Originally prepared by: Lynn Gilman (Fall 2001)

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Development of MI theory
Definition of MI theory
Criticisms of MI theory 
Implications for assessment
Future research directions on MI theory

Development of MI Theory
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    After years of research, Howard Gardner proposed a new theory and definition of intelligence in his 1983 book entitled Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. The basic question he sought to answer was: Is intelligence a single thing or various independent intellectual faculties? Gardner is Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also holds an adjunct faculty post in psychology at Harvard and in neurology at Boston University School of Medicine. He is best known for his work in the area of Multiple Intelligences, which has been a career-long pursuit to understand and describe the construct of intelligence (Gardner, 1999a; Project Zero Website, 2000).

Gardner describes his work with two distinct populations as the inspiration for his theory of Multiple Intelligences. Early in his career, he began studying stroke victims suffering from aphasia at the Boston University Aphasia Research Center and working with children at Harvard’s Project Zero, a laboratory designed to study the cognitive development of children and its associated educational implications (Gardner, 1999a). In Intelligence Reframed, Gardner states,

Both of the populations I was working with were clueing me into the same message: that the human mind is better thought of as a series of relatively separate faculties, with only loose and nonpredictable relations with one another, than as a single, all-purpose machine that performs steadily at a certain horsepower, independent of content and context. (p.32)

Gardner concluded from his work with these two populations that strength in one area of performance did not reliably predict comparable strength in another area. With this intuitive conclusion in mind, Gardner set about studying intelligence in a systematic, multi-disciplinary, and scientific manner, drawing from psychology, biology, neurology, sociology, anthropology, and the arts and humanities. This resulted in the emergence of his Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI Theory) as presented in Frames of Mind (1983). Since the publication of that work, Gardner and others have continued to research the theory and its implications for education in general, curriculum development, teaching, and assessment. For the purposes of this Hot Topic, the focus will be on a description of the theory, major criticisms, and the implications for assessment.

Definition of MI Theory
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     According to Gardner (1999a), intelligence is much more than IQ because a high IQ in the absence of productivity does not equate to intelligence. In his definition, “Intelligence is a biopsychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture” (p.34). Consequently, instead of intelligence being a single entity described psychometrically with an IQ score, Gardner’s definition views it as many things. He endeavored to define intelligence in a much broader way than psychometricians. To achieve this goal Gardner (1983; 1999a) established several criteria for defining intelligence. In identifying capabilities to be considered for one of the “multiple intelligences” the construct under consideration had to meet several criteria rather than resting on the results of a narrow psychometric approach.

To qualify as an “intelligence” the particular capacity under study was considered from multiple perspectives consisting of eight specific criteria drawn from the biological sciences, logical analysis, developmental psychology, experimental psychology, and psychometrics. The criteria to consider “candidate intelligences” (Gardner, 1999a, p. 36) are:
1) the potential for brain isolation by brain damage,
2) its place in evolutionary history,
3) the presence of core operations,
4) susceptibility to encoding,
5) a distinct developmental progression,
6) the existence of idiot-savants, prodigies and other exceptional people,
7) support from experimental psychology, and
8) support from psychometric findings (Gardner, 1999a).

To illustrate the specifics of these criteria, a brief description and example of each is provided.

The potential for brain isolation by brain damage means that one “candidate intelligence” (Gardner 1999a, p.36) can be dissociated from others. This criterion came from Gardner’s work in neuropsychology. For example, stroke patients who are left with some forms of “intelligence” intact despite damage to other cognitive abilities such as speech. From an evolutionary perspective, the candidate intelligence has to have played a role in the development of our species and its ability to cope with the environment. In this case, Gardner (1999a) uses inference to conclude that spatial abilities were critical to the survival of our species. Early hominids had to be able to navigate diverse terrains using spatial abilities. The pressure of the environment then resulted in selection for this ability. Both of these criteria emerged from the biological sciences.

