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Different Definitions for Smart: Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

written by: Eighty Six • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 3/11/2015

Looking at the way students were tested and intelligence was measured, Howard Gardner saw the system was flawed. While it worked to quantify and classify some students, others were overlooked, under-appreciated and mislabeled.

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    Their educational needs were not being met. Their gifts and strengths were not recognized by the current teaching philosophy.

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    IQ and SAT

    Different Definitions of Smart For most of the 20th century, the IQ test was king. The test was developed by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in the early 1900s to quickly assess the cognitive abilities of children. The test migrated to the United States where it was used to measure soldiers entering World War I.

    The practice of using the IQ test to measure mental strength became commonplace. You could easily claim that a certain individual was smart or otherwise by indicating their IQ score.

    This led to the SAT test, which calculates a score for potential college students based on language and math skills. A young person's future can be quite dependent on this number.

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    Gardner's Background

    Gardner was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1943 to parents who took education seriously. At an early age, he was a good student who enjoyed playing the piano. He graduated from Harvard in 1965 with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Relations. He went on to earn a doctorate in developmental psychology from Harvard. He continue to research and teach at the institution.

    In 1979, Harvard received a large grant from the Bernard Van Leer Foundation. The grant was to study and maximize human potential. Gardner and other researchers studied cognitive development, brain damage, genetics, anthropology and psychology. This project led to Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences.

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    The Seven Intelligences

    Gardner rejects the thought that a person's mental power is a singular thing that can be captured with one test and communicated as a single number. From his observation of students on all levels and minds both gifted and damaged, he concluded that there are seven different ways in which humans process information. Each of us has a unique blend of these intelligences.

    In 1983, he published his ideas in Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. The concept was taken up by a multitude of schools and businesses as a better way to see the potential in each person. Certain mental abilities manifest themselves in particular parts of the brain. Certain brain damage or mental disability can have a dramatic effects on individual intelligences.

    The seven forms of intelligence are:

    MusicalThe ability to feel pitch and rhythm. A musically intelligent person can easily communicate with sound and song. They rapidly learn new instruments. Autistic children sometimes have brilliant musical ability but cannot communicate otherwise. Certain types of brain damage may remove musical ability while leaving other skills intact.

    Bodily-KinestheticThe ability to control the body and express oneself with it. Athletes and dancers have this. They know instinctively how to affect their physique and learn new skills. They swiftly understand the tools and equipment. They rapidly take information through the senses, like the speed and trajectory of a ball, and position their bodies accordingly. Physical capability is located in the motor cortex, with each side operating the opposite side of the body.

    Logical-MathematicalThe ability to draw conclusions from data. This is the intelligence of great scientists and mathematicians. It is accurately measured and recognized by standardized testing. This type of mind can turn facts and statistics into theories and inventions, sometimes without being able to explain all the computations in between. The process can be quite rapid and involve a “eureka" epiphany. This activity takes place in the frontotemporal and bilateral parietofrontal lobes. Some savants can perform amazing calculations while lacking many other skills, indicating that this is an independent type of thinking.

    LinguisticThe ability to understand language and communicate with it. This is the other type of intelligence recognized by traditional education. Strong linguistic minds rapidly learn languages. They easily adapt their form of speech or writing for their intended audience. From birth, children hungrily absorb any communication form presented to them. The Broca's Area in the brain is where logical sentences are formed. If it is damaged, individuals can understand what is said to them but have difficulty responding clearly.

    SpatialThe ability to navigate, imagine and understand the physical world. Sailors who know their position on the globe based on small amounts of stellar information have this skill. So do visual artists who can represent an object in multiple ways. Architects who can feel how a drawing of a structure will behave in real life have strong spatial intelligence. This capacity is located in the posterior regions of the cerebral cortex.

    InterpersonalThe ability to understand, communicate to and empathize with other people. This skill was easily overlooked by traditional testing while being very valuable in the real world. Politicians, psychologists, leaders and others with great charisma have this. They know how to get results and reactions from their fellow humans. They are sensitive to moods, motives and temperaments. This ability resides in the frontal lobes. Damage to them can destroy social ability while leaving other skills undamaged.

    IntrapersonalThe ability to understand oneself. While interpersonal looks out, intrapersonal looks in. This type of person is in touch with their fears, tendencies, reactions and potential. They are realistic with themselves. This kind of intelligence is difficult to see unless it is expressed through music, writing or some other medium. This is also a brain function controlled by the frontal lobe. Certain autistic children may lack the intrapersonal side and be unable to refer to themselves while excelling in music, math, mechanics or other non-personal skills.

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    The Other One and a Half

    After a decade of discussing and utilizing his theory, Gardner decided there may be more than seven intelligences. He accepted there could be up to ten, but chose to definitely add one and tentatively consider another.

    NaturalistThe ability to recognize different species and interpret environmental clues. Their senses take evidence from the world and apply it to larger ideas. They can readily distinguish various animals, plants, weather patterns, geological phenomena and environments. This ability was essential to survival in early humans but is shrinking in importance to modern city dwellers who hunt for food in supermarkets. Types of brain damage allow individuals to recognize inanimate objects but remove the ability to name living things.

    ExistentialThe ability to grasp the largest questions of our existence. Gardner only considers this spiritual skill to be partially on his list. Too much of spirituality is tied up in things we feel but cannot measure. Religious people take it for certain while scientific ones only believe in what they can observe. However, Gardner recognizes the capacity to deal with and communicate the unknown to be strong in some and lacking in others, including philosophers and religious leaders. He can not identify a specific brain part dedicated to this intelligence.

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    How Do We Use This Theory?

    Gardner warns against confusing multiple intelligences with learning styles. While it is true that differently intelligent people will consume knowledge in different ways, that does not mean education should take a new form for each pupil.

    Still, realizing the mental strengths of your students is important. For the youngest ones, observation is the key. Provide them with various numerical, lingual, physical and social challenges. Note which child gravitates to which. This will be an indicator of their particular blend of intelligences.

    For older students, a casual interview about their likes, habits and skills is enlightening. Their lives will be forming around things they enjoy and things they do well. You can capture their interest best by presenting stimulating material and activities.

    You can be blatant and give them a Multiple Intelligence test. Numerous ones exist online. They involve a series of questions or the ranking of items by preference. The result is a different score for each type of intelligence, providing a blend of ability. This sort of testing may be skewed because students may provide the answers they think are expected rather than ones that are true. It may be better to judge in a less overt manner.

    Once you've assessed your students, give them options. There are many individual paths to education. Have each intelligence represented in your curriculum and don't expect every student to excel at everything. Provide group activities where different types of students are paired up together to produce something where the various skills will complement each other.

    Gardner has broken us out of the IQ/SAT box. Determining brain power and potential is not as simple as calculating a score. Every student has particular gifts and a chance to be amazing. Recognizing their unique mix of intelligences is the first step.