Multiple Intelligences: Promoting Human Potential since 1983
In 1983 Howard Gardner published his landmark book, Frames of Mind, introducing the theory of multiple intelligences (MI). Much has happened over the course of those 40 years as MI theory has traveled around the world at light speed. MI has had a profound impact on my life both personally and professionally. After reading Frames I remember thinking, “Well, of course! It only makes sense that there is more to being smart than ‘book smarts’.” I was impressed with how Howard was able to provide in-depth detail regarding each of the intelligences and high-quality scholarly support for his contention that IQ skills are only part of the story regarding human potential.
We kick off this 40th anniversary discussion with Part One of my reflections on MI and its impact on world. For me it has been a rollercoaster of good times and hard times that leave me wondering what the future will bring. How will MI live on (or not)? Will it shape-shift to become something else to fit the times? There are hints that MI theory has gone underground and pops up by different names. The work of the late Ken Robinson comes to mind. He loved to challenge people to recognize non-academic potentials but I never heard him reference Howard Gardner even though his ideas about educating for human potential are perfectly aligned with MI theory.
I will issue a series of reflections on MI by thoughtful writers over the course of 2023.
I invite you to join in this discussion. Feel free to share your own reflections on the good, the bad and the ugly that have resulted in conjunction with the idea of multiple intelligences. I have always had a special interest in the power of Intrapersonal intelligence especially for students to maximize their learning. Perhaps our reflections will enhance our collective “self-knowledge” as we engage in a metacognitive review of how this theory has influenced ourselves and others in our lives. If we can better understand how MI has been celebrated, doubted and reviled by others in our schools, etc. then maybe we can see a way forward to retain what is of value and transform that which is need of renewal.
Multiple Intelligences @ 40: Human Potential, Evolution and Revolution
Reflections After 40 Years
“Howard Gardner has given us a new frame for reflecting on the nature of mind and has made visible some distant stars worth reaching for.” p. 39 Eliot Eisner
MI made “ . . . substantial contributions . . . to professionals’ and parents’ consciousness about children’s intelligences and what could occur in schools.” Larry Cuban, p. 146
“Although MI is a powerful tool for teachers, it is a tool that requires significant creativity and effort on their part.” p. 47. Tom Hoerr
In 1983 Howard Gardner introduced the idea that human potential can be enhanced via an understanding of our multiple intelligences as opposed to the traditional single, fixed intelligence known as IQ. This unique theory, called multiple intelligences (MI) spread quickly around the world and influenced a generation of educators from pre-school through university and into the workplace. But 40 years is a long time and a lot can happen. New ideas in education are notorious for their short lifespans—sometimes for good reasons and sometimes not.
It is a small wonder that the world still takes notice of the theory of multiple intelligences, despite the best efforts of traditionalists to deny or defeat it. These efforts to derail the implementation of MI-inspired ideas have been largely successful; however, MI still warrants a paragraph or even a full page in educational psychology textbooks. Something has changed through the years since Gardner introduced MI in his landmark book Frames of Mind.
As educational ideas go, MI has had remarkable longevity. As its 40th anniversary approaches an overriding question is: Will it (and should it) live on? And if so, in what form? A related question is: What have been its limitations and prevented it from having even greater influence on the lives of students and teachers and schools? In 2004, in a 20th anniversary symposium, educational historian Larry Cuban cited three levels of MI influence worthy of reconsideration 20 more years down the road. Cuban concluded that MI had had a significant influence on how teachers think and talk about students’ differing abilities. There was also an ever growing body of literature devoted to MI, as both a psychological and educational theory. Unfortunately, the area of least impact was in the day-to-day application of MI in classroom instruction and school curriculum.
In answer to this observation, five years later, in the 25th anniversary symposium, Mulitiple Intelligences Around the World (Chen, Moran & Gardner, 2009), Gardner and colleagues published detailed descriptions of the profound impact that MI had had on schools on nearly ever continent. These are moving accounts of MI influencing the lives of students in crowded classrooms, gifted students, those with learning disabilities, teachers of every stripe, entire school districts, and even nations. A recurring note throughout these accounts was the essential role of MI-inspired leaders and teachers who are committed to “bringing out the best” in all students (e.g., through the egalitarian development of human potential). These effects can be summarized as changes in thinking, talking, reading/writing and doing.
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS MI NOW?
But where is MI in the world today 40 years since it was introduced to worldwide acclaim and 15 years since this book was published? Teachers may think about students differently, but use of the MI vocabulary is negligible and not politically accepted. Far fewer new books and articles are published about MI than there were 20 years ago. School systems and governmental policies have dismantled some of even the most well-established and successful of MI implementation programs.
