How are you smart?

by Howard Gardner on November 12, 2013

The original scene: Paris, 1900‚ La Belle Epoque. The city fathers approached a talented psychologist named Alfred Binet with an unusual request. Many families were flocking to the capital city, and a good many of their children were having trouble with their schoolwork. Could Binet devise some kind of a measure that would predict which youngsters would succeed and which would fail in the primary grades of Paris schools? As almost everybody knows, Binet succeeded.

In short order, his discovery came to be called the “intelligence test”; his measure, the “IQ.” Like other Parisian fashions, the IQ soon made its way to the United States, where it enjoyed a modest success until World War I. At that time, it was used to test over one million American recruits, and‚ with America’s victory in the conflict‚ Binet’s invention had truly arrived. From that day on, the IQ test has looked like psychology’s biggest success‚ a genuinely useful scientific tool.

What is the vision that led to the excitement about IQ? At least in the West, people had always relied on intuitive assessments of how smart other people were. Now intelligence seemed to be quantifiable. You could measure someone’s actual or potential height, and now, it seemed, you could also measure someone’s actual or potential intelligence. We had one dimension of mental ability along which we could array everyone.

The search for the perfect measure of intelligence has proceeded apace. Here, for example, are some quotations from an ad for one such test:

Need an individual test which quickly provides a stable and reliable estimate of intelligence in four or five minutes per form? Has three forms? Does not depend on verbal production or subjective scoring? Can be used with the severely physically handicapped (even paralyzed) if they can signal yes or no? Handles two-year-olds and superior adults with the same short series of items and the same format? Only $16.00 complete.

Now, that’s quite a claim. The American psychologist Arthur Jensen suggests that we could look at reaction time to assess intelligence: a set of lights go on; how quickly can the subject react? The British psychologist Hans Eysenck recommends that investigators of intelligence look directly at brain waves. And with the advent of the gene chip, many look forward to the day when we can glance at the proper gene locus on the proper chromosome, read off someone’s IQ, and confidently predict his or her live chances.

There are also, of course, more sophisticated versions of the IQ test. One of them is called the SAT. Its name originally meant the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

With the passage of time, the meaning of the acronym has been changed‚ it became the Scholastic Assessment Test, and, more recently, it has been reduced to the plain old SAT‚ just the initials. The SAT purports to be a similar kind of measure, and if you add up a person’s verbal and math scores, as is often done, you can rate him or her along a single intellectual dimension. (As of 2005, a writing component has been added.) Programs for the gifted, for example, often use that kind of measure; if your IQ is in excess of 130, you’re admitted to the program‚ if 129, “Sorry, no cigar!”

Along with this one-dimensional view of how to assess people’s minds comes a corresponding view of school, which I will call the “uniform view.” A uniform school features a core curriculum, a set of facts that everybody should know, and very few electives. The better students, perhaps those with higher IQs, are allowed to take courses that call upon critical reading, calculation, and thinking skills. In the “uniform school” there are regular assessments, using paper and pencil instruments, of the IQ or SAT variety. These assessments yield reliable rankings of people; the best and the brightest get into the better colleges, and perhaps‚ but only perhaps‚ they will also get better rankings in life. There is no question but that this approach works well for certain people‚ schools such as Harvard and Stanford are eloquent testimony to that.

Since this measurement and selection system is clearly meritocratic in certain respects, it has something to recommend it.

The uniform school sounds fair‚ after all, everyone is treated in the same away. But some years ago it occurred to me that this supposed rationale was completely unfair. The uniform school picks out and is addressed to a certain kind of mind‚ we might call it provisionally the IQ or SAT mind. I some times call it “the mind of the future law Professor”. The more that your mind resembles that of the legendary law professor, Dr. Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr., played on-screen by John Houseman in The Paper Chase, the better that you will do in school and the more readily you will handle IQ-SAT type measures. But to the extent that your mind works differently‚ and not that many of us are cut out to be law professors‚ school is certainly not fair to you.

There is an alternative vision that I would like to present‚ one based on a radically different view of the mind, and one that yields a very different view of school. It is a pluralistic view of mind, recognizing many different and discrete facets of cognition, acknowledging that people have different cognitive strengths and contrasting cognitive styles. I introduce the concept of an‚ individual-centred school‚ that takes this multifaceted view of intelligence seriously. This model for a school is based in part on findings from sciences that did not even exist in Binet’s time: cognitive science (the study of the mind) and neuroscience (the study of the brain). One such approach I have called “the theory of multiple intelligences.” Let me tell you something about its sources and claims, and lay the ground work for the educational discussions in the chapters that follow.