From the perspective of logical analysis, an intelligence must have an identifiable core set of operations. Acknowledging the fact that specific intelligences operate in the context of the environment, Gardner (1999a) argues that it is crucial to specify the capacities that are central to the intelligence under consideration. For example, linguistic intelligence consists of core operations such as recognition and discrimination of phonemes, command of syntax and acquisition of word meanings. In the area of musical intelligence, the core operations are pitch, rhythm, timbre, and harmony. Another criteria related to logical analysis states that an intelligence must be susceptible to encoding in a symbol system. According to Gardner, (1999a) symbol systems are developed versus occurring naturally, and their purpose is to accurately and systematically convey information that is culturally meaningful. Some examples of encoding include written and spoken language, mathematical systems, logical equations, maps, charts and drawings.

Gardner (1999a) established two criteria from developmental psychology. The first is the presence of a developmental trajectory for the particular ability toward an expert end-state. In other words, individuals do not necessarily exhibit their “intelligence” in its raw state. Rather, they prepare to use their intelligence by passing through a developmental process. Thus, people who want to be mathematicians or physicists, spend years studying and honing their logical/mathematical abilities in a distinctive and socially relevant way. The second criteria borrowed from the discipline of developmental psychology, is the existence of idiot-savants, prodigies and exceptional people. Gardner (1999a) refers to these as accidents of nature that allow researchers to observe the nature of a particular intelligence in great contrast to other average or impaired abilities. One example of this type of highlighted intelligence is the autistic person who excels at numerical calculations or musical performance.

Finally, Gardner (1999a) draws his last two criteria from traditional psychology and psychometrics to determine if a candidate intelligence makes it onto the list of specific abilities he calls Multiple Intelligences. There must be support from experimental psychology that indicates the extent to which two operations are related or different. Observing subjects who are asked to carry out two activities simultaneously can help determine if those activities rely on the same mental capacities or different ones. For example, a person engaged in working a crossword puzzle is unlikely to be able to carry on a conversation effectively, because both tasks demand the attention of linguistic intelligence, which creates interference. Whereas, the absence of this sort of competition allows a person to be able to walk and converse at the same time suggesting that two different intelligences are engaged. In spite of the fact that Gardner proposed his theory in opposition to psychometrics, he recognizes the importance of acknowledging psychometric data (1999a).

From the preceding eight criteria, Gardner (1983; 1999a) proposed and defined seven intelligences. Logical-mathematical intelligence is the ability to detect patterns, think logically, reason deductively and carry out mathematical operations. Linguistic intelligence involves the mastery of spoken and written language to express oneself or remember things. These first two forms of intelligence are typically the abilities that contribute to strong performance in traditional school environments and to producing high scores on most IQ measures or tests of achievement. Spatial intelligence involves the potential for recognizing and manipulating the patterns of both wide spaces such as those negotiated by pilots or navigators, and confined spaces such as those encountered by sculptors, architects or championship chess players. Musical intelligence consists of the capacity to recognize and compose musical pitches, tones, rhythms, and patterns and to use them for performance or composition. Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence involves the use of parts of the body or the whole body to solve problems or create products. Athletes, dancers, surgeons and craftspeople are likely to have highly developed capacity in this area. The last two intelligences are the personal intelligences: interpersonal and intrapersonal. Interpersonal intelligence indicates a person’s ability to recognize the intentions, feelings and motivations of others. People who possess and develop this quality are likely to work well with others and may choose fields like sales, teaching, counseling or politics in order to use them. Intrapersonal intelligence is described as the ability to understand oneself and use that information to regulate one’s own life. According to Gardner each of these seven “intelligences” has a specific set of abilities that can be observed and measured (1999a, 1983). More recently, Gardner (1998) has nominated three additional candidate intelligences: Naturalist, Spiritual and Existential intelligence and evaluated them in the context of the eight criteria he established in his research and outlined earlier in this paper. He defines a naturalist as a person “who demonstrates expertise in recognition and classification of the numerous species – the flora and fauna – of her or his environment.” (1998, p. 115). Gardner is comfortable with declaring that a Naturalist intelligence meets the criteria he set forth, however he is less sure about how to define and incorporate Spiritual and Existential intelligences.

