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Interview: Howard Gardner

Excerpts from an interview with Howard Gardner, professor at Harvard University.

Taped July 20, 2001

Discussion of "Different Kinds of Smart: Multiple Intelligences"

The important thing to understand about multiple Intelligence is, that it is a theory about how the mind is organized. It's also a theory about how the mind evolved over many, many thousands of years. And my claim is rather than there being a single thing called intelligence which we have more or less – some thing called IQ – it makes more sense scientifically as well as educationally, to think of people as having a number of different intelligences which are rather separate from one another, and each of these have evolved just like we have evolved eyes, and ears, and hearts, and kidneys, and so on. We have evolved a different number of intelligences.

I have a set of criteria, which allows me to identify which abilities are or are not intelligences. The first two that I always mention are linguistic intelligence, and logical mathematical intelligence. Not because I think they are important in any ultimate sense, but most people when they use the word intelligences are talking about linguistic, or logical mathematical ability, and because those are the intelligences that are really being stressed in school and particularly in testing. And if you're good in language and logic then you'll probably be good test taker. As long as you stay in school you'll think you're smart. If you leave school you might find there are other intelligences which are very important.

Now I think there are six or seven additional intelligences. Musical, the capacity to think in music. People often say music is a talent and I say fine, let's call music a talent, but then let's say some people are talented with words, some people are talented with numbers, some people are talented with notes. What doesn't make sense is to say number and words are smart, where music is a mere talent.

Fourth kind of intelligence is spatial intelligence, it's the capacity to imagine large spaces a way a pilot would, or more local spaces like a chess player or an architect, or a sculptor.

Bodily-kinetic intelligence is the capacity to use your whole body or parts of your body to solve problems, or make things like a dancer, sculptor, athlete of some sort.

There are two kinds of personal intelligence: interpersonal intelligence – understanding other people, and intra-personal intelligences.

Dan Goleman, who has put forth the notion of emotional intelligence, tends to be talking about the same thing that I am talking about when I say inter- or intra- personal intelligences – knowing the world of human beings. Which clearly in almost any job is at least as important as to whether you can figure out square roots.

An eighth kind of intelligence called naturalist intelligence is the capacity to make distinctions in the world of nature, between one plant and another, one animal to another, one mountain to another. Darwin is the genius of naturalist intelligence.

I also think that there might be a ninth intelligence called the existential intelligence – the intelligence of big questions. Rats might have more spatial intelligence then we do, or hummingbirds might have more musical intelligence, but no other species asks big questions and cares about the answers. The reason why I am not certain that there is an existential intelligence, is that one of my criteria for intelligence is whether there are parts of the brain or parts of the nervous system which are dedicated to that kind of computing. And we don't yet have good evidence that existential intelligence is separate say from, logical intelligence or personal intelligence, or other kind of intelligence.

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Now this is a scientific theory and there is a lot of evidence for the theory of multiple intelligences, the evidences proves. This doesn't mean it's right. Scientific theories are never proved right. All you can do is prove them wrong, if you can't prove them right. But you can never go directly from a scientific theory into a set of recommendation on what to do in a classroom. And that is not only because every finding has lots of different implications. But it is also because once you get into a classroom it's always a question of values – what do you value, what do you think is important, what are you trying to achieve? And we could know every neuron in the brain and it wouldn't tell us what we should try to achieve. That's a question of values. And that's why when you take the theory of multiple intelligences – even if we knew a thousand years from now that this was completely right, that this is the absolute right way of describing the human brain and the human mind, we won't say, "Well, therefore we got to do X." Because we could say, "If there are eight or nine intelligences we should teach everything eight or nine different ways." We could say if there were eight or nine different intelligences, eight or nine different tests. We could say for eight or nine different intelligences, let's put all the kids that are good in one intelligence together. We could say let's put all the kids that are lousy in one intelligence together. Let's say we mix them up and make the groups as diverse as possible. And all of those are reasonable implications. So you can never go directly from a claim about the human mind to what you should do in classes. That being said I think that there are lots of educational implications with multiple intelligences theory. But you can't talk about them without talking about what you think is important and why.

I think the two major pieces of advice that I would give to any educator who wants to use multiple intelligences is number one: decide what you want to teach, what is important, what you want students to understand. Because knowing there are different intelligences is not the same, as saying I want students to be able to know what happened in the 1970's, or to know how a flower is constructed, or to be able to depicted in some symbol system what they're reading. You have to state what your educational goal is.

