Education Insider

The circuitry of multiple intelligences

📄  29 December 2012     👤 Dipin Damodharan
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World renowned developmental psychologist Howard Gardner prides himself on being the man who brought about a radical change in the theory of human intelligence. The very psychology of the change he facilitated in cognitive science and education hinges on a better understanding of the very synthesis of multiple forms of information processing by the human brain, something mankind once viewed as a singular concept of intelligence. His research findings dramatically changed our perception of intelligence. Each form of information processing soon acquired a new shape, and together, they came to be known as “multiple intelligences”.  For over a century, people across the world believed that humans have general intelligence, helping them judge their children as smart or dumb, given their varying capacities of general intelligence. By identifying and substantiating with proof that there are multiple intelligences within a human being, Howard birthed an all new thinking process and approach towards psychology, cognitive behaviour, and education. Known as the founding father of the internationally acclaimed Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory, Howard is one of the finest intellectual cult heroes. He hates conventions. For him, out of the box thinking makes great sense. Howard viewed intelligence as “the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural settings”.  In an exclusive interview with Education Insider, the John H and Elisabeth A Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education delves into the MI theory, its implications in education, and issues concerning its conceptualisation and realisation. In an age when the high student ratio in classrooms disables teachers from trying out multiple means of teaching a  lesson to suit children with different capacities of learning, Howard says that developing countries can make the education system more simplistic and fruitful through effective application of digital media and other unconventional sources of learning and teaching. Such measures will help in enhancing intelligences of not just the smart, but also weak or average students. Today, individualisation and pluralisation of education are the biggest advantages, says Howard

By Dipin Damodharan

You have broken the myth of intelligence being a singular concept by challenging the conventional notions. Could you explain the principles of Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory?

For almost a century, psychologists have argued that there is a single thing called ‘general intelligence’ and that an individual who is strong in one area is likely to be strong in other areas as well. When I was young, I had no reason to doubt this claim. We often talked about people as ‘smart’, or ‘dumb’. However, a decade of research with normal and gifted children and with adults who had suffered brain damage convinced me that this standard view is simplistic. If we synthesise information from several disciplines, ranging from anthropology to brain study, it emerges that human beings are better described as having several relatively independent information processing capacities, which I call the “multiple intelligences”. When we talk about a person as being ‘smart’, we typically mean that he/she is good in school and that they have strong linguistic and logical mathematical skills. But my theory holds that individuals can be strong in other areas as well, ranging from music and spatial abilities to understanding other persons, and that these multiple intelligences constitute a better description of the range of human cognitive capacities. Just because a person is smart in one area, we simply can’t predict how they will do in other areas of life.

How did you conclude that there are nine kinds of intelligences in all human beings?

This insight came from my own studies over the course of a decade with different populations. I then had the opportunity to synthesise what I had learned from different disciplines in a book called Frames of Mind. Though the book was published in 1983, I still believe the basic claims are valid. I have since added an 8th intelligence - the naturalist intelligence - and have considered two other intelligences - existential intelligence (the intelligence of big questions) and pedagogical intelligence (the intelligence that allows us to teach other persons what we have learned and know how to do). Each of us has these 8-9 intelligences, but, of course, we differ in how strong the intelligence is and to what extent it has been developed.

MI theory has had a profound impact on education. What are the major implications of the theory in the field of education?

These ideas were originally developed in psychology. I was as surprised as anyone to find that they had strong appeal for educators. In a book called Multiple Intelligences Around The World, 42 scholars from 15 countries spread over five continents described the wonderfully various ways in which they have used the theory as the basis for educational innovation.

In my own view, the theory yields two principal educational implications: 

l) Individualisation: We should know as much as possible about each person, and try to teach and assess that person in ways that make sense for that individual, given his or her own profile of intelligences. This suggests that since human beings have their own unique configuration of intelligences, we should take that into account when teaching, mentoring, or nurturing. As much as possible, we should teach individuals in ways that they can learn and we should assess them in a way that allows them to show what they have understood and to apply their knowledge and skills in unfamiliar contexts.

Traditionally, individuation was possible only for families with means. Nowadays, with the easy accessibility of powerful digital devices, it is possible to individualise education for everyone.

