences divide into two: an understanding of oneself, and a sensitivity to others. Gardner makes a strong case for the existence of these seven intelligences, and for their relative independence. I agree with his one and half additions, too. To be in the bush with someone who is equipped with an intellectual capacity focussed on the natural world is to see, hear and comprehend things you miss completely without that capacity.

Of course, Gardner has been attacked by those who just smile and say that maths and science are everything, and that the other things are just pastimes, interesting in their way, but not what Western civilisation is about. When I hear this sort of talk, and I have heard it over a working lifetime of sixty years, it is now my turn to shrug and smile. Maths and science are important, there is no doubt about it. But a civilisation that did not have the music of Bach, the art of the Renaissance and the French impressionists, ballet, theatre, cinema, architecture that produced the great buildings of the world, the sports that we play and enjoy, our interest in food and wine — these are the paving blocks of the civilised road on which we journey.

Yes, maths and science are involved to a degree in many of them. But they are not, I think, the most important of the intelligences, despite the fuss government and others make about them. All are important, and we should value them all. I suggested to a chief minister once that he should ensure that all the young inmates of the jail to be created in the ACT should be offered musical education, on the pattern of ‘el sistema’ in Venezuela. Why? Music is creative, we can all do it in some form, and it usually brings out the best in us. More, it can sustain us when things are bad. The Chief Minister didn’t get it. It seemed more important to him to give them skills that led to jobs. So we still have recidivism, and the jails are still basically schools for further criminal activity.

An essay as short as this one is not the best place to set out and discuss a powerful educational theory. Search the Internet for him, and read what you find there. I regard the theory of multiple intelligences as far and away the best explanation of human capacities there is, and the right basis for planning the educational journeys of young children. That we don’t do it is a pity, though more and more teachers are aware of Gardner. It is in fact thirty years since he put forward his theory. We are still obsessed with jobs and growth. I am not opposed to either, but they are only a useful beginning, not the end of education.

And IQ? I thought too much was made of it when we learned about it in Psychology 1. I’m still of that opinion.






Join the discussion 20 Comments

  • margaret says:

    At last! I love Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory. That’s all for now – Go Cats ?

    • margaret says:

      :’ ( …Cats

      The reason my eyes lit up – I was recently thinking of Gardner, given the sad emphasis on NAPLAN testing and I found this article synthesising his theory from Intelligence Reframed.

      “A wondrous feature of life is that we humans differ from one another, and, despite the homogenization of the world, our differences show no sign of declining. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Humans evolved to live in small groups, with similar experiences from one day to the next and from one generation to the next. In such milieus, the number of “models for living” were small. We now live in a global village, with rapid change and constant contact with thousands of others. The more experiences we have, the more media we are exposed to, the more people we interact with, the greater the differences that are likely to emerge. Diversity is the order of the millennium.”

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks once again, Don, for great observation of the world around us.

    Your point about maths and sciences not being the most important is true because in a chaotic world it is the understanding as to how and to what degree they apply to any given situation.

    I suppose that is your “‘natural’ intelligence (those who are at ease, in tune with, the natural world)” and one that stone age cultures posses possibly more than modern cultures.

  • ianl8888 says:

    > “And IQ? I thought too much was made of it when we learned about it in Psychology 1. I’m still of that opinion”

    As evidenced by your adherence to an unfalsifiable hypothesis (not a theory, do not debase the language). Now let the straw men roll.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      To the best of my knowledge, Ian, all educational ‘theories’ are unverifiable, including IQ. Gardner’s point is that there are many capacities that are important to individuals and societies, and that IQ is an assembly of just two of them. IQ does not point to the others, at all. Anyone who has managed large organisations, or even small ones, will have come across the supposed whiz who has trouble tying his shoelaces, cannot manage others at all, and has no idea what to do when an important decision has to be made.

    • Narelle says:

      “an unfalsifiable hypothesis”
      After many years spent practicing the frustrating profession of psychology, I have become so tired of the constant proposing of unfalsifiable hypotheses and models so popular in the culture of academia, most of which don’t appear to be very helpful to practice, except perhaps for some behaviourist stuff. The concept of intelligence and the functioning of the human brain is so complex, I see little point in trying to separate out and categorise abilities which appear to be interactive anyway, until such time as we understand the neurology…. which is a very long way off.

      I also have to disagree with you Dona about the importance of maths and science. Without them, our art would probably still be on cave walls. Yet people who excel in those difficult fields, who have essentially changed the conditions of our lives, are rarely celebrated anyway near as much artists etc., nor are they rewarded for their contributions when compared with the current theatrical and ‘musical’ fraternity. Creativity, other than that in problem solving (maths and science) often seems a luxury and I enjoy playing my flute when I get time. Incidentally, I love music but have poor intonation (can’t tell accurately if my flute is really in tune and can’t sing in tune if alone, despite going twice through Yamaha junior music class), yet achieved honours in grade 5 theory which required musical composition and the writing of 4 part harmonies…. which I achieved by learning the rules. I had no idea how what I had written actually sounded…so no Beethoven! So how would I rate on musical intelligence as a stand alone concept? The point is aspects of intellectual functioning do not stand alone, so what is the point of categorising them? However the sad reality is that children need to be educated in fields that will allow then to support themselves.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Narelle, I am not anti-maths-and-science at all. And have you forgotten STEM, the institutional glorification of maths and science (and engineering)? There is no equivalent of that in our school education systems, where ability in maths, particularly, is for much of the system the top ability.