The second condition would be take the differences around kids very, very seriously. We can think about what the opposites would be. The opposite of taking the differences of kids seriously is what I call uniform education. You don't have to wear a uniform necessarily but everyone is taught the same stuff in the same way, everyone is accessed in the same way. And we think it is fair because we are treating everyone the same way. But if you think about it, it is completely unfair, because we are picking one kind of intelligence – almost always the language logic mind, what I call the law professor mind. We're pitching stuff to that kind of mind, and we're accessing that kind of mind. If you want to find Bill and Hillary Clinton, then use that approach. But if you want to find a George Bush or an Al Gore, Bill Bradley or John McCain, that won't work. None of them is a law professor, and they have very different kinds of minds.

As for the notion of knowing what you want to teach and why, it seems to me that's elementary. Yet I go to many schools, people say we're doing multiple intelligences, I say, "That's great, what are you doing?" They say, "Well, we just want to involve all the intelligences," and they never say for what. What's your goal? What is going to be different if you involve all the intelligences? And if you can't answer that question, if you don't say, "I want students to understand, let's say the theory of relativity, or evolutionary theory, or what happened in the Holocaust, or what does zero mean, or what is gravity, or why do we have to have a scapegoat when we're involved in some kind of dispute." If you don't have that kind of answer of what you are trying to teach then all the theory will get you nowhere. Once you say, "Well, I want to teach evolution," then we can talk – all right, what are the different ways you can get into evolution, what are the ideas that you want to emphasis, what are the ways you can bring out say, natural selection, or variation until survival or fitting into some kind of niche. Talk about that, say, "All right, what are some ways we can get into that, what are the ways that we can stimulate kids that don't think about the world in the same way. Should we use stories should we use films, should we have them act things out, should we have them in dramas, should we have them role play, should we have them do group work, and jigsaw work? Is it better for them to work on a generation algorithm on a computer, were you can actually see hydrogen generation in a matter of seconds?" You can begin to ask that question.

Then you can ask that other question, "What is going to count for understanding evolution?" Is it simply going to be if you can repeat the definition in the book. I sure hope not, because that is not going to get you very far when some one says, "Geez, my computer virus is evolving." Are you going to say, "Does that make sense? Can a computer virus evolve?" The dictionary definition is going to tell you that. Or someone says, "We discovered a new set of bones in East Africa and we think that is going to change the Hominid lineage." The dictionary is not going to tell you the answer to that question. You got to really understand the theory, and there is lots and lots of ways in which you can begin to approach questions like that. So to repeat, valuing the differences among kids and trying to find out as much as you can about every child's mind and two – knowing exactly what you are trying to teach, what will count as a good performance and then seeing whether these different multiple intelligences approaches will get you to that kind of understanding.

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Discussion of the two segments in "Different Kinds of Smart: Multiple Intelligences."

Well, two examples which I saw are actually quite different from one another. In the case of the class of primary kids, the teachers have a very, very specific goal. They want the students to understand that a flower has structure, the different parts of the flower carry out different functions and in fact they have names, which help you figure out what does what. So that's a pretty easy lesson. And at the end of the day, the kids are either going to understand something about the structure of the flower, understanding different parts have different roles and how they work together or they won't. And there are lots of ways in which kids can show that. Now you can simply lecture about it, you can simply give a book and say read it. You could also say nothing and just take the flower apart and have the kids put it together again. But the more you approach that goal with a number of different avenues as the teachers were trying to do, two great things happen. First of all you reach kids. Some kids will learn best from reading and others will learn the best from dissecting or trying to put it together again or building a model out of 3-D. But, the other thing you'll do is you'll show the kids what it means to really understand something, because we really understand something when we can think about it in more than one way. Think about anything that you understand well; yourself, your family, your home, your work. You can think about it pictorially, logically, graphically, artistically, linguistically and so on. When you only can explain something one way and you can only give one kind of definition that shows your own understanding is very thin, it's very tenuous, and you probably ought to go back and study it again. So that's an example of a very focused approach to understanding something that is quite specific and something that is important for biology or what is called naturalistic study.