2) Pluralisation: Whenever we try to teach anyone, or help the person develop skills, we should approach the educational process in several ways. That way, we can take advantage of their multiple intelligences.

But educators have made many other uses of the theory, ranging from developing new ways of identifying gifted children to setting up children’s museums, or theme parks based on MI ideas.

It is important to stress that MI theory began as a psychological theory, one that also drew on brain and genetic knowledge in the early 1980s. I was surprised that the principal interest in the theory came not from psychologists but from educators. And that has remained largely true until today. Pluralisation is a call for teaching consequential materials in several ways. Whether you are teaching the arts, the sciences, history, or math, you should decide which ideas are truly important and then you should present them in multiple ways. If you can present the art works of Michelangelo, or the laws of supply and demand, or the Pythagorean Theorem in several ways, you achieve two important goals. First of all, you reach more students, because some students learn best from reading, some from building something, some from acting out a story, etc. Second, you show what it is like to be an expert - to understand something really well. Think about anything with which you have a deep familiarity: your family, your neighbourhood, your work, your hobby. 

Presumably you can describe and convey it in several ways. Indeed, if you are limited to only one way of conveying an important concept, or topic, your own understanding is probably tenuous. We teachers discover that sometimes, our own mastery of a topic is tenuous. When a student asks us to convey the knowledge in another way, we are stumped.

Initially, I did not have strong ideas about how to apply MI theory to education. And indeed, no scientific theory can be translated directly into educational applications because education is suffused with values.

Is education a relative concept? How do you define education?

Education is the process whereby individuals are introduced to the principal ideas, practices, and values of a culture. Education begins at birth and continues so long as the person is active. Of course, schools play a vital role in education, but so do parents, the media, religious and other institutions, peers, siblings, relatives, and inspirational figures from literature and history. Of course, education will have different ‘accents’ for different ages and in different cultures, but the main lines of education are similar around the globe. And in a global era, many aspects of education help us understand the interconnected nature of societies today.

What about the response towards MI theory from India? What do you think about the relevance of this theory in the Indian context? 

On my first trip to India, in early 2012, there was a great deal of interest in MI theory. Most teachers, administrators, and parents who have exposure to lots of children, know that a simple “smart-dumb” division is simplistic. My theory offers a way for individuals to describe the many strengths and weaknesses which can be present in a single individual - and the theory offers ways to enhance intelligences, whether they are strong or weak. I don’t think that MI theory has a particular relevance to India, as compared to other places. Rather, any place that wants to individualise education (as described here) and to present important ideas in a number of ways, will benefit from MI theory. The challenge in India, as in many other developing countries, is the very high ratio of students to teachers. This fact makes application of MI theory challenging. Perhaps, distance learning can help solve this bottleneck problem.

What about restructuring the education model based on MI theory?

I think much of education all over the world is still a single teacher lecturing to a large group of students, who may or may not be listening and who may or may not care. It is very language-centred. An MI classroom is very different. Lessons are conveyed in many ways, individuals take initiative in showing what they have learned and how they have learned, and much use is made of media, ranging from websites to digital games. The biggest change in education will come about because, given digital media, we can now individualise and pluralise education in ways that were once available only to very wealthy people. Of course, it will take time to achieve this end, particularly in countries that still have deep pockets of poverty, like India, and where classes are large and often lack a range of materials and media - and where teachers teach in the way that they were taught 10 or 50 years ago.

What are the new developments in MI-based learning methods?

As mentioned above, the biggest change is the proliferation of digital media; Internet, websites, social networks, virtual reality, etc. These media will revolutionise education as much as the invention of writing 3,000 years ago and the invention of printing 550 years ago. In our own work at Harvard University on the future of learning, we focus on four new developments: globalisation, the brain-genetics revolution, the digital revolution, and lifelong learning. Each of these proceeds independently of MI theory, of course, but each will have its effect on MI theory and, perhaps, MI theory will also influence these developments - for example, in the kinds of uses to which digital media are put, or how individuals learn at different points in their lives.

What about the influence of MI theories in developing countries?

