Posted by: James P Burke | September 6, 2009

Comments on a Reference to Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences


I came across a reference to Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences yesterday and it reminded me that I am wading into a world with many theories and beliefs, some based in empiricism and some less so. And also of my ignorance. Opinions about education are everyone’s right, but in research, theories need to be about a lot more than opinion.

The article is in support of viewing the President’s upcoming televised message to students on the occasion of their return to school, September 7, 2009. The passage comes as the author makes a point about why President Obama’s history gives him a unique perspective and credibility on the subject of personal advancement:

“He rose to the presidency because he can THINK. He is a reader, a writer, an orator, a lover of art and music and people.  He is a leader.  Spiritual.  Self disciplined and self made.  He is the embodiment of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences.” (Riley, 2004)

In my quick review of MI (Multiple Intelligence) theory, I do not think that this reference makes sense.

In a Scientific American article which Gardner later updated, Gardner (1998/2004) makes his case in opposition to familiar intelligence tests which force students to do unusual and difficult tasks for the purpose of determining an IQ or “g” – a measure of general intelligence.

In contrast, Gardner believes that there are multiple forms of intelligence (eight in all) and that even if we had no tests for g, we would recognize these intelligences in the activities of students. His interest was also to work cultural context into the understanding of intelligence as can be seen in his definition: “an intelligence is a psychobiological potential to process information so as to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in at least one cultural context” (Gardner, 1998/2004, p.3)

Gardner’s initial insights came from his work with children with certain exceptional abilities and people with neurological damage who had left some abilities in place but others intact. He refers to people with scattered profiles of strengths and weaknesses.

My biggest question for Gardner’s MI is why a new definition of intelligence is necessary,especially if there are correlations among some of the intelligences he identifies. Might a theory of manifestations of intelligence suffice, which would preserve the possibility that there is a general intelligence that boosts many abilities? And, if so, that general intelligence might be somewhat useful and predictive? My observations of classrooms tell me that students can employ different abilities in the cause of learning, as when social interaction in the classroom turns toward debating mathematical concepts. But is that ability itself an intelligence?

I’ll have to read a lot more to answer my questions, and it was not my intention to pronounce judgment on Gardner’s theory.

Defenses of Gardner’s theory refer to how teachers have adopted the notion, but also how it has not always been translated into practice in an accurate or useful way. (Kornhaber, 2004, pp.4-5) Out in practice, theories can lose coherence and teachers can adopt the language to represent their own ideas.

In the Riley’s quote above, he is referring to Obama’s many talents. If we assume this has some relationship to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence, it’s not clear to me whether he is considering these talents to be innate intelligences which Obama used to succeed or whether he is saying that Obama has worked hard to somehow increase his own intelligences.

The best embodiment of a theory of MI would be a person who is able to excel in one or two areas because that is where his intelligences lie. He may or may not be a good example of a successful student, but he would exemplify a separation of intelligences. This meshes with  Gardner’s “scattered profiles.”

A person with success and accomplishments in many areas would embody a theory of general intelligence; coupled with varied interests and hard work, he was able to apply his intelligence in many areas and excel.

Of course, Obama’s success is not meant to embody anything, and his specific case supports no theory. MI theory doesn’t rule out a person being gifted in many areas.

I wonder, though, whether Riley is only concerned with the cultural context of Gardner’s ideas: that intelligence’s wider definition should reflect skills that are valued in society. If this is the case, Riley may not be saying that Obama’s success tells us anything about the theory of MI, but rather that Obama’s attributes happen to be a laundry list of Gardner’s intelligences.

This may be a result of my imperfect understanding of Gardner’s intelligences, but for such a theory to be useful I imagine that it would have to embrace a notion of the stability of intelligence(s) over time. In other words, Obama earned his success and his expertise, but did not earn his intelligence(s). Calling Obama the embodiment of multiple intelligences implies that he has these intelligences at his disposal, drawing attention away from the message of hard work.

If we are teaching school children to strive and work hard, to make sacrifices and to be persistent in trying to reach their goals, I think it’s better to relate the challenges a successful person faced rather than the advantages he started out with.

Gardner, H. (1998/2004). A Multiplicity of Intelligences: In tribute to Professor Luigi Vignolo. Retrieved September 6, 2009, from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.73.364.

Kornhaber, M. (2004, August 15). Psychometric Superiority? Check the Facts – Again. Retrieved from http://www.howardgardner.com/Papers/documents/Critique%20of%20EdNext%20Article.pdf.

Riley, K. (2009, September 5). WHY PRESIDENT OBAMA WILL BE OUR GUEST SPEAKER AT EL MILAGRO. El Milagro Weblog. Weblog, . Retrieved September 6, 2009, from http://kriley19.wordpress.com/2009/09/05/why-president-obama-will-be-our-guest-speaker-at-el-milagro/.

Questions resulting from reading Gardner (1998/2004)

  • Gardner describes g (general intelligence) as “difficult to change.” (p.1) Is this intended to contrast it with his own view of intelligence, meaning that the individual’s multiple intelligences are subject to change over time?
  • How do we distinguish intelligence from specific aptitude and ability?
  • If MI theory acknowledges that there may be correlations among different intelligences, why should it not be a theory of the application of general intelligence to multiple abilities rather than a splitting of the concept of intelligence.
  • Gardner states intelligence shouldn’t be conflated with creativity, wisdom or morality. Why the distinction? Is musical creativity not part of Gardrner’s musical intelligence? In what way should wisdom be distinct from intelligence? Why is morality exempt?
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