Sunday, February 7, 2010

Multiple Intelligences

The recent debate about the 'My School' website in Australia has reminded me that it is far too easy to narrowly define education, educational achievement and intelligence. Education is about people and how we facilitate their learning and growth. If we narrowly define what counts as knowledge and how we define intelligence and learning then we will end up with a very narrow curriculum at school, narrow approaches to assessment and a very narrow range of experiences at home.

We often hear people say, "wow he's smart" or "gee, she's intelligent". What do people mean when they say things like this? Intelligence is a very slippery concept (and it is just a concept) that is defined in many different ways. Generally, when people talk about being intelligent they mean general mental ability to learn and apply knowledge in one's immediate environment, as well as the ability to reason, think abstractly and solve problems. However, we tend to judge this in terms of a limited range of abilities that we can observe and measure; for example, language proficiency, mathematical ability and memory. While it is self-evident that society places greater importance on certain manifestations of intelligence, some have suggested that we have defined intelligence far too narrowly. It might just be that if we do continue to adopt limited definitions of intelligence that we will fail to recognise each child's full potential.

Howard Gardner's work

Howard Gardner is famous for having challenged narrow definitions of intelligence. He has developed a theory that argues that intelligence, as it has been defined in the past, does not sufficiently cover the wide variety of abilities that people possess and demonstrate. He outlined his theory in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983). In it he suggested that it isn't valid to say that a child who excels in for example, mathematical ability, is necessarily more 'intelligent' than another. The 3rd grade child who is always fastest at the 7 times tables may find it more difficult to complete more abstract mathematical problems, or indeed may be out performed by other children in the class in other areas of ability or intelligence.

In his initial work Gardner proposed seven types of intelligence, but he stressed at the outset that we might be able to identify other forms of intelligence. The following are the foundational set of intelligences that he proposed.

Linguistic intelligence reflects proficiency with spoken and written language in literal and metaphorical forms, the ability to learn languages, and the ability to use language to achieve varied goals (e.g. persuasion, humour, pleasure, communication). It can include the ability to use language to express yourself rhetorically or poetically and using language to remember information. He suggests that writers, poets, lawyers and proficient speakers are amongst those with high linguistic intelligence.

Logical-mathematical intelligence is the capacity to analyse problems logically, carry out mathematical operations, and investigate issues scientifically. Gardner suggests that it involves the ability to detect patterns, think logically and reason deductively. This type of intelligence is associated with scientific and mathematical thinking and ability.

Musical intelligence is characterised by skill in the performance, composition, and appreciation of musical patterns. It includes the ability to recognize and compose musical rhythm, tones and pitches. He observes (as other have) that musical intelligence often runs in parallel to linguistic intelligence.

Bodily-kinaesthetic intelligence is the potential to use one's body or parts of it to solve problems. It is the ability to use mental abilities to coordinate bodily movements. Howard Gardner sees mental and physical activity as related (as have many psychologists before him). It involves a strong sense of timing, the ability to train responses to become like reflexes. The proficient mime artist, actor, gymnast and the dancer illustrate this type of intelligence. We'll see thisa demonstrated again and again at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Spatial intelligence is intelligence where spatial ability and judgement is necessary. It involves the ability to recognize and use the patterns of space. This is the ability to visualize with the 'mind's eye'. Gardner suggests that it involves the ability to discern similarities across diverse domains, and the potential to recognize and use the patterns of wide space and more confined areas. It is a form of intelligence that is demonstrated by the artist, designers, architects, mapmakers and the puzzle wiz.  

Interpersonal intelligence is the capacity to understand the intentions, motivations and desires of other people. People intelligent in this way read social signs well, interpreting verbal and non-verbal communication well, collaborate and work well with people of varied abilities. It is critical to allowing people to work effectively with others. This type of intelligence can often be found in effective teachers, salespeople, company CEOs, politicians, therapists, preachers and counsellors. These are people who know how to work with, lead and get along with others and use teamwork to full advantage.

Intrapersonal intelligence is the ability to understand oneself, to appreciate one's feelings, fears and motivations. It involves the ability to act based on self knowledge, knowing your own emotional states, motivations, moods, desires and anxieties. Gardner suggests that these people have effective working models of themselves and are able to use this information to regulate their lives. They can be introverted and seem to learn best independently.

From the above list you should note that the first two have been typically valued in schools; and are of course the basis of the 'My School' assessment process in Australia. The next three are usually associated with the arts and the final two are what Howard Gardner called 'personal intelligences' (Gardner 1999: 41-43).

