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Multiple Intelligence Theory and Home Education

by Stephanie Marshall Ward

Howard Gardner's Intelligence Reframed is reviewed, and this author offers interpretations and suggestions for using multiple intelligence theory in your home school.

“Every society features its ideal human being. The ancient Greeks valued the person who displayed physical agility, rational judgment, and virtuous behavior. The Romans highlighted manly courage, and followers of Islam prized the holy soldier. Under the influence of Confucius, Chinese populations traditionally valued the person who was skilled in poetry, music, calligraphy, archery, and drawing. Among the Keres tribe of the Pueblo Indians today, the person who cares for others is held in high regard.” (p. 1)

This is the opening of Howard Gardner’s Intelligence Reframed, one of several books describing this Harvard psychology professor’s theory of multiple intelligences. This book looks beyond our own culture and the traditional way in which our “experts” have viewed intelligence. Our society places high value on “intelligence,” as we define it. Furthermore, psychologists have generally viewed intelligence as a single attribute, something that can be measured and quantified, usually by measuring certain aspects of an individual’s verbal, mathematical, and logical abilities (and his test-taking skills). In 1983, Gardner published Frames of Mind, presenting his now famous theory of multiple intelligence. He argued that we develop and use many kinds of intelligence throughout our lives. Through his research, he has identified eight or nine separate intelligences. While he cautions readers that his work does not constitute a "prescription" for education, he offers insights on how his ideas can shape how we teach and learn.

How These Intelligences Were Chosen

An intelligence is identified, in part, because it has been shown to reflect unique neurological processes. For example, one kind of intelligence can be impaired by brain damage when others are unaffected. Some individuals with brain injuries experience difficulty with visual-spatial skills, while other abilities are unimpaired. Other people with brain injuries actually lose the ability to identify and name living things (the naturalist intelligence), while being fully able to recognize and name inanimate objects. This “potential for isolation by brain damage,” is one of six criteria Gardner used in selecting these intelligences.

  1. The potential for isolation by brain damage
    Example: People can lose the ability to communicate with words (linguistic intelligence), due to brain injury, even when other abilities are unimpaired.
  2. Evolutionary history or plausibility – Has this type of intelligence helped people survive and adapt to their environments?
    Example: Our ability to communicate with words (linguistic intelligence) has always helped us to survive, by enabling us to communicate our needs and fears, join with others, and form communities.
  3. Identifiable core operations – Are various aspects of this intelligence connected by a core set of closely related abilities? Example: Linguistic intelligence is said to include core operations of “phonemic discriminations” & “command of syntax” (ability to hear and use verbal sounds and put them together into meaningful words and phrases), "acquisition of word meanings" (ability to learn what words mean), and "sensitivity to pragmatic uses of language" (actually being able to use these skills to communicate effectively with other people).
  4. Can be encoded in a symbol system - We have concepts with which to explain these things, perhaps because they fit the way our brains were designed.
  5. A developmental history and “end state performances" - These intelligences develop and are expressed in identifiable ways.
  6. The existence of savants, prodigies, and other exceptional people - Why do some people have amazing abilities in certain areas? For example, why can some “normal” children able to play and create music beautifully at an early age? Why are some individuals with autism (such as Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rainman) unable to think and communicate in what is seen as a “normal” way, and yet able to perform incredible mathematical feats? This is connected to the first point on this list, which reveals how different intelligences are related to different parts of the brain. The existence of these “savants” and “prodigies” indicates that these abilities – such as musical or mathematical intelligences – function neurologically in a way that is relatively independent from other kinds of intelligence.
  7. Support from psychological or experimental tasks - Psychologists are able to make inferences based on how people perform certain tasks.
  8. Support from psychometric findings - Psychologists are able to make inferences based on how people perform certain tests.

    What Are the Eight (or Nine?) Intelligences?

    1. Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence: This encompasses abilities with spoken, written, and sign language. If your child excels in expressing herself with words, whether it be writing a story or offering a spirited and articulate argument for why she should be allowed to stay up late, she may excel in this area. Such a child may have particularly strong auditory comprehension, understanding and remembering stories and conversations she hears. She will probably excel at reading. She might enjoy word games, verbal jokes, and word play. Verbal reasoning is likely to be a strength. She might enjoy activities like analogies (dog:puppy cat:kitten) and deductive logic activities that use words. Some examples of verbal deductive reasoning activities include A Case of Red Herrings and Mind Benders by Critical Thinking Company and Mindware's Perplexors. (Critical Thinking Company offers free downloadable demos of some of their activities.)

