Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn & Flourish LLC, is a leader in the field of positive education. An education management consultant and coach, workshop facilitator and author, Sherri uses the POS-EDGE Model to incorporate research-based findings from strengths psychology and behavioral economics into positive, personalized, best-practice strategies for learning, parenting, and work. Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.
In 1993, then relatively unknown Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner published a book, Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences. This book and its 2000 sequel, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century changed the way the world of education looks at intelligence. Gardner wasn’t alone in his professional world in deciding that IQ was not a single, relatively fixed entity but comprised of a set of abilities. However, his Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) resonated with all sorts of people who now saw themselves as having areas of relative intellectual strength rather than being some point on a bell-shaped curve where only a few people could be called “very superior.” While not necessarily a “positive psychologist” per se, Gardner is surely a “strengths psychologist.”
Multiple Intelligences: Identifying and Developing Your House Blend
All those different ways of being smart have unique combinations in each person, and it is the “house blend” or “personal brand” for each of us that results in the right or perhaps not-so-right fit for any particular challenge. Gardner did not develop his theory with the expectation that it would change the way people teach or learn. He said, “No direct educational implications follow from this psychological theory; but if individuals differ in their intellectual profiles, it makes sense to take this fact into account in devising an educational system.”
For nearly 20 years however, curriculum designers and educational pundits alike have lauded the benefits of MI classrooms.Unfortunately, the current climate of high-stakes testing in US public education has put a tight focus on only two of these intelligences. What are schools telling kids we value about the ways they should be smart?
Here’s a brief primer of the Gardner theory. I have combined some categories to give the flavor of how they can be used together.
Spatial and Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligences
Spatial intelligence refers to the brain’s ability to manipulate objects in space. It can be both an abstract skill (think: architects and engineers) or a more concrete one (think: interior designers and artists of all kinds). Surgeons use this when deciding where to place the scalpel. Even blind persons use spatial intelligence to mentally place themselves in familiar surroundings. Are you terrific at packing the trunk or tailgate when everything on the driveway must fit? That takes spatial intelligence. We use spatial intelligence to know how close or far away to stand from a person we are talking to, and whether we will hit that car in the next space in the parking lot, or whether we should back up and try again. Spatial intelligence works closely with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Athletes use both when sizing up both the distance to the goal and the force with which a ball must be hit, thrown, or kicked. Dancers, skaters, or gymnasts use both when spinning, jumping, or tumbling. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence guides the fingers of a typist and the hands of a physical therapist.
Musical intelligence is fairly straightforward, you’d think. There’s pitch discrimination, rhythm, pitch reproduction, singing, ability to play an instrument, memory associated with these things, reading music, composing it… The list is actually quite extensive. It may be at work with other intelligences, too. Many people who aren’t involved in music in their careers use this intelligence in their work, every day. And just because someone doesn’t produce music doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it. Are you particularly sensitive to the tone of someone’s voice? As a public speaker your voice inflection, a musical intelligence competency, is important. Do you regularly drum on your desk or tap your feet? That’s musical and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Do you hum or need the radio on while you do homework? Your musical intelligence is at work with you.
Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Intelligences
Both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence involve the emotions. (Gardner is considering an update to his theory which might be a blend of these: Emotional Intelligence). Those with highly developed interpersonal intelligence are often involved in providing services to others. Depending on whether a person is more introverted or extraverted they might be a priest, politician, salesperson, or mediator. The hallmark of this intelligence is that one finds it easy to get along with others, and does it as naturally as inhaling and exhaling. Intrapersonal intelligence uses the sensitivity of self-awareness. Psychologists and coaches may use this when working with clients so that they don’t allow themselves to become too involved in the emotions of the person they are helping. Similarly, a teacher or principal uses intrapersonal intelligence through self-awareness and control of emotions when dealing with situations requiring restraint, resilience, and perspective.
The logical-mathematical intelligence is well developed in scientists, mathematicians, accountants, and computer diagnosticians. In the extreme, you might think Dr. Spock from Star Trek. Doctors, building contractors, designers, and other natural problem solvers have this as well, though they use it with other intelligences. If you barely make it through Algebra (all those symbols) but love Geometry (Oooh! Pictures!), you may be using spatial intelligence alongside the mathematical.
