I was recently looking for something in my bookshelves, and came across my battered copy of Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. A thought popped up in my mind, so I turned to the copyright date, and realized that it’s the 25th anniversary of the publication of a book that’s sparked a quarter of a century of educational exploration and controversy. Not many books have done that, so Happy Birthday Multiple Intelligences (or MI for short)!
I reread my 440-page copy—heavily underlined and with many margin notes. We’ve come a long way in our understanding of our brain and cognition in 25 years, but the basic vision was there at the beginning. I googled the topic Multiple Intelligences and discovered it now lists 3,350,000 entries!
The book had an immediate impact on me when I read it upon publication. We educators were then boxed into a unitary perspective of intelligence, and yet many felt that the prevailing beliefs about IQ didn’t match what we observed in students. Here was a fresh perspective, and most of what Gardner wrote made sense to me, even though I didn’t completely understand it at the time.
I had to turn in my textbook selection for an upcoming curriculum course at the University of Oregon, so on the spur of the moment, I adopted Frames of Mind—without a clue about what I was going to do with it.
By the time the term began, I had decided to split the class into seven groups, and assign each the responsibility for leading a week-long class exploration of the curricular implications of one of the seven intelligences that Gardener initially proposed. I taught the class sessions during the first three weeks—basically to introduce them to Gardner’s general idea and to the emerging speculations about our brain and cognition. During that period, the groups also met separately to discuss their form of intelligence, and to decide how best to explore it with classmates during their week.
The group explorations were wildly successful. The students were as excited (and clueless) about MI as I was, and so they did all sorts of imaginative exploratory things. The classroom walls bloomed. We played games. We went on short field trips. We argued. Media presentations enhanced understanding. Things worked and didn’t work, and we discussed possible reasons. The presentations sparked a level of excitement that I hadn’t previously experienced as a professor. We all looked forward to the next group’s presentations, which increased in intensity and imagination as the term continued.
I knew when the course was over that it didn’t make a whole lot of difference if Gardner’s theory was correct or not, because he had hit on a concept that encouraged teachers to think differently and creatively about their students and curriculum. As the old adage puts it, teaching isn’t about what we cover during a course, but rather about what we all discover along the way.
I repeated the format several times, and although the course got more polished, it never recaptured the raw excitement for me that comes from exploring something the first time. MI was always new for each subsequent class, but when things got too polished and I got too comfortable, it was time to move on. I realized that I had to push my own intellectual boundaries for a course to work—given that pushing boundaries is what teaching is all about.
Other books have provided the same cognitive rush of discovery, and moved me intellectually beyond where I was. I would include for various reasons John Dewey’s Experience and Education (1938), Jean Piaget’s The Child’s Construction of Reality (1955), Jerome Bruner’s The Process of Education (1960), Hans Selye’s Stress Without Distress (1974) Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden (1978), Michael Gazzaniga’s The Social Brain (1985), Antonio Damasio’s Descarte’s Error (1994) and Elkhonon Goldberg’s The Executive Brain (2001). My brain thinks good thoughts about all such nutrient books and their authors.
It’s probably also important to add that Gardner certainly wasn’t a one-trick pony. He’s expanded his MI Theory over the years, and has explored many other related areas. A previous Brain Connection column focused on his excellent book Good Work: Where Excellence and Ethics Meet.
K-12 Educators and MI
Educators embraced MI to the extent that most conferences scheduled multiple workshops on multiple intelligences. The presentations I attended ranged from wonderful to dreadful. Other theorists proposed intriguing alternate perspectives of the concept of multiple intelligences, most notably Robert Sternberg (1985) and David Perkins (1995). But it seemed as if Howard Gardner owned the franchise within the K-12 set of educators. I’ve talked with consultants who were doing MI workshops who hadn’t read anything by Sternberg or Perkins, and so had only a limited sense of the concept, or of the implications of multiplicity in intelligence or ability or talent or whatever one might want to call it.
My overall sense is that MI has had a very positive affect on K-12 education. Teachers have told me that they started with suggested activities that seemed interesting, without a real sense that they fit into a theoretical framework. But that they then began to study MI when they saw how the activities positively affected classroom life, and they gradually developed their own personal interpretation of MI in their classroom.
Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom
So how do I view MI 25 years later? I explored the classroom management applications of the concept in my 2003 book, A Biological Brain in a Cultural Classroom, and five years later I continue to see Gardner’s MI as a three-part system, each part divided into three sub-systems.
- IDENTITY AND ENERGY. We’re a social species so it’s essential that we develop a personal and social identity, and at least a curiosity about the universe we inhabit. Gardner’s Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Existential intellectual systems relate to those basic cognitive capabilities—the drivers of human identity and energy, as it were.
- SPACE AND PLACE. We exist in space, and so it’s essential that we understand the dynamics of space, of body sense and navigation through space, and of the ability to classify things that we confront in space. Gardner’s Spatial, Bodily-Kinesthetic, and Naturalist intellectual systems relate to those basic cognitive capabilities.
- TIME AND SEQUENCE. We also exist in time, and so it’s essential that we understand the dynamics of time and sequence. Several key cognitive capabilities require us to process sequential information. Gardner’s Linguistic, Musical, and Logical-Mathematical intellectual systems relate to those basic cognitive capabilities.
So perhaps it all comes down to who am I and who are those people hanging around me, and why are we here? And where is here, let alone there? And when is it time for lunch?
Place the concepts of biological energy, space, and time in a blender. Turn it up to high for a minute. What you get is movement. Movement is the expenditure of energy in space over time.
Movement is also the principal reason that animals have a brain and plants don’t. If an organism can’t go anywhere of its own volition, it doesn’t even need to know where it is. What’s the point? But organisms that have legs, wings, or fins need a sensory system to tell them about here and there, a decision system to determine if there is better than here or the reverse, and a motor system to get them from here to there on time, if that’s the better alternative.
And as long as we humans are moving, we might just as well move with a little style and grace, and that’s what the arts are about.
So Gardner got me to think about intelligence 25 years ago. We may not now identically perceive cognition and intelligence, but that’s not the point. The point is that he got me to think.