I suspect that MI theory has gone underground, but still appears under different names and guises (emotional intelligence, cognitive styles, whole child education, brain-based learning, etc.). Perhaps MI remains more of a way of understanding students that inspires hope in teachers when they are confronted by difficult or failing students. Maybe it surfaces in the minds of teachers and school psychologists during “special needs” team meetings, when they are desperate to motivate and engage a recalcitrant child (and/or parents).
MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES: FAD, FICTION OR FORCE?
Researchers led by Mindy Kornhaber in 2004 closely examined the impact of MI as reported by 41 schools who had implemented the theory for at least three years. Schools reported a wide range of positive effects, including but not limited to improved test scores, student behavior, parent participation and performance of students with learning disabilities. Kornhaber concluded “ . . . MI is not just a fadish label for existing practice but instead spurs educators to develop their practice” (p. 70). Getting these positive results requires something more than merely thinking or talking differently about students’ abilities. Kornhaber identified a matrix of six “organizational practices” commonly shared by the diverse array of successful MI schools studied: 1-Culture; 2-Readiness; 3-Collaboration; 4-Choice; 5-Tool; 6-Arts.
The positive effects of implementing MI theory are affirmed by educators not only in America (Armstrong, Campbell, Chen, Hoerr, Shearer, etc.) but also around the world in a wide variety of schools and cultures, including, China, Korea, Denmark, Philippines, Australia, UK, etc. Some of these are large scale efforts, but many appear to involve small, niche contexts. Reviewing the status of these MI projects after 40 years would be a worthy endeavor, but in lieu of such data I hazard a guess that a majority of them have faded away—but certainly not all.
I still receive regular requests from teachers and researchers to advise them on MI-inspired projects. Most recently, requests have come from Romania, Pakistan, Spain, Australia, Tunisia and the United Kingdom. If there are many worthy descriptions of the benefits of implementing MI theory, why have such projects been discouraged, abandoned or actively derailed? I suspect that there are a tangle of reasons to explain the drive to diminish the influence of multiple intelligences theory.
THE CHALLENGES OF PLANTING NEW MI GARDENS AND RUNNING TRAIN SYSTEMS
As I have worked with teachers and schools on planting MI for 35 years, I have thought of it as a kind of gardening (or sometimes as a “Howard Gardnering” depending upon the pun tolerance of the audience!). As I walked through the doors of a new school I wondered what the environment would be like for the “MI seeds” that I would scatter or carefully plant in their busy minds at the end of a long day. I found two questions to be crucial: Would the soil be rich and receptive? Would the changing climate be hospitable or hostile to the seeds being planted? I could not control essential elements such as the school culture, community values, economic status, leadership directives, historical events, political climate, etc. so I focused on the quality of the MI seeds and gave what I hoped would be useful planting and care instructions.
I often found myself in a bind as I carefully walked the narrow path between being informative and being directive. I am extremely wary of telling teachers exactly what to do in the garden of their own classrooms. Teaching is a very personal matter, with nuanced interactions between teachers, students and the curriculum. On the other hand, there are always those teachers who are less inclined toward theory and more inclined toward wanting someone to “Just tell me what to do.” Of course, my interactions with teachers were always carefully monitored by the school head or principal, who invariably had their own agendas and goals. They did not always share with me how well their leadership objectives aligned with MI applications. The worst case scenarios were when I was the mushroom in the principal’s office. They would keep me in the dark and feed me manure. The MI gardens in places like this would never sprout, let alone bloom, despite the efforts and dreams of a few leading edge educators in the school.
REFORM IS HARD
The difficulties of transforming schools via “reform” efforts are ledendary (Ravitch, Levin, etc. ). The idea of multiple intelligences, which was intended for psychologists, quickly became a driving force for a legion of educators and school reformers who wanted to correct the errors of contemporary schooling. The move from “this is a good idea” to “let’s do some good work with MI” has been a tough row to hoe. Important stakeholders in schools were not always properly prepared for the changes these people wanted to implement, causing climatic forces to blow hard and cold across the MI landscape. Even some of the most promising and effective MI programs were abandoned after many successful years.
A full discussion of the challenges faced by educators trying to use MI is beyond the scope of this introduction, but a key observation about the school as a system is offered by Henry Levin (attributed to Seymor Sarason) “The existing equilibrium is so stable that even massive attempts to dislodge it result in only temporary victories and eventual defeat as the system returns to its traditional practices and functions” (p. 573). A school’s current configuration has not appeared there by accident and will not be easily replaced by a new and strange approach requiring extra work and special knowledge. Switching from an educational focus on a select few to celebrating high achievers in all of the mulitple intelligences can be daunting.
