The Theory of Multiple Intelligences: Understanding Cognitive Diversity in School

By Gray, James H.; Viens, Julie T. | National Forum, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Theory of Multiple Intelligences: Understanding Cognitive Diversity in School


Gray, James H., Viens, Julie T., National Forum


American children today are growing up in a society characterized by increasing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. Consequently, proponents of multicultural education call for schools that practice appreciation of cultural diversity and adopt curricula that are relevant to the daily lives of all children. Similarly, many educators advocate individualized approaches to learning that focus on children's unique strengths, weaknesses, and styles. Both the multicultural and individualized perspectives emphasize that to provide students with meaningful learning experiences, educators should understand the many differences that exist among their students.

The theory of multiple intelligences (MI theory), first proposed in Howard Gardner's 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, provides a useful perspective on these issues by distinguishing among seven dimensions of human intellectual functioning. Whereas traditional, unitary perspectives on intelligence--such as the IQ--lead naturally to the question "Is the person intelligent?" MI theory offers a pluralistic view that inspires the question "In what ways is this person intelligent?" Complementing multicultural and individualized approaches to education, MI theory offers a framework for understanding cognitive diversity in school.

The Seven Intelligences

The plurality of intelligence is confirmed by bringing together evidence from a number of sources that previously have not been considered together: knowledge of cognitive development in normal and special populations (for example, gifted individuals, prodigies, idiot savants, autistic children), the effects of brain damage on cognitive abilities, psychometric studies, and cross-cultural accounts of cognition. The resulting array of human intelligences culled from this research includes linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Although current evidence suggests that these seven intelligences represent the full range of human cognition, future work may revise their exact number or nature. Regardless of these potential changes, the essential point is that the human intellect is multifaceted, and understanding its role in educational settings requires a pluralistic perspective. In his 1993 publication, Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, Gardner defines intelligences as "the ability to solve problems, or to fashion products, that are valued in one or more cultural or community settings." Although the seven intelligences are rooted in universal, neurological structures, they are not merely the hereditary traits of lone individuals; rather, intelligences represent an amalgam of both individual and cultural factors. As Hatch and Gardner point out, individuals are born with potential in all seven intelligences. They then develop this initial intellectual profile in manifold ways, depending on the cultural, local, and personal contexts within which they grow ("Finding Cognition in the Classroom: An Expanded View of Human Intelligence," in G. Salomon, Distributed Cognitions, 1993). Young pianists' musical intelligence, for example, may be stifled or enhanced by the range of instruments available to them, and by the extent of their opportunities to interact with expert musicians. Thus, in the language of MI theory, we can say that pianists demonstrate their musical intelligence by the ways in which they take advantage of culturally accessible (and valued) musical forms, supports, and encouragement in order to solve problems and fashion new musical "products," such as melodies, lyrics, raps, or operas.

Assessing the Seven Intelligences

Research at Harvard Project Zero (HPZ) illustrates the potential of Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences to foster understanding of students' cognitive diversity and to enhance educational practices. For example, since 1984 teachers and researchers associated with HPZ's Project Spectrum have assessed children's multiple intelligences in early childhood and elementary school settings (Gardner and Krechevsky, "The Emergence and Nurturance of Multiple Intelligences in Early Childhood: The Project Spectrum Approach" in Multiple Intelligences).

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