Psychology Classics

gardner frames of mind

Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences


Howard Gardner

When Harvard psychology professor Howard Gardner wrote Frames of Mind over twenty years ago, the general public largely accepted the idea that one's intelligence could be simply measured through an IQ, or Intelligence Quotient, test. A high IQ meant you were smart, and were given certain opportunities in life, and a low IQ meant you were a bit slow, with your opportunities restricted accordingly.

Gardner's book, however, popularized the idea that the logical-mathematical or “general” intelligence normally measured by IQ tests might not actually be a good measure of a person’s potential. IQ testing may have been reasonably effective at predicting how well you would do on school subjects, but not great at gauging your ability to compose a symphony, win a political campaign, program a computer or master a foreign tongue. Gardner seems to replace the question “How smart are you?” with a wiser, more inclusive “How are you smart?”

While the multiple intelligences concept went against the traditional narrow view of intelligence, the success of the book and its impact on public debate revealed a need for a perhaps more common sense understanding of what intelligence really involved. We intuitively know that how well you do in school does not determine your success in life, and everyone knows very brainy people who have not amounted to much. Similarly, we would find it hard to believe that  the achievements of figures such as Mozart, Henry Ford, Gandhi or Churchill were merely the result merely of 'high IQ'. Gardner's book, while going against conventional wisdom, actually gives us an appreciation of intelligence close to what we already know: that we each have different ways of being intelligent, and that success comes from refining and utilizing these intelligences across a lifetime.

Types of intelligence

Gardner claims that all human beings possess a unique blend of seven intelligences through which we engage with the world and seek our fulfillment. These “frames of mind” include two that are typically valued in traditional education, three that are usually associated with the arts, and two he calls “personal intelligences”. To briefly describe them in turn:

Linguistic intelligence
Involves appreciation of language, the ability to learn new languages, and the capability to use language to accomplish certain goals. Those high in this intelligence may be good persuaders, story-tellers, and can use humor to their advantage.

Writers, poets, journalists, lawyers and politicians are among those likely to have high linguistic intelligence.

Logical-mathematical intelligence

The capacity to analyze problems, carry out mathematical operations, and approach subjects scientifically. In Gardner's words, it entails the ability to detect patterns, reason deductively and think logically. Along with linguistic intelligence it is what 'IQ' tests mainly measure.

This intelligence is often associated with scientists, researchers, mathematicians, computer programmers, accountants and engineers.

Musical intelligence

People with this intelligence actually think in terms of terms of sounds, rhythms and musical patterns. It encompasses skill in the performance, composition, and appreciation of musical patterns.

Typical occupations employing the intelligence: musician, disc jockey, singer, composer, music critic.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence

Involves the ability to control and coordinate complex physical movements, that is, to actually express oneself in terms of movement. This can include use of body language, mime, acting, as well as the full range of sporting pursuits.

This intelligence is expected to be particularly high in sports people, dancers, actors, jugglers, gymnasts but also professions where balance and coordination are vital e.g. Firefighting.

Visual-spatial intelligence
The ability to perceive objects within space accurately, or to have an idea of 'where things should go'. The work of sculptors and architects would call for a high degree of spatial intelligence, but also navigators, visual artists, interior designers, engineers.

Interpersonal intelligence
The capacity to understand the objectives, motivations and desires of other people. It is instrumental in the building of  relationships. Educators, marketing executives, salespeople and political figures are examples of individuals with high interpersonal intelligence, but also counselors who must be empathic.

Intrapersonal intelligence

The ability to understand the self with a heightened awareness of one's feelings and motivations. This intelligence helps us to develop an effective working model of ourselves and use our self-understanding to regulate our lives. Writers and philosophers tend to have this intelligence in abundance.

Implications for how we learn

Gardner's theory presents a huge challenge to established educational models, because if you accept the idea that a person combine a unique array of 'intelligences', you would also require a carefully tuned educational and development system to enable their potential to be realized.
Gardner admits that psychology cannot directly dictate education policy, and that further study is required to prove the existence of multiple intelligences in the first place. Yet his general inference is that an education system which takes account of the specialness of each child cannot be a bad thing.

It can be argued that multiple intelligence theory has only been adopted because it mixes well with the self-esteem movement. If Ann doesn’t do very well on Algebra, but can play the piano beautifully, she is as intelligent as Mary who gets straight A's in Math. The theory seems to support the view that no one is better than anyone else in terms of being smarter, just 'different', which could be dismissed as a politically correct way of accounting for the genuine inequalities in children's abilities. In addition, implementation of the theory may require much time and effort teaching very little. For instance, a typical project to teach children about the ocean might ask them to write about fish (linguistic intelligence), draw a sea creature (spatial), ‘role play’ a sea creature (bodily-kinesthetic), use a Venn diagram to compare and contrast ships (logical), tap glasses with different amounts of water (musical), or design a ship in a group (interpersonal). All these activities may not actually teach children much about the ocean. Another criticism of MI theory is that while sounding like common sense, it is hard to prove one way or the other.

Yet to many teachers the MI way does make sense. They will often know a student is bright, even when they don't do well on conventional tests. Gardner is also careful to point out that his theory is just that, a theory, and he devotes considerable word-space to pointing out possible holes in his own model.

Final comments

Will we always be measured in terms of 'IQ', or will Gardner's ideas overthrow current systems of intelligence testing, such as  America's famous SAT test for college entry? Most people don't realize that intelligence testing has been with us for over a hundred years, with the first attempts at measurement devised by French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905. It is a relatively easy and cheap way to sort large numbers of people according to 'merit', and has become well established as a result.

Yet the idea of multiple intelligences will not go away as long as people feel their true worth has not been recognized. The theory allows us to say that it is not we that are inadequate, but the system of testing which tried to pigeon-hole us. While this may sound like left-wing ideology, the fact is that many people have had their opportunities in life reduced unnecessarily by not doing well in standard tests. 

What ultimately matters, surely, is not a supposedly objective test of intelligence, but our own beliefs of whether we are capable of something and our discipline to follow through. Gardner's academic language calls this the 'ability to solve problems within our environment'. The people we most admire are smart in certain ways; they have refined their way of thinking and doing to an unusual extent, so that they are 'all of a piece'. More than raw intelligence, they have judgment.  Perhaps the lesson of Gardner’s book, therefore, is that we should stop worrying about how we measure up to some arbitrary standard of brain power; for the really smart people are those who know exactly what they are good at and live their life around that knowledge. There is a big distinction between simply possessing mental, physical or social abilities - and the actual deployment of them to achieve success. Ultimately, the measure of intelligence must go beyond aptitude, talent or thinking ability, and be appreciated as the capacity to succeed in life.


Source: 50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do. Insight and inspiration from 50 key books (Nicholas Brealey, London & Boston), Tom Butler-Bowdon.

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50 Psychology Classics: Who We Are, How We Think, What We Do: Insight and Inspiration from 50 Key Books

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Howard Gardner

Born in 1943, the son of refugees from Nazi Germany, Gardner initially went to Harvard University to study history, aiming for a career in law. After a year at the London School of Economics, he entered Harvard's developmental psychology doctoral program in 1966, and subsequently became part of the research team for Project Zero (a long-term study of human intellectual and creative development). His interest in human cognition was influenced by his tutor Erik Erikson.

Gardner is currently Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education; adjunct Professor of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine; and Co-Director of Harvard's Project Zero. He has received many honorary degrees and awards.

Other books include The Disciplined Mind: Beyond Facts and Standardized Tests, Intelligence Reframed, Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach, and Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. ©2015 All rights reserved.
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