Cuban notes, “ . . . . classrooms are nested organizations with robust structures, hierarchies, and cultures that, more often than not, transform powerful ideas into familiar practices . . . reform minded elites . . . often overlook or minimize the powerful hold that larger societal values and organizational norms and structures have on those working within the institution” (p. 143).
I’ve found that a change in leadership at any point during the growth of an MI project often proves to be fatal. When no one is tending the garden the weeds return and flourish, even if they are not nourishing for all students. The revealing phrase here may be “nourishing for all students,” which distinguishes MI-inspired schools from IQ-based traditions.
STARS WORTH STRIVING FOR
Eliot Eisner wrote that MI has given us “some distant stars worth striving for,” which translates into the aspiration to bring out the best inall students and not just those who will be academic stars. Rather than a garden with a wide variety of blooming flowers, traditional schools are more like agri-businesses, where efforts are streamlined to focus on a few of the most economically promising crops. This accounts for the investment of billions of dollars in standardized testing to quantify industrial-educational success. This is the efficiency model where students with unique brain differences are weeded out, to increase the productivity of the few.
But not all human brains are designed to fit neatly into the IQ approach. Individuals with many non-standard-IQ abilities will be neglected, denigrated and discouraged from fulfilling their potential in the classroom, in the school, and in the world. Modern schools are based on what I think of as an IQ-based three level caste system: college preparation, vocational training, and general education. MI theory upsets this model by demonstrating that students with strengths in each of the eight intelligences can perform at high levels of sophistication, complexity and creativity—and ought to be encouraged and helped to do so.
ARE YOU COLLEGE MATERIAL?
Should a student with modest IQ (linguistic and logical-mathematical) abilities but extraordinary naturalist, visual-spatial, or other abilities, be considered as “college material” by a high school career counselor? This revolutionary way of thinking is at direct odds with the worldview and mission of traditional school authorities who are the gatekeepers of our educational institutions. They are risk adverse managers who are personally and professionally invested in the three-level caste system. They were the high-IQ academic stars, who are now charged with replicating their success as efficiently as possible. The stars worth reaching for cited by Eisner in the opening quote involve harzardous changes in the foundational structures of systems that serve millions of students. Indeed, schools are very complex and densely organized around deeply held assumptions, proud traditions and ancient rituals.
The notion of IQ took a while to take hold in the early 1900s but it melded seamlessly with social values as the industrial revolution grew. It was an efficency expert’s dream that all children could be arranged according to potential for success in society via an easily obtained single number. Educators, leaders, professors and social-scientists managing the IQ-based system are less concerned with “stars worth reaching for” and the blossoming of human potential than they are with maintaining order on the ground. Their definition of educating for human potential is reflected in the model of a school as a train headed towards a common destination for all. A few students will ride in the lead car; a majority in the middle cars and the remainder at the end of the train. Very efficient, yet deceptive and harmful in its simplicity.
HOW MANY STARS ARE THERE?
Traditionally, there are only a couple of stars in a classroom and one or two superstars in a school (valedictorians and salutatorians) who excell at the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. These are highly sought after and competitive races using a single number (GPA) to measure achievement. To make the competition fair, teachers and administrators must control well-defined levers to ensure that that the “trains run on time” with students in the right cars. To suggest that other valuable abilities are being relegated to the margins is antithetical to their traditional ideals. Could a school celebrate eight valedictorians who are bound for higher education—one per intelligence? To consider such a profound and practical change is hard to imagine, even if it is better aligned with a wealth of neuroscience evidence pointing to the essential importance of all the intelligences to a person’s well-being and high cultural achievements.
Despite the recent drought of MI-inspired publications there is an entire library of practical guidance on solutions and models available for educators at all levels. Serious authors and seasoned educators have documented in exquisite detail how to bring MI “stars” into a lesson plan, grade level, program, school, district or an entire country. These templates may be implemented “as is” or serve as models for local adaption. The founders of the world’s first MI school—Key School, Indianapolis, Indiana—grew from a few elementary grades into a fully realized K – 12 system. Corporate coaches use MI to help employees better manage the “work–life” balance to increase innovation and productivity. College professors have brought MI-inspired projects into their curriculum to engage more students more deeply into core ideas rather than superficially cover a multitude of disconnected facts. The results of these efforts, according to noted education scholar Linda Darling-Hammond, are that “The press to cover content is replaced by a press to support students in successful learning, with extraordinary results for student outcomes” (p. 80). Obtaining these results, however, does not occur with a wave of the MI magic wand.
WHERE IS THAT MAGIC WAND?
