A beginner’s guide to Professor Howard Gardner

A beginner’s guide to Professor Howard Gardner

What is he best known for?

Professor Howard Gardner (image source: Harvard University)

His theory of multiple intelligences, which he outlined in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences. He has written more than 30 books that have been translated across the world.

Quick facts:

Nationality: American

Born: 1943

Website: Professor Howard Gardner

Professional bio: Harvard Faculty

Where does he work?

Gardner is currently the John H and Elisabeth A Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also gained his PhD in developmental psychology at Harvard and began teaching there in 1986. He is the senior director of Project Zero at the university and has been the co-director of The Good Project since 1995.

What's his work about?

Drawing on evidence from a variety of sources, disciplines and research traditions, Gardner's theory offers an alternative to the view that there is a single type of intelligence that can be measured by IQ or other tests.

He suggests that we all have a number of relatively discrete intelligences, and that while IQ tests can assess linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, they are not a good predictor of other types of intelligence such as musical intelligence, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence (understanding of the self), and naturalist intelligence (the capacity to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature). He suggests that these intelligences act like independent computers inside people's minds, and that strength in one does not predict strength or weakness in the others. 

What does he research?

Gardner says types of intelligence must meet certain criteria: they must have a place in human evolutionary history; have the potential for brain isolation by brain damage; have core operations; be susceptible to encoding (symbolic expression); have a distinct developmental progression; be supported by experimental psychology and psychometric findings; and have notable prodigies or cases of exceptional individuals.

However, despite the distinction between these intelligences being set out in great detail, Gardner opposes the idea of labelling people as having a specific intelligence. He says that his theory should empower learners, and not restrict them to one style of learning.

What he says:

"Educators are prone to collapse the terms intelligence and style. For informal matters, that is no great sin, although – to be frank – it grates on me. In actuality, style and intelligence are fundamentally different psychological constructs. Style refers to the customary way in which an individual approaches a range of materials – for example, a playful or a planful style. Intelligence refers to the computational power of a mental system: for example, a person whose linguistic intelligence is strong is able readily to compute information that involves language. It is possible to integrate the notion of style with the notion of intelligence. Two people might have comparable linguistic intelligence. Yet one might use his linguistic intelligence to become a journalist or lawyer, while a person who is more introverted might become a poet instead."

What others say:

While many educators have found Gardner's theory useful, he has also faced wide criticism, especially from the field of psychology. One enduring critique of his theory is that it (supposedly) lacks empirical evidence, although Gardner himself has argued that his theory is based entirely on empirical evidence. 

Why you should consider reading more:

Gardner has suggested that no scientific theory can really be translated directly into educational applications because "education is suffused with values", yet his theory does have educational implications. Educators interested in the personalisation of learning may find his work a useful theoretical basis, particularly his suggestion that technology can be used to deliver the same material in different ways for different learners.

Independent UK school Wellington College has loosely adapted the theory to supplement its curriculum, with an approach informed by the idea that each child has eight attributes, which it sees as four sets of pairs: the logistical and the linguistic, the creative and the physical, the spiritual and the moral, the personal and the social.

Top reads:


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