Education: Intelligence guru on a sticky wicket

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The Independent Online
The Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner's theories on different types of intelligence are being taken up too readily by teachers, says John White

How many of your intelligences have you used today? An odd question? Not to the students in an Australian school who pass this message on a board each day on their way out of the building. For their schooling is based, like that of thousands of pupils in the United States, Britain and elsewhere, on the theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) produced by the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner.

Gardner's 1983 book Frames of Mind argues that we must get away from the idea that intelligence is what IQ tests test. Intelligence goes far beyond this narrow band of linguistic and logico-mathematical abilities. Through a combination of criteria drawn from developmental psychology, neurology and symbol-theory, Gardner has identified a number of other intelligences beyond these two areas.

As part of our human make-up we also possess musical, spatial, bodily- kinaesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences. His recent research has added to the original seven both the classificatory intelligence of the naturalist and - he has some doubts on this one - spiritual intelligence. He says, half seriously, that while Socrates viewed human beings as rational animals, he himself sees them as animals possessing eight-and-a-half intelligences.

Gardner's theory has become a liberating force in school improvement projects across Britain, from Sandwell and Birmingham in the West Midlands to Govan in Scotland. Many children in deprived areas are held back by a low self-concept. They see themselves as "dim" or "thick". But this is within the framework of the traditional version of intelligence - they are poor at the kind of abstract logical thinking that IQ tests target. Broaden the picture and their perceptions are transformed. "Children are born smart," as a project leader from Birmingham puts it. Their abilities may lie in physical activities, in music, in the visual arts, in interactions with other people. Extended learning schemes in the West Midlands, Glasgow and other schools tap into these and other areas. Once children become aware of how intelligent they are in this field or that, their self-esteem is said to increase amazingly.

None of the projects mentioned is slavishly attached to Gardner's theory. They all use it more as a catalyst for unlocking pupils' - and parents' - minds. This is just as well, because the theory itself is decidedly flaky.

Gardner is quite right to challenge IQ intelligence. Intelligent behaviour can be manifested in many fields. It has a lot to do with our flexibility in adapting means to ends. A bowler wants to get the batsman out, so he varies his delivery. A motorist on the Ml wants to get home safely and adjusts her speed, lane and signals appropriately to road conditions.

Intelligence has nothing particularly to do with logical or mathematical thinking - or even with academic subjects more broadly conceived. We all draw on it every day in the practical tasks and projects that make up most of our lives. We want to sort out a family holiday and think through different possibilities. We want to split up with our partner and wonder how most painlessly we can do it. As citizens, we want a housebuilding policy, but are worried about the environment - so what is the best way through?

Once unbewitched by IQ, we should find all this familiar enough. The philosopher Gilbert Ryle was telling us a similar story fifty years ago in The Concept of Mind. And more than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle had distinguished the merely clever person, who is good at adapting means to ends whether the ends are desirable or not, from the practically wise person, who makes sure the ends are good to start with. There can, after all, be intelligent torturers and intelligent train robbers.

There are so many different purposes in human life that any attempt to corral intelligent behaviour within a small number of categories is bound to fail. This is where the weakness of MI theory becomes apparent. Probe away at the reasons why Gardner selects the intelligences he does and the impression of scientific solidity on which the theory seems to be based melts away. Its marked bias towards music, literature and other aesthetic activities derives from Gardner's attachment to the philosopher Nelson Goodman's cognitive account of works of art as symbols - a theory dismissed by most aestheticians. MI theory is rooted in a developmentalist account of mental maturity that is, to put it charitably, dodgy. Gardner himself states with surprising candour that his method of picking out the intelligences "is reminiscent more of an artistic judgment than of a scientific assessment".

I suspect that many of Gardner's supporters on the ground have had, as busy people, little opportunity to go through his theory with a toothcomb. The idea that intelligence is not restricted to abilities tested by IQ tests but is found in all sorts of areas has wide appeal in the education world. It is a vital support in the work that teachers do in trying to overcome pupils' perceptions that they are unintelligent. But it is not a new idea and is not dependent on MI theory.

Gardner's success in opening teachers' and project workers' eyes to new possibilities deserves our gratitude. It is aided by the fresh and accessible way in which he presents his ideas. But school reformers should not take his whole MI theory on board. It may be tempting to do so because it makes curriculum planning look easier than it is. Curriculum policies cannot sensibly be built on Gardnerian intelligences, despite their closeness to familiar categories like music, mathematics, language, physical education and so on. This is because the choice of intelligences is a subjective matter on Gardner's part (Among other things he underplays the practical intelligence we use day-to-day in planning holidays and the other examples given above.) Teachers may find themselves bypassing the complex ethical and practical problems found in constructing a defensible curriculum in favour of a categorisation backed by all the authority of a Harvard professor. They may be unshackling pupils from self-perceptions based on IQ intelligence only to imprison their schooling within another dubious theory.

MI theory is a fashionable theory in danger of hardening into an orthodoxy. IQ theory went through the same process in its time, but few believe it now. For the moment, the successes in the Govan and West Bromwich schools are clear, and welcome. How much they depend on the reservations which Gardner shares with many others about the IQ, or on interest-based learning techniques, or on other factors, is unknown. Whatever the cause, they can't depend on the soundness of MI theory because this does not exist.

John White is professor of philosophy of education at the Institute of Education University of London. His lecture `Do Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences add up?' is available from the Education Bookshop at the institute tel: 0171-612 6050; fax: 0171-612 6126), price pounds 3 plus pounds 1 postage.