Powerful ideas have universal impact. The concept of Multiple Intelligences, for example, started as a theory in the halls of Harvard University and has now grown to be one of the most influential movements in teaching practices in the 20th century. Instead of seeing the mind as possessing finite quantities of a substance known as intelligence, Dr. Howard Gardner, the originator of the theory, rephrased the concept of intelligence, defining it as a person’s ability to solve problems and create useful products. In doing so, he opened the door for not one but many intelligences, as we have many different ways of solving problems and learning. His work forced people to reevaluate not only the definition of intelligence but also our approach to learning and teaching.
When a theory has such an influence it is a rare luxury to be able to go back to the source to evaluate how the originator thinks the process is going. I recently had the opportunity to do just that with Dr. Howard Gardner.
BC: What drew you into your research on intelligence?
HG: I have been studying human cognitive development for many years. I also was a researcher in neuropsychology — the study of what happens to human cognition when the brain is damaged. These two areas of study convinced me, intuitively, that the mind is better conceived of as a set of relatively independent computers than as a single “all-purpose computer.” In 1979, some colleagues and I received a large grant. I was given the assignment to write about what has been discovered about the human mind from the biological and cognitive sciences. I decided to present my conclusions as a theory of multiple intelligences.
BC: What aspects of Multiple Intelligence Theory do you feel are most important for the public to understand?
HG: The standard view of intelligence, held since the beginning of the century by most psychologists, is that there is a single intelligence. We are born with it, we can’t change it very much, and psychologists can measure it with a simple instrument. I feel that each of these claims is wrong. I can draw on biological, cross-cultural, and psychological evidence to show how it is wrong. I argue that all human beings, because of our species membership, are capable of at least 8 or 9 different ways of representing the world — our so-called “multiple intelligences.” While all individuals possess these intelligences, we differ from one another, for both genetic and cultural reasons, in our current “profile of intelligences.” Most educators have ignored these facts about differences in intellectual profiles; I take them extremely seriously.
My ideas are set forth in detail in three books: Frames Of Mind (1983, new edition 1993); Multiple Intelligences (1993) and the recently published Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences in the 21st Century, all published by Basic Books.
BC: What impact would you like to see your research have on the greater public?
HG: I would like all individuals, and especially parents and teachers, to realize that we all have a range of human intellectual potentials which can be developed and which, when developed, give us more vocational and avocational options. Much current teaching and assessment only takes into account linguistic and logical intelligence; thus school is very biased toward a certain kind of mind (I call it the law school professor mind) and biased against all of us who don’t feature that particular blend of intellectual strengths.
BC: What are some ways that Multiple Intelligence Theory is misunderstood?
HG: In Intelligence Reframed I relate seven myths and present the realities instead. Among the myths are these: if there are 8 intelligences, we should set up 8 tests; an intelligence is the same thing as a learning style; it is inherently good to exercise each intelligence; what I call intelligences should be called talents; there is a proper way to set up a “multiple intelligences school”. I encourage readers to look at the book to learn what is flawed in each of these myths and in several others as well.
BC: When did you publish your first paper and what was it on?
HG: My first paper, published in 1970, was a comparison of two influential French structuralist thinkers: Jean Piaget, the psychologist, and Claude Levi-Strauss, the anthropologist. I was thrilled when each of them wrote to me — I was then a graduate student — to indicate areas of agreement and disagreement. Three years later I published The Quest for Mind: Piaget, Levi-Strauss, and the Structuralist Movement, which is still available from the University of Chicago Press.
BC: If you could have any tool not yet available to help your work what would it be and why?
HG: I would love to be an expert in the use of various brain imaging techniques, like MRI and PET Scan, so that I could actually observe what is going on in the brain when individuals are solving various kinds of problems and carrying out various kinds of projects. That would provide the best evidence of the multiple intelligences. Indeed, I am considering a ninth or existential intelligence, but I do not yet have evidence that there are brain structures or processes dedicated to such an existential mode of thinking. How great it would be to scan someone’s brain and see what happens when he or she is thinking about infinity, or death, or the meaning of beauty!
BC: Has your Theory of Multiple Intelligences had a significant impact on your perceptions of your own thought process?
HG: Certainly. I now think about my own mental activities, and those of others, in terms of multiple intelligences. I am impressed by the extent to which I bring musical thinking to many tasks, such as writing. I am also convinced that intrapersonal intelligence grows more important each year, because we have to make so many decisions about our own course of life. I wish I understood more about how intrapersonal intelligence develops and how we could nurture it.
BC: You have written that Multiple Intelligence Theory is not intended to teach each subject in seven or more different ways. How then should we decided what to teach, and how many different approaches should we take to present information in the classroom?
HG: The important pedagogical point is that any concept can be presented in more than one way, and everyone benefits when we have “multiple entry points” to the same idea, theory, concept, or framework. There is no point in prescribing how many ways to present an idea; that depends upon the idea, on the one hand, and one’s own teaching styles and audience, on the other. In The Disciplined Mind, I show how you can approach three complex, deep topics — the theory of evolution, the music of Mozart, and the Holocaust — using several entry points. But I have no desire to legislate the number or the means for presenting these ideas.
BC: Who was your greatest mentor? What did you learn from him or her?
HG: I am fortunate enough to have had several wonderful mentors, all faculty at Harvard University (with which I’ve been associated for nearly forty years). I have thanked them by dedicating books to them. The ones that I would single out are the psychologist Jerome Bruner, the neurologist Norman Geschwind, the philosopher Nelson Goodman, the educator Patricia Graham, and the psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. I could name many others as well. And my parents were tremendously important throughout my life.
BC: What books are you reading?
HG: I’ve just finished a beautiful science essay called The Missing Moment by Robert Pollack and I am two thirds of the way through a light mystery called The Second Chair by Don Aitkin, an Australian colleague.
BC: What books on the subject of learning do you recommend?
HG: An excellent contemporary book on cognitive studies is How The Mind Works by Steven Pinker. A good new book on young children’s learning is The Scientist In The Crib by Alison Gopnik, Patricia Kuhl, and Andrew Meltzoff.
BC: How old are your children? What is your family’s perception of your work?
HG: I have four children, ranging in age from 14 to 30. When my children were young, they were all mystified to witness a father who reads and sits at a word processor for hours on end. As they get older, they have become more interested in my books and ideas. They are also my harshest critics, except for my wife, Ellen Winner, who can be even tougher!
BC: Has their development ever influenced how you think of intellectual development?
HG: Of course my ideas have been influenced by my four children. They have opened my eyes to the variety of human strengths and differences. I used to quip “When I had only one child, I thought all children were the same. When I had two children, I thought that there were two kinds of human beings (e.g. introverts and extroverts). With three children, I concluded that all youngsters are different. Now, with four children, I am much too busy trying to raise money for college tuition to have any time to theorize!”
BC: What one activity engages all of your intelligences the most, and what ideas are you working on next?
BC: With my close colleagues Bill Damon and Mihaly Csiksze Ntmihalyi I am involved in an extensive study. We seek to understand how professionals manage to carry out good work during a time when vast changes are happening very quickly, when technology is redefining time and space, and when market forces have incredible power. This research enterprise has engaged me like no other I can recall. And as I try to understand happenings in areas ranging from genetics to cyberspace, I wish I had a lot more intelligences!