Now, when you study something about the 1970s, that's a much more complicated space. I mean the '70s is history, the 70s is politics, it's culture. We saw various discussions of various kinds of laws that were put into effect, that's also a reaction to the '60s, so it's important to talk about the '60s, and so on. And one of the important things I think that one tries to get across in a course like that is what does it mean to characterize a decade at all? Because after all, the '70s is just an arbitrary number. Why not go from 1968 to 1983? When you're talking about the '70s the implication is that something rather special happened during that period. Now, because there's so many things that are going on in the 1970s, that's a playing field for different kinds of assignments – for drama, as we saw, for enacting songs, for a look at laws and trying to figure out why they arose when they did, or thinking about the political aspects both domestic, where you had a lot of 1960s reaction and foreign policy, where the Vietnam war ended, and so on. And there's absolutely no reason in the world why somebody who's studying the '70s can't make use of a whole different range of intelligences and have a very good time doing it. The teacher's job at the end of the day is still to say, "What do I want the students to be able to understand now about what a decade means, what it means in this country, what it means historically, culturally, artistically, politically, socially, economically, etc. etc." If the teacher has laid out those particular goals and can say, "Well, out of these twenty goals I want every student to at least have mastered you know, most of them, and here are some ways in which they can show it, whether it's a class project, or some kind of a newspaper article, or a debate, or a presentation for parents."

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[looking at the presentations and skits the high school students created in "Different Kinds of Smart: Multiple Intelligences"]

One of the wonderful things about multi-art forms, like drama, theater, is that you can use all of the intelligences there. And obviously there's language, the music, scenery and spatial intelligence, bodily, I mean Marcel Marceau doesn't say a word and we know what he's doing. Clearly it's about interpersonal intelligence, clearly it's about big issues. So it's not the case… It's the existential intelligence. So it's not the case that someone says theater, therefore bodily intelligence, it's rather theater is a great testing ground for many, many different intelligences. But one of the reasons why kids love to do theater is almost everybody can do something. If you're not good in acting you can handle the lights, you know. If you're not good at directing you can be a prompter, if you don't have good rote memory, then you'll do gesture or join the chorus. And a very, very important point brought out by all the teachers in this, in this film is that if kids feel inept in everything, it's absolutely terrible, you know, because they're just discouraged, they don't want to learn, and they often become anti-social. So a very important part of school is to throw out a lifeline to kids so they don't feel inept in everything, and a multiple intelligences education is much more likely to define areas where every kid is good, or at least relatively good at something. And again theater is a great, ground for that because it has so many different roles in it. Opera, is another thing I think of that has many different roles. In fact, one of the ways in which I first became conscious about multiple intelligences was about 15 – 20 years ago when I took my then young children to see Cats, the famous musical. And I enjoyed Cats and so did they, but then leaving I noticed that one child remember exactly how the cats had moved, was very sort of bodily and visual. Another child was singing the music and another child loved the poetry of T.S. Elliot, and I said even just going to a theater people take very, very different things away from it. And as teachers, we can say that's noise let's get rid of it, let's all memorize Edy Hersh's list of the 500 things we have to learn in the second grade or we can say, "Gee, isn't it great, think of how much there is in that play, how many different things people can take away from it, and you know, can you see what Sally saw? Can you hear what Benjamin heard?"

[looking at the segment in "Different Kinds of Smart" in which Rebecca Young and Georganne Urso-Flores are working on a science unit with flowers]

Let's think about what you can get if you actually try to make a very accurate cutting of a particular part of the flower. This might be something really training you either just in hand movement, it's very good to have fine motor control, as we say. Another might be to give you more of an aesthetic sense, what's a good curve, what's a smooth curve, how does nature have the marvelous forms that it does? But I think that probably what most teachers have in mind is that for some people, hearing a description that looks like a shell is enough, for some kids, reading a description, you know, it's a ovoid with a trapezoid at the bottom is enough, but for a lot of kids actually cutting it out, palpating it, looking at it, makes it much more their own. And if you think about what it's like to learn a foreign language, we have to learn verb conjugations, we have to learn prepositions, you have to learn what to say in certain situations, and you have to be able to memorize lots of vocabulary which is meaningless when you first hear it. People devise all kinds of strategies for doing it, and you know the fact that some people after repeating it over and over again, and some people make a very crazy picture in their mind and link the two things that way, and other people think of a funny word association, and still other people have to memorize dialogue, that's what I did because it gave me the words in context. You can see that even when something is as simple as learning about the stamen and the pistol, there are lots and lots of ways in getting to do that, and why penalize kids who can't do it one way? And maybe if some of the kids learn it in a number of different ways it's much more entrenched in the head. That's certainly something which everybody that has ever thought about human psychology has learned, we can go back to Plato. And that is, if we have lots of ways thinking about something, you're much less likely to forget than if you only have one way of thinking about it.