“…the monopoly of those who believe in a single general intelligence has come to an end.” (Gardner, 1999a, p.203)


Criticism of MI Theory
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When reviewing criticism of Multiple Intelligences theory, addressing the historically ever-present question of whether intelligence is one thing or many things is unavoidable. The fundamental criticism of MI theory is the belief by scholars that each of the seven multiple intelligences is in fact a cognitive style rather than a stand-alone construct (Morgan, 1996). Morgan, (1996) refers to Gardner’s approach of describing the nature of each intelligence with terms such as abilities, sensitivities, skills and abilities as evidence of the fact that the “theory” is really a matter of semantics rather than new thinking on multiple constructs of intelligence and resembles earlier work by factor theorists of intelligence like L.L. Thurstone who argued that a single factor (g) cannot explain the complexity of human intellectual activity. According to Morgan (1996), identifying these various abilities and developing a theory that supports the many factors of intelligence has been a significant contribution to the field. Furthermore, he believes that MI theory has proven beneficial to schools and teachers and it may help explain why students do not perform well on standardized tests but it in Morgan’s opinion it does not warrant the complete rejection of g.

Gardner (1995) admittedly avoided addressing criticism of his theory for nearly a decade after the publication of Frames of Mind. However, in a 1995 article that appeared in Phi Delta Kappan he responds to several “myths” about the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. These myths provide a summary of the major commentary on and criticism of Gardner’s theory. The first myth is that if there are seven intelligences we must be able to measure them with seven specific tests. Gardner is vocal about his disdain for a singularly psychometric approach to measuring intelligence based on paper and pencil tests. Secondly, he responds to the belief that an intelligence is the same as a domain or a discipline. Gardner reiterates his definition of an intelligence and distinguishes it from a domain which he describes as a culturally relevant, organized set of activities characterized by a symbol system and a set of operations. For example, dance performance is a domain that relies on the use of bodily-kinesthetic and musical intelligence (Gardner, 1995).

Other criticisms include the notion that MI theory is not empirical, is incompatible with g, heritability, and environmental influences, and broadens the construct of intelligence so widely as to render it meaningless. Gardner (1995) staunchly defends the empiricism of the theory by referring to the numerous laboratory and field data that contributed to its development and the ongoing re-conceptualization of the theory based on new scientific data. Regarding the claim that Multiple Intelligences theory cannot accommodate g, Gardner argues that g has a scientific place in intelligence theory but that he is interested in understanding intellectual processes that are not explained by g. In response to the criticism that MI theory is incompatible with genetic or environmental accounts of the nature of intelligence, Gardner states that his theory is most concerned with the interaction between genetics and the environment in understanding intelligence. Finally, the notion that MI theory has expanded the definition of intelligence beyond utility produces a strong reaction from Gardner. He argues passionately that the narrow definition of intelligence as equal to scholastic performance is simply too constrictive. In his view, MI theory is about the intellectual and cognitive aspects of the human mind. Gardner is careful to point out that MI theory is not a theory of personality, morality, motivation, or any other psychological construct (1995, 1999a, 1999b).

Implications for Assessment
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The two most widely used standardized tests of intelligence are the Wechsler scales and the Stanford-Binet. Both instruments are psychometrically sound, but Gardner believes that these tests measure only linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences, with a narrow focus within content in those domains. According to Gardner, the current psychometric approach for measuring intelligence is not sufficient. In his view, assessment must cast a wider net to measure human cognitive abilities more accurately. Gardner (1993) proposes several improvements for the development of intelligence measures. Before enumerating those improvements, it is important to understand how Gardner defines assessment. In his view, the purpose of assessment should be to obtain information about the skills and potentials of individuals, and provide useful feedback to the individuals and the community at large. Furthermore, Gardner (1993) draws a distinction between testing and assessment. Assessment elicits information about an individual’s abilities in the context of actual performance rather than by proxy using formal instruments in a de-contextualized setting.

