The education world gets obsessed sometimes with trying to come up with ways to measure smarts. But today we’re talking with someone who has a history of shaking up the narrative when it comes to talking about intelligence.
It’s Howard Gardner, best known for his theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI). He released this idea decades ago, and it was controversial. His insight was that using a single number like IQ to assess the human brain just doesn't make sense considering how the mind works. The brain has lots of different areas doing different things, and people develop them differently.
Gardner has made a long and influential career exploring the mind and how to think about it. He’s a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he won a MacArthur Genius grant, and he’s published some 30 books. This summer, he won the
American Educational Research Association 2020 Distinguished Contributions to Research in Education Award. Educators and school leaders have brought his ideas to life in various ways, including experimental K-12 schools that have focused on developing these different intelligences in students.
This month Gardner came out with a different kind of book, one where he looks inward. It’s a memoir called “A Synthesizing Mind.” In it, he reflects on the interdisciplinary work he did that led to his theory of multiple intelligences. And he has suggestions for how to encourage that kind of broad thinking so that others can make new insights across whatever fields they’re working in. He argues that we need more of these kinds of thinkers in this challenging moment of polarization and pandemic.
Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.
EdSurge: In a nutshell, what is the theory of multiple intelligences?
Howard Gardner: [Typically people talked about] the single word “intelligence” as if it's one thing. And I basically pluralize that, by talking about different kinds of intelligence. The way to think about it is, if there was only a single thing called intelligence, that would mean you have one computer in your head, and that if the computer works well, you'd be good at everything. If the computer is average, you'd be average at everything. And if the computer doesn’t work well, you'd be out of luck.
My theory is that we have eight, nine or ten different computers. And the fact that you're good with language doesn't mean you're going to be good with understanding other people. The fact that you're good spatially doesn't mean you're going to be good musically, and so on.
When educators use the word intelligence, they're typically talking about people who are good in language and logic, and those are very helpful if you're going to be in school. But we all eventually leave school, and then other intelligences are important.
Frankly, psychologists never liked the theory very much, but educators and parents who have more than a few kids right away realize that I captured something that we know intuitively. But, in a sense, the discipline of psychology had blinded us to it because we'd like to have instruments [to measure smarts], which you can give quick and dirty and get a number.
You’re just out with a new book—an unusual type of memoir. It focuses on how you came up with the ideas you did over your career. What was it that led you to write this?
The book is not a how-to book, but I am struck by how nobody else ever tried to teach me how to synthesize. I probably had some lessons on how to write a research paper, but I think we can do a lot more to help people synthesize. And so in the last chapters of the book, I talk about some of the things which worked for me, which I've done with students, and which I think could be done in companies and in different professions to help people define a problem, cull massive amounts of information, group that [information and] regroup it, test it out, take it back to the drawing board, throw some stuff out, reformulate the question and finally have a draft that you can post widely.
And if it turns out that a lot of the things we do in school now can be done instantly. I mean, I suppose it's still useful to learn your times tables, but it's hardly very necessary. So we need to do things in school which can't be done usually by [computer]. I think we could do a much better job of teaching synthesizing, and I say in the book that I know the psychology and education literature pretty well, there's astonishingly little about how the synthesizing mind works. So I'm hoping the book is a contribution to that particular challenge.
We’re in the midst of this global pandemic. What advice can you offer based on your work at this moment?
I think what COVID has done for every sector, for every profession, for every discipline and for every sector of education is to [force the question], ‘what is really important?’ What is really crucial? What is it that we can do that nobody else can do and that we should try to do as well as possible? It concentrates the mind.
Most of us are parents and [many] of us are teachers. Now I'm a grandparent as is my wife, Ellen, and we've suddenly become parent or grandparent teachers. What can we do as adults who are not full-time classroom teachers, when the teacher isn't physically available, when we're not experts on algebra or Latin or whatever the subject matter is, or we haven't learned how to code?
And since we can't do everything, clearly we have to say, what is the one thing I can do as a parent or grandparent as a teacher, which I can do well and is most likely to be helpful to our offspring. It focuses the mind, concentrates the mind.
I'm very sad. I'm relieved that so far, my family is healthy, but I think a lot of stuff that the society has been doing is not good. We don't have to talk about that today. And if this is a moment of truth, in any sector or for any role, then it's not completely a waste.
You’re also working on another book project. Can you talk about that?
The book is 18 months away from publication, but Wendy Fischman and I have written a book, which I think it's probably the most ambitious thing we've ever undertaken. It's about higher education, and the current title is “The Once and Future College.” One of our conclusions in the book is that most of our colleges and universities, [despite] the best of motivation, try to do way too much. The term we've created is “projectitus.” You could also call it “missions impossible.” Because these colleges are gonna make you great intellects, great artists, highly moral people, a tremendously good citizen, develop your entrepreneurial skills, et cetera, et cetera. And frankly, that's baloney. If a college can do one thing very, very well, that would be an achievement. And we have difficulty demonstrating that the colleges can do anything very well.
Anybody can go to Howardgardner.com and look at the blog called Lifelong Learning. And there are 50 blogs, which cover many topics in the book.