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The truth is, you can never know for sure what intelligence a person is using. If we were scientists who knew a lot more than we do, we could open up the mind/brain, we could say, "Well, that's the musical intelligence there, and we see the blood going there, and we see the neurons." We could do that, but we can't do that now. We have to make inferences about what intelligences anybody is using by the kinds of behaviors that they evince. Nonetheless we can make some good guesses. If a child is doing a lot of drawing or building things in 3-D, we can guess that child is using spatial intelligence. If a child is busy singing, or playing an instrument, or humming to himself, or doing rhythmic patterns, we can assume that musical intelligence is involved. If the child is very interested in comparing one flower with another and trying to figure out where each part begins and another one ends, that probably is a sign that a natural intelligence is being used. If a child says, "What are flowers? Why do we have a flower in a cranny in the wall," that's probably a sign that the child is using an existential intelligence and maybe a poetic or linguistic intelligence as well. But we can't know for sure, and that's one of the wonderful things about human beings.

Anything that human beings do well, we can do well using a number of intelligences. Let's take geometry. Presumably if you have a lot of spatial intelligence that's a big help in learning geometry, but you can learn geometry without having a lot of spatial intelligence. You can do it in a more linguistic way, you can do it in a more logical way, you can do it in a more bodily way. Also, given computers now, if you're a kind of person who can't easily manipulate a space in your own mind, like me, you can do it on a computer screen. And the computer then is a prosthetic for you, it allows you to do something externally which other people can do in their head. I'm pretty musical, so when I listen to a fugue, I can see, I can hear what it would sound like if he was, if he inverted the theme when the new theme comes in, but if I couldn't I could put in a tape recorder and listen to it over again, slow it down, pull the voices apart and I could, the prosthetic would help me do what I can't do on my own. And that raises a very wonderful thing about living in the current era and that is that until very recently, if people lacked an intelligence, or had a very poor intelligence they were kind of stuck, but now with with good software you can enhance an intelligence in which you are not good, and in a sense, that is what good tutors have always done. They found out how to mobilize intelligences which the kids had, or how to provide additional help for the things the kids didn't have. But most people can't afford tutoring, most people can afford software and as the software gets better we'll have increasingly individualized education. And when a teacher says, "Well, I taught Johnny algebra one way and he didn't understand it, so he's stupid." the teacher will be seen as malpracticing because there will be twenty ways to teach algebra, and the real trick will be to figure out how to get Johnny and Sally and Billy all to be able to do algebra and not to assume that if they can't get it one way then they can't get it at all.

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One of the things I've found is that it's hard to find anybody anywhere, child or wizened adult who does not find these ideas initially interesting. Somehow the notion that you can be smart in different ways is very interesting to people, and I find no reason to hide that particular claim. Also, in many, many schools people either use the language of multiple intelligences, like linguistic intelligences, or they use slang like the word smart, or song smart, thing like that. That's fine as a way into this particular way of thinking. But when it becomes dangerous is when people think either it is a very accurate description of themselves, because without a huge battery we don't really know what peoples' intelligences are. But also when they get labeled for having one kind intelligence, then by implication they don't have the other kinds. In fact what is more accurate to say is everyone has all these intelligences – that's what makes us human. We all have musical, and bodily, and spatial intelligence. We all have those potentials, but for both genetic and experiential reasons at any historical moment, everyone is going to be stronger in some things than others. And the educational choice is – do we ignore this or do we try to exploit it? And I think the excitement about multiple intelligences theory comes from everyone that has three kids themselves, knows that kids think and learn in different ways. So the question is, do we ignore that or do we take it seriously? MI theory gives you a way of categorizing as a first cut, but even when you take a look at any of the intelligences, they can be subdivided. [There are] many different kinds of linguistic intelligences. Being good in foreign languages is not the same as being good in speaking, or being good in writing. Those are all aspects of linguistic intelligence. Spatial intelligence in the large is different then spatial intelligence in the small. 2D is different than 3D. So the multiple intelligences open up the conversation, but it should never be used to stop the conversation, or prematurely label kids.

One of the things I noticed is in talking about choices, the teacher [in the video] said we can only see what the kids like to do, then we make an inference about their intelligences. This could be correct, but on the other hand it could also be incorrect. Things we like to do are not necessarily things we're good at, though we might get better at things if we spend a lot of time them. But some people like to do things that they're not very good at, especially when they have a choice. They like to work in the muscle that's not so strong. So we can't really make claims about what kinds of intelligences people are using unless we actually observe them very carefully to see when they are drawing. Are they talking to themselves, is it being guided by language, are they looking at a model, is it coming out of their imagination? And we also have to make sure that we are not projecting our own way of doing that task, in the way the child is doing it. We have to respect the child's own way of approaching something. Though I think choices are great, you can learn a lot from people making choices, but you shouldn't assume when somebody chooses it is the same as the kind of intelligences that they favor. It may well not be.

