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Posted at 10:22 AM ET, 03/ 1/2010

'Intelligences' misunderstood

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, pscyhology professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Why Don't Students Like School?"

By Daniel Willingham
I have said before that E. D. Hirsch’s "Cultural Literacy" is the most misunderstood education book of the last 50 years. I have come to think that Howard Gardner’s "Frames of Mind" has a pretty good shot at that title too. I knew that most people misunderstand the importance of the book to education, but I have recently realized that I have as well.

The basic elements of Gardner’s theory are well known. Intelligence is not one thing--there are multiple intelligences. Gardner’s list includes eight: linguistic, logico-mathematic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, kinesthetic, visuo-spatial, and naturalist.

Let me start with what I think confuses other people.

First, people draw the mistaken conclusion that all intelligences ought to be taught. After all, if the point of school is to maximize intelligence, then how can we omit any of the intelligences from the curriculum?

Gardner disagrees, arguing that the curriculum ought to be motivated by the goals and values of a community, not by a theory of the nature of the mind. Our scientific understanding of the mind can help educators understand how things are learned, but cannot guide what ought to be learned.

The second mistaken conclusion is that one can substitute a strong intelligence for a weak intelligence. That is, the student who is having trouble with reading, for example, might harness her musical intelligence to help overcome the reading difficulty.

Again, Gardner says "no," and again, I think he’s right. Intelligences use different symbol systems in the mind. They are different languages. You can’t use the musical language to support mathematical understanding. Sure, it’s easier to memorize the times tables if you set them to music, but that’s not really thinking mathematically.

My own misunderstanding of Multiple Intelligences had a different basis.

I was rather stuck on the idea that it’s not the best theory of intelligence. Gardner no doubt thinks it is, and he and I could have an academic debate about that as psychologists. But I now think that’s important to psychologists, but beside the point when it comes to education.

The theory is close enough to right when it comes to education. The basic idea—different people have different cognitive strengths—is certainly right. (There are a few hold outs who think that intelligence is all of piece, but not many).

“Close enough” is fine for education because the big question is not the precise list of intelligences, but what an educator is going to do about the fact that different kids are good at different things.

And that’s where the question of goals returns to the fore.

If you think that the goal of education is to prepare students for the workplace, it’s fairly clear where to turn for thoughts about school curricula—you talk to economists and business leaders to try to predict the skills and knowledge kids will need in the future workplace.

And further, you think that most of the intelligences that Gardner lists should not be called intelligences, but rather should be called talents, or abilities. And further, most don’t belong in school because they don’t contribute to the goal of workforce preparedness.

If, in contrast, you think that goal of schooling is for kids to make the most of their abilities, whatever they might be, then Gardner’s list is enormously useful because you need a catalog of human abilities. You need to know the kinds of things that kids might be good at, so that you can be sure that each child is exposed to material that draws on each type of ability. Each child must have a chance to see what he or she finds interesting and important.

Further, Gardner’s theory is enormously helpful to you rhetorically, exactly because it refers to musical ability and the ability to use your body effectively as “intelligences” rather than talents. Gardner has made explicit what your goal entails; all the of things that children might be good at are now on an equal footing. “Intelligence” is no longer limited to being good with words or being good with numbers.

If you agree that the goal of schooling is to maximize children’s potential, whatever their abilities might be, then calling all abilities intelligences is a rhetorical tour de force. If you hold other goals for schooling (e.g., workforce readiness) then it is rhetorical sleight of hand.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 1, 2010; 10:22 AM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, Intelligence  | Tags:  daniel willingham, howard gardner, multiple intelligences  
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Next: If Reading is Fundamental, why cut it?


i enjoy reading you dan. but this,

"Sure, it’s easier to memorize the times tables if you set them to music, but that’s not really thinking mathematically"

looks too quick of a dismissal.


"From the time of Plato harmony was considered a fundamental branch of physics, now known as musical acoustics. Early Indian and Chinese theorists show similar approaches: all sought to show that the mathematical laws of harmonics and rhythms were fundamental not only to our understanding of the world but to human well-being.[5] Confucius, like Pythagoras, regarded the small numbers 1,2,3,4 as the source of all perfection"

Posted by: pooplips | March 1, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Just memorizing times tables, without the music, isn't thinking mathematically either. It's simple memorization. I think that's the point he was trying to make. (was it dan?) Either way, you've got the times tables learned.

Back to intelligences v talents, abilities, etc. It's too bad it's gotten so muddled, and so political.

Posted by: efavorite | March 1, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

I understand on a policy level, we have to decide why we spend the public dollars on education that we spend. If you are a politician you hear day in and day out we need better educated workers. Frankly when I get a CVS clerk that cannot figure out what 50% off a dollar is 50 cents and not 75 cents, I agree. This has happened. But as a parent this feels like a false choice, there are very few parents out there that do not care about their child's economic opportunity, but we also care about our child's potential. I also suspect while most teachers want the children they teach to have economic opportunity, saying that your helped create more lawyers or engineers is not always the greatest motivation to do a challenging job.

Posted by: Brooklander | March 1, 2010 7:50 PM | Report abuse

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