multiple-intelligence2What is intelligence, and how can we harness its many facets for improved teaching and learning?

As humans we have a desire to know what makes us tick, (and what makes some of us tick faster than others). Every once in a while a good guess, or theory, can change the way we look at a subject. When we re-think our assumptions of intelligence, the first implications often affect the classroom, where teachers probe the capacities of developing intellects every day. We will consider here a radical re-thinking of intelligence, and its ramifications for the classroom.

What is Intelligence?
Traditional views of intelligence base human intellect on the results of paper and pencil tests and statistical analysis. If a test is reasonably challenging, some students score better and some worse. Those who perform better than most are said to have a higher amount of something called “intellect,” as expressed in a number or “quotient” – hence the term Intelligence Quotient, or “IQ.” Traditional views assume that intellect is an intrinsic quality, like height or hair color, something we can measure and that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. Classroom teachers with a traditional view of intelligence believe some students perform tasks better than others due to different intellectual capacities that are fixed and unchangeable.

The substance of intelligence will probably always be debated. On a practical level, IQ is defined by the tests employed to measure it. Researchers suggest that intelligence has many components, resulting in one IQ that measures a singular intellect. In the early 1980’s, Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of Education at Harvard University, challenged the view that intelligence is a singular property. In an effort to understand the nature of intelligence, he proposed a theory that based intelligence not on the results of specific tests, but on the individual’s ability to solve problems. In his book Frames of Mind, Gardner defines intelligence as “a psychobiological potential to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in at least one cultural context.”

Gardner’s theory classifies human intellectual competencies in a totally new way, with more specific criteria than the traditional choice between “verbal” or “mathematical.” He proposes that intelligence cannot be described as a fixed quantity, but rather can be trained and increased. Gardner further argues that each specific intelligence is independent from the others and can improve independently with use. Gardner’s system of classification has already had a significant impact on how we think about the learning process, teaching, testing, and even the nature of thought itself.

Identifying Skills of Intelligence
What constitutes intelligence? According to Gardner, the following criteria constitute intellectual skill:

  1. The ability to solve problems or resolve difficulties – not a quantity, but a process.
  2. The ability to create an effective product or means to resolve problems.
  3. The ability to create new problems or situations in which new information can be acquired.

Meeting these criteria, however, is not enough to form a definition of intellect. After all, computers also problem solve, create and learn. Human intelligence must also exhibit certain human characteristics or signs, including:

  1. Isolation of the intelligence by brain damage.
  2. Possession of a distinctive developmental history.
  3. Individuals or savants who excel in the intelligence.
  4. A plausible evolutionary purpose for the intelligence.
  5. Accessibility by experimental, psychological, and psychometric assessments.
  6. A symbolic system of representation.

These criteria constitute an array of checkpoints through which a skill must pass before it is considered a viable intelligence. Using this screening process, Gardner described the following types of human intelligence:

  • Linguistic intelligence
  • Musical intelligence
  • Logical-Mathematical intelligence
  • Spatial intelligence
  • Body-Kinesthetic intelligence
  • Personal intelligence (inter and intra)

Application to Education: Focus on Problem-Solving Strategies While Multiple Intelligence theory suggests several independent intellectual processes are at work in each child, they are rarely, if ever, mutually exclusive. In fact, most complex problems and real life situations require the use of several intelligences. For example, a pianist not only uses musical intellect to perform in concert, he also employs interpersonal intelligence to communicate with the other musicians and kinesthetic intelligence to manipulate the piano keys.

Classroom teachers might improve their methods by observing how students solves problems rather than simply preparing them for paper and pencil tests. In other words, instruction should focus on the problem-solving strategies that students should master to arrive at the answer, not on a rigid set of skills, and not only on the answer itself. In this sense multiple intelligence theory is very compatible with many of the newer reform approaches to education, which take into account the “whole child” or are “project based.”

Multiple intelligence theory provides teachers and parents with an intellectual framework for tailoring education to the individual. Any teacher knows that in a classroom of 30 students, no two are exactly alike. Multiple intelligence theory structures the classroom to accommodate this diversity and encourages teachers to cultivate the student’s individual approach to a problem. For example, teachers might explain fractions using spatial intelligence – drawing fraction bars that physically represent a whole unit divided – or engage musical intelligence by relating fractions to rhythmic patterns.

Gardner points out that students are the best illustrators of how they solve problems. By classifying what intellectual strategies the student employs the teacher can choose whether to reinforce particular strengths or encourage in intellectual areas where there are difficulties. It is still up to the teacher to determine what knowledge and skills should be developed in school, but the theory of Multiple Intelligences provides an adaptable – and revolutionary – framework within which to implement the specific goals of education.