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Multiple intelligence is probably on the surface the most compatible with working with young kids. There's less of a pressure to prepare kids for college and for exams and for particular disciplines. And young kids show you the intelligences they're using; they are very graphic about them. You go to a children's museum for the child for an hour and you know a tremendous amount about that child's intelligences. When you get to the secondary level not only is there a lot more pressure for performance in certain standard types of tests, but you also have to amass disciplinary knowledge, which is traditionally done very much by lecturing and by reading. For this very reason, I wrote a book called The Disciplined Mind where I took three topics which would clearly be seen as high school or college: the theory of evolution according to Darwin, the Holocaust from the middle of the twentieth century, and the music of Mozart, particularly the analyses of a three-minute trio from the marriage of Figaro. And I tried to show how, even if you were trying to cover quite traditional sorts of educational materials here from history, from biology, from the arts, you can both enter these issues from lots of different ways, there are many, different entry points to topics like this, and you can assess kids' understanding in many different ways. So if you adopt a multiple intelligences approach there's no reason whatsoever why you can't take it all the way up to graduate school.

The issue of examinations is a more complicated one, because so often the exams that we require in this country are linguistic-logical instruments. And if you are fortunate enough to go to a school or be in a district where those instruments are not the only things that are, that matter, then you can have much more performance-based examinations, student portfolios where you actually let students do work which shows the use of intelligences to understand the concepts of importance. If, however, you're in a school in a district where you have a very rigorous and strict kind of testing program, then I think the only choice, the only option you have is to spend some time actually drilling students on these kinds of things.

Nonetheless, one of the interesting things that cross-national studies show is that actually in America we try to cover many more topics than they do in countries which cover, which do much better than we do in international comparisons. And the amazing thing is sometimes kids in those countries do better on questions in areas that they haven't covered than our kids do in areas where they have covered. Now that seems bizarre unless you realize that what the kids are learning in other countries, say Singapore or Hungary, is how to think scientifically, or how to think mathematically, or how to think historically. And once they've understood how to think that way, when they're introduced to something new, they can figure out what the likely answer is. But if you just spend five minutes on a topic and go on to something else, if you're not asked it exactly the way it was presented to you, you're not going to be able to get the right answer at all. So I'm hoping with the passage of time that more people involved with assessment in America will realize that what we're doing now is very silly in trying to run through lots of memorized material, rote material and test kids on that. And if we want to probe instead for understanding, we could both take more advantage of multiple intelligences, and we would have students who could actually solve problems which they can't solve now, because they don't know how to think in a deep way.

When you approach things in lots and lots of different ways, you really get inside them; you get into their inner essence. When you just memorize a definition, if you ask about something in any other way except in that reflex way, you're finished.

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Let's say you know what a student's profile is at a given moment, and let's say a student is very strong in an area and not strong in other areas, what should you do? The first thing to realize is that you can't answer that question from the theory of multiple intelligences, that's a value question. And you know, if you're in an affluent family where making a living is never a problem, then probably you're going to want to be a rounded kind of person. If, on the other hand, you've just gotten off the boat from Indo-China and it is very, very important to be successful, and you're very strong in math and music, you're probably going to want to push that, and no multiple intelligence theorist should say, "Oh no, do it another way." That being said, one of the things we know about any intelligence is that it gets stronger when students practice at it and work at it. And so if you value an intelligence, even if initially a child is not very good at it, if you devote a lot of energy and attention the child will get stronger. There's absolutely no question about it. Moreover the better you are as a teacher, and the more you can make use of appropriate resources the stronger the child will get in that area. Still, at the end of the day it's good to have more than one area of intellectual strength, because that area is not going to be good for understanding everything. And one of the arts of good pedagogy is to help people, so to speak, cobble together the areas in which they are relatively good so they can master something that's important. If you think about lawyers, people can be very good as lawyers 'cause they're very articulate. They can be very good as lawyers because they can write a good brief. They can be very good as lawyers because they're very logical. They can be very good as lawyers because they know how to persuade a jury. Now you can have four different lawyers, but it's also great if a single lawyer learns to do all those things, which means that lawyer will have to develop a number of different kinds of intelligence. And I think the same thing goes with kids. We probably want to help kids cobble together the intelligences where they probably have some potential to be very strong, because that's going to equip them very well for the range of stuff they're gonna have to do, not only in school but in what we now call lifelong learning.

 
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