Linguistic intelligence seems simple. It’s about language. Humans have the only spoken language among the higher animals, and people who do not have well developed linguistic intelligence are often at the bottom of the educational ladder. It’s all about communication. People who have this intelligence are usually identified as “intelligent.” These are people for whom words come easily—poets, essayists, columnists, novelists, travel writers, talk show hosts. These same people are often voracious readers of other people’s words. Put this intelligence with interpersonal intelligence, and you may have a smooth talker or a sensitive listener. Likewise, there are fast talkers and slow listeners. It’s all in how the human brain, which is designed to process language, does its job.
The last intelligence, naturalistic (an addition to the original seven), is used to describe a person with an unusual sensitivity and ability to appreciate or connect with nature and the natural environment.
What We Value We Use
Except in the case of disease or injury, everyone has all of the intelligences to some extent, even if they have trouble understanding the op-ed page, creating profitability solutions or landing the triple Lutz. How well they are developed in an individual is a combination of inheritance, experience, practice, and values. Gardner is quick to point out that what we value, we use.
Enter NCLB: No Child Left Behind. Whether you are a student, parent, employee or boss, this public school accountability issue affects you. It hyperfocuses curriculum on logico-mathematical and linguistic intelligences, and reduces instructional time in other subjects. It also sends the message to kids that mathematical and language skills matter, but the other intelligences are not important enough for more than occasional attention. To make more time for the subjects tested for NCLB, school districts have reduced content area classes such as science and social studies, and “extras” such as the arts. (For a related article on this site, see Christine Duvivier’s column.) To be fair, differentiated instruction is the hottest topic in teacher professional development conferences this year, but its approach to meeting learning needs is in the context of standards-based curricula rather than the creative synergy of strengths.
What’s Your Mindset?
Carol Dweck has found that everyone has one of two basic mindsets, the fixed mindset, where you believe that your talents and abilities are either something you have or don’t, and the growth mindset, which is characterized by knowing that you have strengths and talents that can be developed, and that abilities can thus develop over time. It’s not just about performing tasks and being done with your education; it’s about learning to learn and knowing that you can get smarter when you do.
Having a growth mindset can be tough in a high stakes standards-based environment. The standards are often being set by people two generations away from the current students who have not taught in a classroom for years and who set goals and standards for teachers who are then expected to use strengths they may not even have to deliver in the classroom. Teachers become stuck in the standards box and may feel a growth mindset is beyond them, too. There is also no doubt that without literacy skills in language and mathematics students are at an incredible disadvantage in life. The trouble with the focus on standards is that skills acquisition becomes the goal, not the means, of preparing students for their future.
When what is valued is tightly focused on being mathematically, logically or linguistically smart (or only smart in a limited number of other ways), kids (and teachers) learn to perform and get it over with. A student of mine who attends an affluent suburban high school told me last week, “I got a high fail on my Algebra test. But it doesn’t matter because there is another test next week and the teacher said we won’t be doing any more parabolas this year.” But it does matter, because the student has missed the opportunity to learn that he can learn! He is disengaged from the process and is instead relieved by the teacher’s promise that the misery is over. He has learned to accept a fixed mindset.
Building Children Instead of Repairing Adults
Admittedly, our public schools have a huge amount of responsibility heaped upon them when it comes to readying students with varying strengths for a future which includes jobs that do not even exist today. In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman reminds us that the great challenge to our institutions is developing the leadership, flexibility and creativity to adapt to the extreme pace of change in the world. The pace of innovation has never needed to be faster to stay ahead of—or even run with—the pack.
What is the emotional effect of limiting the ways in which a student can be successful at school? Students learn that they are only responsible for and limited to the expectations of their teacher/ boss. They are being taught to value extrinsic control and to dampen expectations of themselves. Are we actually encouraging disengagement by limiting the types of intelligence that kids are consciously using and valuing at school? Are we sending the message that being smart is something you “are”, rather than a strength that can be developed? Are we reducing the joy and meaning in both teaching and learning? When schools incorporate strengths-based approaches for both faculty and pupils, whether of learning, character or talent, they build the personal and learning resilience which is required for their—and our—future.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Friedman, T. (2007). The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century.
Gardner, H. (1993). Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences. 10th Edition. Basic Books.
Gardner, H. (2000). Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. Basic Books.