To introduce this new point of view, let us undertake the following “thought experiment.” Suspend the usual judgment of what constitutes intelligence, and let your thoughts run freely over the capabilities of humans‚ perhaps those that would be picked out by the proverbial visitor from Mars. In this exercise, you are drawn to the brilliant chess player, the world-class violinist, and the champion athlete; such outstanding performers deserve special consideration. Following through on this experiment, a quite different view of intelligence emerges. Are the chess player, violinist, and athlete “intelligent” in these pursuits? If they are, then why do our tests of “intelligence” fail to identify them? If they are not “intelligent,” what allows them to achieve such astounding feats? In general, why does the contemporary construct “intelligence” fail to take into account large areas of human endeavour?

To approach these questions I introduced the theory of multiple intelligences (MI) in the early 1980s. As the name indicates, I believe that human cognitive competence is better described in terms of a set of abilities, talents, or mental skills, which I call “intelligences.” All normal individuals possess each of these skills to some extent; individuals differ in the degree of skill and in the nature of their combination. I believe this theory of intelligence may be more humane and more veridical than alternative views of intelligence and that it more adequately reflects the data of human “intelligent” behaviour. Such a theory has important educational implications.

Musical Intelligence

When he was three years old, Yehudi Menuhin was smuggled into the San Francisco Orchestra concerts by his parents. The sound of Louis Persinger’s violin so entranced the youngster that he insisted on a violin for his birthday and Louis Persinger as his teacher. He got both. By the time he was ten years old, Menuhin was an international performer (Menuhin, 1977).

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s musical intelligence manifested itself even before he had touched a violin or received any musical training. His powerful reaction to that particular sound and his rapid progress on the instrument suggest that he was biologically prepared in some way for that endeavor. In this way evidence from child prodigies supports the claim that there is a biological link to a particular intelligence. Other special populations, such as autistic children who can play a musical instrument beautifully but who cannot otherwise communicate, underscore the independence of musical intelligence.

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence

Fifteen-year-old Babe Ruth was playing catcher one game when his team was taking a terrific beating. Ruth burst out laughing and criticized the pitcher loudly. Brother Mathias, the coach, called out, “All right, George, YOU pitch!” Ruth was stunned and nervous: I never pitched in my life…I can’t pitch.

The moment was transformative, as Ruth recalls in his autobiography: Yet, as I took the position, I felt a strange relationship between myself and that pitcher’s mound. I felt, somehow, as if I had been born out there and that this was a kind of home for me. As sports history shows, he went on to become a great major league pitcher (and, of course, attained legendary status as a hitter) (Ruth, 1948, p. 17).

Like Menuhin, Babe Ruth was a prodigy who recognized his “instrument” immediately upon his first exposure to it. This recognition occurred in advance of formal training.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence

In 1983 Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for her work in microbiology. Her intellectual powers of deduction and observation illustrate one form of logical-mathematical intelligence that is often labeled “scientific thinking.” One incident is particularly illuminating. While a researcher at Cornell in the 1920s, McClintock was faced one day with a problem: while theory predicted 50 percent pollen sterility in corn, her research assistant (in the “field”) was finding plants that were only 25 to 30 per cent sterile.

Disturbed by this discrepancy, McClintock left the cornfield and returned to her office where she sat for half an hour, thinking: Suddenly I jumped up and ran back to the (corn) field. At the top of the field (the others were still at the bottom) I shouted, “Eureka, I have it! I know what the 30% sterility is!”… They asked me to prove it. I sat down with a paper bag and a pencil and I started from scratch, which I had not done at all in my laboratory. It had all been done so fast; the answer came and I ran. Now I worked it out step by step‚ it was an intricate series of steps‚ and I came out with [the same result]. [They] looked at the material and it was exactly as I’d said it was; it worked out exactly as I had diagrammed it. Now, why did I know, without having done it on paper? Why was I so sure? (Keller, 1983, p. 104).

This anecdote illustrates two essential facts of the logical-mathematical intelligence. First, in the gifted individual, the process of problem solving is often remarkably rapid‚ the successful scientist copes with many variables at once and creates numerous hypotheses that are each evaluated and then accepted or rejected in turn. The anecdote also underscores the nonverbal nature of the intelligence. A solution to a problem can be constructed before it is articulated. In fact, the solution process may be totally invisible, even to the problem solver.

Linguistic Intelligence

At the age of ten, T. S. Eliot created a magazine called Fireside to which he was the sole contributor. In a three-day period during his winter vacation, he created eight complete issues. Each one included poems, adventure stories, a gossip column, and humour. Some of this material survives, and it displays the talent of the poet (see Soldo, 1982).

