21 Years Later, 'Multiple Intelligences' Still Debated
By Jay Mathews
Howard Gardner, Hobbs professor of education and cognition at the
Harvard Graduate School of Education, received an offer recently from a
lawyer in Quito, Ecuador. For just $600, the man said, he would protect
Gardner from an outrageous attempt to trademark his name for a local
It appeared to be a scam but was not unexpected. Because of a book he
wrote 21 years ago, Gardner is both lionized and exploited as one of the
most famous educational theorists in the world. His notion of multiple
intelligences -- including the idea that musical, athletic and other
talents are separate from, but as important as, high SAT scores -- has
inspired scores of books, journal articles, conferences and lesson plans
for public schools.
Say the words "multiple intelligences" to an American classroom
teacher, and you probably will get a quick recitation of all the things
that educator is doing to teach not only the student blessed with what
Gardner calls linguistic intelligence and logico-mathematical
intelligence -- what the SAT assesses -- but also those having the other
six intelligences on Gardner's list: spatial, musical,
bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalist.
But his fame has not saved him from criticism. This summer, two
university professors accused Gardner, 61, of encouraging elementary
school teaching methods, such as singing new words or writing them out
with twigs and leaves, for which there is no scholarly evidence of
Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of
Virginia, wrote in the journal Education Next that Gardner's theory "is
an inaccurate description of the mind" and that "the more closely an
application draws on the theory, the less likely the application is to
Linda S. Gottfredson, professor of education at the University of
Delaware, wrote in the Wilson Quarterly that "by denying the
difficulties in accommodating intellectual difference, multiple
intelligence theories may do little more than squander scarce learning
time and significant opportunities for improvements in the quality of
The response from Gardnerites is: What have traditional intelligence
theorists done for classroom teachers and their students?
Mindy L. Kornhaber, assistant professor of education policy studies at
Pennsylvania State University's College of Education, found that nearly
100 teachers in 11 school districts liked Gardner's ideas because they
validated what they knew from experience about the power of teaching
different children in different ways.
Kornhaber, responding to Willingham in a letter to Education Next,
said, "It is exceedingly odd that he offers not a single example of good
practice" stemming from the traditional view that intelligence is an
interrelated hierarchy and that people who are smart in one category
usually are smart in others.
In a letter to the Wilson Quarterly, Gardner wrote that the multiple
intelligence theory "was developed as a theory of the mind, not as an
educational intervention." But he supported the notion that the theory
"holds out hope that students can be reached in different ways."
He added that "the standard psychologist's view of intelligence is a
recipe for despair. It holds that there is but one intelligence and that
intelligence is highly heritable."
Gardner's 1983 book, "Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple
Intelligences," arrived just as American educators were being pummeled
in national reports for failing to teach reading, writing and
mathematics adequately. SAT scores were dropping, and traditional
educational theorists were arguing for longer school days, more homework
and more testing.
Gardner's ideas appealed to many traditional teachers who extolled hard
work but also had some students who did better on tests if
multiplication tables were set to music or works of literature were
acted out in class.
Since then, many psychologists have criticized the lack of scientific
measures of Gardner's intelligences, and some educators say this leads
to failed educational policies, such as ending ability grouping in
Administrators who think children of different achievement levels will
learn better if placed in the same classroom say teachers can use
multiple intelligence theory to take different approaches with different
students. Gottfredson quoted a textbook for future teachers used at her
university: "Educators' thinking has progressively moved away from
policies of exclusion and homogenous grouping toward an emphasis on the
value of diversity, policies of inclusion and practices that meet the
needs of all students."
In practice, Gottfredson said, "these instructional strategies for
mixed-ability classes preclude precisely what helps the more able
students most: accelerating their curriculum, allowing them to interact
with their intellectual peers and making them work hard."
Willingham argues that the standard theory of intelligence is not as
monolithic as Gardner says it is and that Gardner's theory disintegrates
when analyzed closely. Gardner's criteria for intelligences, such as
scores on performance tasks or changes caused by brain damage, are too
loose, he said. They open the way for alleged intelligences that make
little sense to Willingham, such as humor intelligence or memory
Gardner said he thinks the theory has served its original purpose -- to
challenge a century-old orthodoxy that defined intelligence only as
doing well on multiple-choice tests.
So Gardner continues to write and speak. He drew huge crowds this
summer in China, where he was told that a recent conference in Beijing
featured 195 papers on multiple intelligences. He and psychologist
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose work on creativity is also well known,
have launched what they call the Good Work Project to encourage research
that is both smart and helpful to society.
"I think that any scholar who is lucky enough to have his or her ideas
taken seriously has to realize something," Gardner said. "When you
release an idea to the rest of the world, you simply can't control what
"My major response to bad uses of my work, or to uses by people who
have never read a word of my writing, is to try to create structures
that encourage better use of the work. In that sense, I am an idealist."
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