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21 Years Later, 'Multiple Intelligences' Still Debated

Educator Pushes Appealing to All Types of Learners

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2004; Page A09

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 school.

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.


Howard Gardner, a Harvard education professor, theorizes that musical, athletic and other talents are separate from, but as important as, high SAT scores. (Laurie Swope For The Washington Post)

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 success.

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 be effective."

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 American schooling."

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 schools.

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 intelligence.

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 happens.

"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."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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