Gardner has continued to explore other potential forms of intelligence including:
  • 'Naturalist intelligence' (the ability to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment).
  • 'Existential intelligence' (a concern with 'ultimate issues', including spiritual awareness).
  • 'Moral intelligence' (a sense of personal agency and personal stake, a realization that one has an irreducible role with respect to other people).
Illustrating the implications of this work

When you start to consider intelligence in all its forms you begin to observe different things in children, encourage different things and value different things. Here is a simple illustration. I spend a lot of time with my grandchildren; all demonstrate their own forms of intelligence. My eldest grandchild Jacob demonstrates a number of Gardner's forms of intelligence including 'Spatial Intelligence', but the one that I find most interesting, and which is more difficult to observe, is Gardner's idea of 'Naturalist intelligence'. This has been given further exploration and definition since Gardner defined his initial set. It is the ability to observe the natural world and discriminate among living things and even features like the physical world (e.g. clouds, rocks and landscapes, clouds etc). This form of intelligence is associated with outstanding observation, and the ability to see the natural world from different (and sometimes new) perspectives. This is the type of intelligence that will be observable in the botanist and the naturalist, scientific researchers, architects, artists and the skilled farmer.

Jacob demonstrates this type of intelligence in many ways. In his fascination with the unusual behaviour of all creatures, in his constant efforts to mentally identify and classify all types of living creatures (insects, birds, sea creatures), in his efforts to speculate and hypothesise about his world, and his ability to see things from new angles. The sketches below illustrate something of what I mean. The first was drawn when he was 4 years old and was done just after a trip to the Aquarium with me. When he went home and drew the picture he explained it to his mother this way - it is "Grandad looking through the glass at the Aquarium". But notice the vantage point he has used for the drawing. He has given the perspective of the jellyfish, fish etc looking out at me, as I am looking in. The drawing is interesting in view of the varied species he shows, but more importantly it shows how much he is considering the natural world, even hypothesising what it might look like from another vantage point.

In the next drawing below (which he drew to use as a name plaque for his room), Jacob is again experimenting with different viewing points, but this time aged 6 his drawing of the Dimorphodon (a prehistoric flying reptile) is much more complex, with two overlaid vantage points. The artist is above the Dimorphodon but if you look closely at the bottom of the drawing you will see a tree (seemingly small because it is viewed from a distance) near a river, and another dinosaur (perhaps its potential prey). So while seeing the Dimorphodon from above, we also see what IT in turn sees below. While he doesn't quite orient the Dimorphodon's body to be viewed from above, his speculation and intent is clear. He is imagining what it might have looked like for the Dimorphodon to seek its prey, and tries to represent this by drawing it from above. He also shows an awareness that in nature, the size of anything is affected by the distance of the viewer and he is interested enough in this to include it in his drawing.

The final drawing (left), also drawn at age 6, shows a Blue Tongue lizard that he'd observed that day and he drew it so that he could show me later. He draws a number of other creatures with it that he'd also seen in the backyard that day and labels them. Most young children will draw animals from the side elevation and in a very 2 dimensional way. Jacob's vantage point (again) is from above most of the creatures, a vantage point that he cannot easily assume and one that for some of the creatures he has had to imagine. Note also how he has attempted to give three dimensions to the Blue Tongue lizard with its patterns curving around the body, and the legs oriented correctly as it slowly moves and begins to drag its tail out from underneath itself (note especially the different orientation of the back and front legs, and the inside and outside legs back legs). This is sophisticated and accurate observation.

Summing Up

It is far too easy to view intelligence narrowly and in the process to limit our expectations of what children can achieve. Good teachers encourage their children to explore all forms of intelligence and show that they value them as they look for new areas of learning and different demonstrations of intelligence.

Related Posts

A useful article on the Infed Site - 'Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences and Education' (here)

'My School' Website: A blunt and inadequate instrument (here)


Maxine said...

This is an excellent post - and a much needed analysis of the My Schools website, which has cause a great stir here in Victoria. I hope you won't mind if I add you to my blogroll.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Maxine,

Thanks for your comment. I look forward to hearing from you again. And thanks for adding me to your blogroll.


Erin said...

I first discovered Gardners theory my first year studing education - and I loved it straight away. I love being able to consider all different types of learning try to include more than one 'inteligence' in each lesson I teach (which I hope to carry out when I graduate).

The idea that children have different ways of being intelligent is something that is embraced in the early childhood community - I hope that primary school education begins to use this theory in it's lessons as well.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Erin, lovely to hear from you. It is wonderful to see just how broad a concept intelligence can be. Early childhood educators do seem to embrace the idea more readily. Thanks for reading the post. Trevor

Andrea said...

Hi Trevor, I was just wondering - what about common sense? Should that be an intelligence of its own? By common sense I mean the intelligence to not enter into certain types of situations because you can foresee the potential consequences, or to make decisions about life with a long-term view in mind and all possibilities considered, so I guess essentially being a well rounded person who makes practical decisions in general with a knowledge of why they should or shouldn't do something and the outcomes it might have, but also having the ability to see other's situations and choices and knowing exactly where they've gone wrong or made bad judgements, along with being very reflective person who thinks deeply about things. The closest intelligence of Gardner's I could link this with was Intrapersonal, but that seems to focused more on an understanding of one's own emotions as opposed to an understanding of the world and situations in general. To illustrate this in a childhood setting, say a child in your class says something very profound that demonstrates quite a deep philosophical understanding of a situation in life, such as why people go to war. Where does think kind of trait fit into the multiple intelligences idea?