An Evolving Theory of Intelligence

Professor Howard Gardner evaluates the decade since publication of his `Frames of Mind'

IT's been a whirlwind of a decade for Howard Gardner, an education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and father of the theory of multiple intelligences.

His 1983 book, "Frames of Mind," challenges the traditional notion of intelligence and argues that seven distinct intelligences exist. These include the widely accepted linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, which most standardized tests measure. But Professor Gardner also lists musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences.

During the past decade, this concept has been applied in classrooms across the United States and has inspired several educational experiments.

A 10th-anniversary edition of "Frames of Mind" is being published along with "Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice," which culls previously published and original essays on the educational applications of multiple-intelligence theory.

Gardner spoke with the Monitor about the evolution of his ideas and their practical uses.

When you introduced the theory of multiple intelligences did you expect it to be so well-received by the education community?

When I wrote the book, I really thought I was writing it for psychologists. And I thought I was proposing a new conception of intelligence to replace the current conceptions.... The work on education was almost an afterthought. There are a couple of chapters at the end of "Frames of Mind" where I talk about educational applications. But that wasn't something I knew a lot about. I was unprepared for the interest among educators.

How do you explain this interest?

I think it probably has a little bit to do with [the 1983 report] "A Nation at Risk" and the general increase in interest in education at that time.

But I think it had more to do with the fact that I was putting into words and giving some scholarly background - a Harvard imprimatur - to something so many people in education know: Kids are very different from one another. They learn in very different kinds of ways, and to treat them all as if they're the same and call everybody a dummy who doesn't resemble a certain prototype is wrong. But there's a difference between knowing something intuitively and having somebody put it into words.... I think that 's really what did it.

Has your theory of multiple intelligences changed over the 10 years?

I've made changes in the way I think about the theory. People ask: Have you added new intelligences? The answer is no. Though I do talk in my writings about some candidate intelligences, such as spiritual intelligence.

What do you mean by spiritual intelligence?

I think there are certain people who from a very early age seem to be in touch with the world of human beings and the world of objects in the way that the rest of us are not. They have a sixth sense of where things are coming from and where they are going, and they often project this sixth sense.... They can take on quite important roles as leaders or inspirers.

If you'd asked me 10 years ago, I would have said that's just interpersonal intelligence: Some people understand other people better and can work with them. I'm no longer persuaded that that's the case. I think some people really are tuned into an aspect of the world - the human world and the nonhuman world - that others of us aren't.

You've done a lot of work on testing and assessment of students. How much progress has been made in that area?

I think we've changed the nature of the conversation. In 1985, when we first began talking about looking at student work in portfolios, that was an exotic concept.

We said instead of having a paper-and-pencil test, let's give a performance-based exam where you actually have the person do what it is you want them to do rather than some kind of proxy for it. Now that's common coin of the realm.

In America, people hear about something. They at first think it's strange. Then they hear about it more, and it becomes a buzzword. Then they assume because they know it, they're doing it and doing it well.

The truth is that to have new kinds of assessments of the sorts I describe is very hard work. People have to spend time looking at student work, and they have to develop scoring systems for evaluating them. And they have to educate the community that this is a valid way to do things. That isn't going to happen in an afternoon.

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