Writing in 1994, Howard Gardner reflected on the influence and difficulties of implementing MI theory in schools and classrooms. After ten years of global acclaim, he predicted, its future would be rocky and challenging because a theory is just one element in the drama that is schooling, “MI theory has proven catalytic in schools . . . because it allows us to look more carefully at children . . . to examine assumptions about potential and achievement . . . but in the absence of powerful entry points for the audience and the gradual buildup of a supporting social movement . . . there is little hope for success.” (p. 582)
“Hope for success” is an interesting phrase for Gardner to use because this is one of the key values that teachers often remark upon when describing why they are inspired by MI theory. It provides them with a framework to explore alternative, strength-based strategies for students who struggle to achieve success via conventional approaches. Where IQ tests mark a child’s limitations, MI theory opens up the awareness of a child’s strengths that can be bridged to achievement. But, of course, much more is required to make practical advancements than a mere map of what’s there. Bridges aren’t constructed of “hope” alone.
The influence of MI on ideas about consciousness (cited by Cuban in the opening statement) may only be an essential first step for a sustainable paradigm shift. Such profound changes require a lot of digging to reveal the MI “stars” buried beneath existing educational tracks, program structures and social rewards. Forty years ago, what I imagined would be an “evolution” in the cultivation of new garden plots to accommodate a wide variety of crops was really a major excavation and replanting project. And if you put it in terms of the educational train, MI asks schools to re-engineer a whole constellation of tracks, timetables, destinations, and personnel for their trains. Perhaps we can evolve in our vision of the stars, see both those already overhead and those buried under the ground, but it might take a revolution in our social values before we can effectively develop a full range of human potentialities in every classroom, school and the world.
References and Resources
Armstrong, T. (2010). Multiple intelligences in the classroom: 4th edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Campbell, L. & Campbell, B. (1999). Multiple intelligences and student achievement: Success stories from six schools. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Chen, J., Moran, S. & Gardner, H. (Ed.) (2009). Multiple intelligences around the world. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Chen, J., Krechevsky, M., & Viens, J. (1998). Building on children’s strengths: The
experience of project spectrum. New York: Teachers College Press.
Cuban, L. (2004). Assessing the 20-year impact of multiple intelligences on school. in Lyn Corno (Ed.), Special Issue: Multiple Intelligences, Teachers College Record, pp. 140 – 146, New York: Columbia University, vol. 106- no. 1
Darling-Hammond, L. (2009). Multiple intelligences in practice. in B. Shearer (Ed.), MI at 25: Assessing the impact and future of multiple intelligences for teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
Diaz-Lefebvre, R. (2009). What if they learn differently? in J.Q. Chen, S. Moran, & H. Gardner (Eds.), Multiple intelligences around the world (pp. 317–328). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Eisner, E. (2009). Multiple intelligences: Its tensions and possibilities. in J.Q. Chen, S. Moran, & H. Gardner (Eds.), Multiple intelligences around the world (pp. 31 – 39). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (1994). Intelligences in theory and practice: A response to Elliot W. Eisner, Robert J. Sternberg, and Henry M. Levin. (pp. 576 – 583). in Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice: A Symposium, Teachers College Record, Vol 95, No. 4.
Herrnstein, R., & Murray, C. (1994). The bell curve. New York: Free Press.
Hoerr, T. (2009). How MI informs teaching at New City School. in J.Q. Chen, S. Moran, & H. Gardner (Eds.), Multiple intelligences around the world (pp. 40 – 48), San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kornhaber, M. (2004). Multiple intelligences: From the Ivory tower to the dusty classroom . . . in In Lyn Corno (Ed.), Special Issue: Multiple Intelligences, (pp.67 – 76), Teachers College Record, Columbia University, NY: vol. 106- no. 1.
Kornhaber, M.L., Fierros, E., & Veenema, S. (2004). Multiple intelligences: Best ideas from theory and practice. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Levin, H.M. (1994). Commentary: Reforming school reform: Commentary: Multiple intelligences theory and everyday practice. in Teachers College Record, Vol 95, No. 4.
Levin, H. M. (2005). Accelerated schools: A decade of evolution. New York: Springer.
Shearer, C. B. (2019). A detailed neuroscientific framework for the multiple intelligences: Describing the neural components for specific skill units within each intelligence. International Journal of Psychological Studies; Vol. 11, No. 3. doi:10.5539/ijps.v11n3p1
Shearer, C.B. (2005b). Enhancing cognitive functions via a multiple intelligences assessment” in In O. Tan & A. Seng, (Eds), Enhancing cognitive functions: Applications across contexts. (Eds.), Singapore: McGraw Hill (Asia).
Spearman, C. (1927). The abilities of man. New York: MacMillan.