As with the logical intelligence, calling linguistic skill an “intelligence” is consistent with the stance of traditional psychology. Linguistic intelligence also passes our empirical tests. For instance, a specific area of the brain, called Broca’s Area, is responsible for the production of grammatical sentences. A person with damage to this area can understand words and sentences quite well but has difficulty putting words together in anything other than the simplest of sentences. At the same time, other thought processes may be entirely unaffected.

Spatial Intelligence

Navigation around the Caroline Islands in the South Seas is accomplished by native sailors without instruments. The position of the stars, as viewed from various islands, the weather patterns, and water colour are the principal sign posts.

Each journey is broken into a series of segments; and the navigator learns the position of the stars within each of these segments. During the actual trip the navigator must envision mentally a reference island as it passes under a particular star. From that he computes the number of segments completed, the proportion of the trip remaining, and any corrections in heading that are required. The navigator cannot see the islands as he sails along; instead he maps their locations in his mental “picture” of the journey (see Gladwin, 1970).

Spatial problem solving is required for navigation and in the use of the notational system of maps. Other kinds of spatial problem solving are brought to bear in visualizing an object seen from a different angle and in playing chess. The visual arts also employ this intelligence in the use of space.

Evidence from brain research is clear and persuasive. Just as the middle regions of the left cerebral cortex have, over
the course of evolution, been selected as the site of linguistic processing in right-handed persons, the posterior regions of the right cerebral cortex prove most crucial for spatial processing.

There are few child prodigies among visual artists, but there are savants like Nadia (Selfe, 1977). Despite a condition of severe autism, this preschool child made drawings of the most remarkable representational accuracy and finesse.

Interpersonal Intelligence

With little formal training in special education and nearly blind herself, Anne Sullivan began the intimidating task of instructing a blind and deaf seven-year-old, Helen Keller. Sullivan’s efforts at communication were complicated by the child’s emotional struggle with the world around her. At their first meal together, this scene occurred: Annie did not allow Helen to put her hand into Annie’s plate and take what she wanted, as she had been accustomed to do with her family. It became a test of wills‚ hand thrust into plate, hand firmly put aside. The family, much upset, left the dining room. Annie locked the door and proceeded to eat her breakfast while Helen lay on the floor kicking and screaming, pushing and pulling at Annie’s chair. [After half an hour] Helen went around the table looking for her family. She discovered no one else was there and that bewildered her. Finally, she sat down and began to eat her breakfast, but with her hands. Annie gave her a spoon. Down on the floor it clattered, and the contest of wills began anew
(Lash, 1980, p. 52).

Anne Sullivan sensitively responded to the child’s behaviour. She wrote home: “The greatest problem I shall have to solve is how to discipline and control her without breaking her spirit. I shall go rather slowly at first and try to win her love.” In fact, the first “miracle” occurred two weeks later, well before the famous incident at the pump house. Annie had taken Helen to a small cottage near the family’s house, where they could live alone. After seven days together, Helen’s personality suddenly underwent a change‚ the therapy had worked: “My heart is singing with joy this morning. A miracle has happened! The wild little creature of two weeks ago has been transformed into a gentle child” (Lash, 1980, p. 54).

It was just two weeks after this that the first breakthrough in Helen’s grasp of language occurred; and from that point on, she progressed with incredible speed. The key to the miracle of language was Anne Sullivan’s insight into the person of Helen Keller.

Interpersonal intelligence builds on a core capacity to notice distinctions among others‚ in particular, contrasts in their moods, temperaments, motivations, and intentions. In more advanced forms, this intelligence permits a skilled adult to read the intentions and desires of others, even when they have been hidden. This skill appears in a highly sophisticated form in religious or political leaders, salespersons, marketers, teachers, therapists, and parents. The Helen Keller-Anne Sullivan story suggests that this interpersonal intelligence does not depend on language.

Intrapersonal Intelligence

In an essay called “A Sketch of the Past,” written almost as a diary entry, Virginia Woolf discusses the “cotton wool of existence”‚ the various mundane events of life. She contrasts this “cotton wool” with three specific and poignant memories from her childhood: a fight with her brother, seeing a particular flower in the garden, and hearing of the suicide of a past visitor:

“These are three instances of exceptional moments. I often tell them over, or rather they come to the surface unexpectedly. But now for the first time I have written them down, and I realize something that I have never realized before.

Two of these moments ended in a state of despair. The other ended, on the contrary, in a state of satisfaction.

The sense of horror (in hearing of the suicide) held me powerless. But in the case of the flower, I found a reason; and was thus able to deal with the sensation. I was not powerless.

Though I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words.” (Woolf, 1976, pp. 69-70).

From Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice by Howard Gardner. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 1993, reprinted with permission.

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