Of course, the ideas of multiple intelligences first had influence in the United States, but now there are MI efforts all over the world. They don’t seem to be particularly tied to the wealth of GNP of a country - there is much more interest in China, for example, than in Japan - and there is much interest in Latin America and Scandinavia. I suspect that that there will be much interest in India, because of the diversity of the population, the emergence of India as a digital centre, and the encouragement of experimentation. But from what I know, much of education in India is very traditional and MI ideas will be seen as upsetting some long time practices. I look forward to my trip to India in early 2013 and to the chance to interact with individuals who are knowledgeable about education in India.

What are the major scientific implications of the theory?

There are two interesting implications. The intelligences constitute the human intellectual toolkit. Unless grossly impaired, all human beings possess the capacity to develop the several intelligences. At any one moment, we will have a unique profile, because of both genetic (heritability) and experiential factors. Identical twins will have similar cognitive profiles. But the profiles will not be identical; even though the genetic constitution is the same, identical twins have different experiences and once born, they can be motivated to distinguish themselves from their genetic clone.

What does intelligence mean to you?

Fundamentally, intelligence refers to a biopsychological potential of our species to process certain kinds of information in certain kinds of way. As such, it clearly involves processes that are carried out by dedicated neural networks. No doubt each of the intelligences has its characteristic neural processes, with most of them quite similar across human beings. Some of the processes might prove to be more customised to an individual.

Intelligence itself is not content, but it is geared to specific contents. That is, linguistic intelligence is activated when individuals encounter the sounds of language or when they wish to communicate something verbally to another person. However, linguistic intelligence is not dedicated only to sound. It can be mobilised as well by visual information, when an individual decodes written text; and in deaf individuals, linguistic intelligence is mobilised by signs (including four syntactically-arranged sets of signs) that are seen or felt. Indeed, the language areas of the brain operate similarly, whether input comes through the eyes or through the ears.

From an evolutionary point of view, it seems probable that each kind of intelligence evolved to deal with certain kinds of contents in a predictable world. However, once such a capacity has emerged, there is nothing that mandates that it must remain tied to the original inspiring content. As the term has it, the capacity can be utilised for other purposes. I assume, for example, that mechanisms related to the recognition of species in nature are now regularly used in recognising commercial products (the so-called naturalist intelligence is used in the cultural world). Also, some of the most powerful human systems- like written language - came about not directly through evolution but through the yoking of visual-spatial and linguistic capacities which had evolved for different purposes.

Speaking more loosely, we can describe certain products - for example, maps, drawings, architectural plans - as involving a particular intelligence: in this case, of course, spatial intelligence. However, we must be aware that this characterisation entails an inference on the part of an observer. It might be that an individual could accomplish architectural plans or fashion a piece of sculpture using a different (non-spatial) set of intelligences. Until such time as we can actually designate neural circuitry as representing one or another intelligence “in action”, we cannot know for sure which intelligence or intelligences are actually being invoked on a specific occasion.

The Big Thinker

Howard Gardner is the John H and Elisabeth A Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also holds positions as Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero. He received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981. He has received honorary degrees from twenty-nine colleges and universities, including institutions in Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, South Korea, and Spain. In 2005, and again in 2008, he was selected by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world. Most recently, Howard received the 2011 Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences.

Author of 28 books, translated into 32 languages, and several hundred articles, Howard is best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be adequately assessed by standard psychometric instruments.

During the past two decades, Howard and colleagues at Project Zero have been involved in the design of performance-based assessments; education for understanding; the use of multiple intelligences to achieve more personalised curriculum, instruction, and pedagogy; and the quality of interdisciplinary efforts in education. Since the middle 1990s, in collaboration with psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, he has directed the Good Work Project, a study of work that is excellent, engaging, and ethical. More recently, with long time Project Zero colleagues Lynn Barendsen and Wendy Fischman, he has conducted reflection sessions designed to enhance the understanding and incidence of good work among young people. With Carrie James and other colleagues at Project Zero, he is also investigating the nature of trust in contemporary society and ethical dimensions entailed in the use of the new digital media. Among new research undertakings are a study of effective collaboration among non-profit institutions in education and a study of conceptions of quality, nationally and internationally, in the contemporary era. His latest book, Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Age of Truthiness and Twitter, has received critical acclaim.

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