        In my view the progress we have made in the last two hundred and fifty years, since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, has been the outcome of the interaction (I used to say ‘marriage’) between the humanities, the social sciences and the natural sciences. Without Adam Smith’s view that individual needs are equally valid, the liberal view that all adults are valid voters/citizens, and the belief that we ought to improve the lot of the disadvantaged (philosophy, humanities) we would not have liberal democracy, open markets and increased wealth. Without them, science would still be a gentleman’s hobby.

        And it is well to remember that the industrial revolution itself did not come out of the universities, but out of industry itself. And that the greatest advances in health have come not from research in universities but from simple advances in hygeine (washing hands, soap), decent water supplies and sewerage systems, and universal education.

        I see no point in ranking disciplines to make some sort of intellectual hierarchy.

  • margaret says:

    From LabR Learning Resources

    “The theory is supported in the education community, partly because it emphasis the student-centric model of teaching. It has assisted educators in questioning their approaches, or evaluating the activities and strategies they use, and selecting alternatives which are outside the recognized approaches. MI theory itself is not an educational tool, that is to say it is on its own, not an educational goal. Rather, the theory promotes different assessment strategies that are not limited to standard tests.”

    Further, here are those who don’t support it

    “Before we discuss the intelligences, we need to mention there is limited support for the theory. For example, the psychology community doesn’t support the theory as it cannot be measured using standardized tests, nor is their any valid measurement tool. The criteria to determine if something should be categorized is an “intelligence” varies from case to case, and difficult to uniformly apply, further hampering the development of any consistent measurement tool. Additionally, critics of the theory who believe that intelligence can only be measured through an IQ test will always challenge this theory.”

    As a primary school teacher I recognised daily that in a classroom of up to thirty children multiple intelligences existed before I ever read Gardner’s Intelligence Reframed. It really wasn’t about who had the highest IQ. The difference of abilities was not daunting and apart from some behaviour problems the diversity was beneficial for all. Yes I’m looking through the retrospectus and testing consisted of weekly spelling and dictation and maths – no pressure – fun. Some were great spellers, some were great with numbers, they all learned to read and write.
    Still, Intelligence Reframed was a revelation because it dispelled the rigid elitist focus on high/average/low IQ and who and what contributes to a good society.

  • PeterD says:

    When one writes of IQ, and components of IQ such linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal elements, one is looking at concepts that have been important in the past, as the title of Don’s column suggests.

    A rich way to think about education, teaching and learning is that it is essentially focused on high quality, conceptual change learning and if one is looking at excellence and high achievement then “What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations. Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields. As performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more”. Anders Ericsson, Robert Pool(2016)

  • spangled drongo says:

    Is consensual science one of the “multiple intelligences”?

    Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson shows that intelligence for the intelligent can still be quite illusive:

    “I’m so disappointed that the country that I grew up in – that put men on the moon, that developed the internet, that invented personal computers and smartphones – that people are debating what is and what is not scientifically true.”

  • PeterE says:

    Thanks Don. I was only vaguely aware of the book but agree that it makes sense. Some skills are better rewarded than others but it is certain that some of the less rewarded skills are the most personally rewarding.

    • spangled drongo says:

      As clever as he may be, marg, a socialist’s opinion on Trump may be interesting but will never hold much water:

      “Among the “solutions” that strike me as preposterous: Harvard’s Howard Gardner wants the government to confiscate excessive income and excess net worth in the interest of reducing economic inequality. Politicians and professors will, of course, define how much is too much.”

  • spangled drongo says:

    Not hard to understand how, through poor teaching unions, social engineering and lack of discipline, our smart kids are becoming dumber:

    Andreas Schleicher, the co-­ordinator of the respected Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), arrives in Australia today and is sounding an alarm for the nation to halt its academic free fall.

  • spangled drongo says:

    I used to travel, camp and adventure around the country with an old Cherokee Indian who always reckoned that it was “walking around intelligence” that was the most important.

    “Learned of every bird its language” sort of intelligence.

    Notice something missing here?:

  • spangled drongo says:

    How desperate are the progressive left in the US to display their intelligence:

    “Poor Melania Trump, trying to get her head round the role of first lady, sent a gift of books to elementary schools in 50 states for National Read a Book Day. Her message spoke of every page taking you “on an exciting journey” and the books are by Dr Seuss, long partnered with the US literacy campaign. There was one Melania had read to her own son. It is hard to think of a more harmlessly benign gesture, even if the poor woman is married to Donald Trump.

    But that could not be forgiven by one school librarian in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Liz Phipps Soeiro. In a long open letter she thanked the first lady — with a sneer about the wasteful postage — but said that while her students liked the “beautiful bookplates with your name and the indelible White House stamp” they would not keep them. First, because more deprived schools have greater need, though even hers struggles “to retain teachers of colour and dismantle the systemic white supremacy”. Second, because Melania’s favourite is “a cliche, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. Dr Seuss’ illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures and harmful stereotypes”.

    She patronisingly gives another list, books about “children who stand up to racism and oppression … trying to connect with parents who are incarcerated simply because of their immigration status”. There’s Auntie Yang’s Great Soybean Picnic and a tale of a Cuban girl defying a taboo on female drummers. There’s one about a kite battle in Pakistan (the hero using a wheelchair is “incidental”) and Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation. There’s another about a crayon labelled red who colours blue (transgender identity, get it?).”

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