Gardner argues for making assessment a natural part of the learning environment. Assessment is then built into the learning situation much like the constant assessment of skills that occurs in apprenticeship or the self-assessment that occurs in experts who have internalized a standard of performance based on the earlier guidance of teachers. The ecological validity of assessment is also at issue according to Gardner (1993). Predictive validity of traditional intelligence tests may be psychometrically sound, but its usefulness beyond predicting school performance is questionable. Therefore, prediction could be improved if assessments more closely approximated real working conditions. Instruments for measuring intelligence should also be “intelligence-fair” (1993, p.176). Consequently, we need to reduce the bias toward measuring intelligence through logical/mathematical and linguistic abilities and move toward looking more directly at a specific intelligence in operation (e.g., assessing for spatial intelligence by having an individual navigate his or her way around unfamiliar territory). Gardner acknowledges that this approach to assessment may be difficult to implement.

Gardner (1993) emphasizes two additional points about assessment that are critical. The first is that the assessment of intelligence should encompass multiple measures. Relying on a single IQ score from a WISC-III (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) without substantiating the findings through other data sources does the individual examinee a disservice and produces insufficient information for those who provide interventions. Secondly, all assessments and resulting interventions must be sensitive to individual differences and developmental levels. Finally, Gardner is in favor of assessment for the primary purpose of helping students rather than classifying or ranking them.

While these views about assessment are intuitively sensible, Sternberg (1991) argues that the naturalistic approach is a “psychometric nightmare” (p. 266). Quantifying performance on these sorts of assessments is difficult, objectivity is questionable, and cultural bias is still a problem. Hard data is the scientific “gold standard” and psychometric soundness is a prerequisite. Therefore, Sternberg (1991) hesitates endorsing this approach to assessment on the basis that we would simply be replacing one flawed system of measurement with an approach that is equally problematic. Recent research on MI Theory-based assessments provides evidence in support of Sternberg’s concern about psychometric quality (e.g., Plucker, Callahan, & Tomchin, 1996).


Future Research Directions
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The future research agenda for MI Theory and intelligence is likely to encompass a multidisciplinary approach. While intelligence is usually researched through the lens of psychology, future discoveries are likely to come from the cross-pollination of ideas in neuroscience, cellular biology, genetics, and anthropology to name a few (1999a). Gardner (1999a) also favors gathering ethnographic data and cross-cultural information to see intelligence in action and in context. The use of information processing techniques and computer simulations is another relevant approach for gaining new insight into human intellectual capacities. At this point in history, the study of intelligence has moved well beyond the realm of psychometrics. As Gardner (1999a) writes, “The theory of multiple intelligences has helped break the psychometricians century long stranglehold on the subject of intelligence.” (p. 203)


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Gardner, H. (1999a). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1999b, February). Who owns intelligence? Atlantic Monthly, 67-76.

Gardner, H. (1998). Are there additional intelligences? The case for naturalist, spiritual, and existential intelligences. In J. Kane (Ed.), Education, information, and transformation (pp. 111-131). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill-Prentice Hall.

Gardner, H. (1995). Reflections on multiple intelligences. Phi Delta Kappan, 77(3), 200-208.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Morgan, H. (1996). An analysis of Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence. Roeper Review 18, 263-270.

Plucker, J., Callahan, C. M., & Tomchin, E. M. (1996). Wherefore art thou, multiple intelligences? Alternative assessments for identifying talent in ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged students. Gifted Child Quarterly, 40, 81-92.

Sternberg, R. J. (1991). Death, taxes and bad intelligence tests. Intelligence, 15, 257-269.

http://www.pz.harvard.edu/PIs/HG.htm (2000). Biographical data on Howard Gardner, Principle Investigators, Project Zero Website.

http://www.nea.org/neatoday/9903/meet.html (1999). NEA Today Online, Meet Howard Gardner: All kinds of smarts.

Prepared and submitted for the intelligence website by Lynn Gilman, M.S.

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