    2. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence: This includes aptitudes in mathematics, logic, and scientific inquiry. A child who is talented in this area probably has an intuitive grasp of mathematical patterns. His understanding of math concepts is likely to be strong, though he may not necessarily excel at computation (solving math problems). This area also encompasses the scientific process: posing a question, forming a hypothesis, performing an experiment and drawing conclusions. A child with strengths in this area will probably enjoy scientific experiments. Logic is an integral part of this type of ability. Your child may enjoy games and puzzles that require deductive reasoning, logic, or strategy.

    3. Visual-Spatial Intelligence: This involves abilities in conceptualizing wide spaces (such as the ability to find ones way around in an unfamiliar area) or small spaces (such as the ability to draw, create and interpret diagrams, or design and build things). This relates to geometry and visual arts, such as drawing. It is used in reading or creating maps, charts and graphs. It is also connected to building projects such as jigsaw puzzles or models. In How Children Learn, John Holt describes having watched a young child assemble a jigsaw puzzle. Holt was intrigued with the way the child tackled this task. He would look at the part of the puzzle he had already put together, then search for a certain puzzle piece. Holt perceived that the boy could "see" the finished puzzle in his mind, and was purposefully choosing the pieces he needed. When he can looks at parts and "see" how they will fit together as a finished whole, we express our visual-spatial abilities.

    4.Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence: This includes abilities with using ones body, as in sports or dance, or ones hands, as in building things. Playing with blocks, legos, and other building toys is a way to explore this ability. A child with this aptitude may enjoy building models (a mobile model of the solar system or a diorama showing a Native American dwelling may be right up his alley). Visual art, especially three-dimensional art such as sculpture, is a way of expressing these ability. Physical activities such as sports, gymnastics, martial arts and dance, also draw on this intelligence.

    5. Musical Intelligence: This encompasses the ability to perform or compose music and the ability to appreciate musical patterns.

    6. Interpersonal Intelligence: This involves the capacity to understand others' intentions, motivations, or desires. When a child empathically understands another person in this way, the child is able to communicate, work, and play with him more effectively.

    7. Intra-personal Intelligence: This refers to the ability to understand one's own desires and fears and use self-knowledge effectively in regulating ones own life. Some children have tremendous insight into their own strengths, weaknesses, and needs, and can apply this effectively in making decisions. For example, such a child might have excellent "instincts" as to which approach or curriculum will work best for her.

    8. Naturalistic Intelligence: This relates to the ability to recognize and identify species of plants and animals, care for animals, and tame or relate to other living creatures. A person who is gifted in this area can perceive subtle differences in things. The ability to distinguish two types of flowers or two different bird songs is connected to an aptitude for recognizing the sounds different auto engines make or identifying specific artistic styles.

    9. Existential Intelligence: (This may be more a "candidate intelligence" than an officially sanctioned part of the list). This is a gift for exploring life's "Big Questions": God, one's place in the cosmos, the nature of right and wrong, life, death, and love. These issues are explored when parents share their religious faith and other spiritual beliefs with their children, while exploring religion and philosophy, in reading and thinking about literature and folklore, and in other ways. Some home schooling writers have suggested that a "holistic" approach, such as Waldorf education, may suit a child who is interested in existential questions. Based on what little I know about Waldorf, this makes sense, as it appears to seamlessly integrate rhymes, rituals, stories, and folk tales to illuminate meaning in life.

    Identifying Your Child's Strengths

    Formal tools for measuring multiple intelligences range from reliable and valid psychological inventories to questionnaires. These may be helpful, but Gardner cautioned against tests and questionnaires as a way of assessing a child's strengths and weaknesses. He preferred to spend a great deal of time observing a child in a situation where he could choose from a variety of activities, such as a good children's museum. When given a wide range of choices: to read, listen to, or invent a story, to do a science experiment, to explore an unfamiliar play structure with twists, turns, and tunnels, to play with building toys, to hear or create music, or to explore a nature trail - what does your child gravitate toward most often? Where does her passion lie? This offers the most revealing clues to your child's true gifts.

    If you have access to a children's museum such as the one Gardner describes, with many things to create, play with, build, study and explore, or if your home is generously strewn with such things, it may be interesting to stand back and observe what activities your child chooses and how he does them. You may wish to jot your observations down in a journal. It is not necessary to provide expensive toys and games. A child can find everything he needs among a variety of things such as pencils, pens, crayons and paper, library books, play dough or clay, simple store bought or homemade musical instruments, blocks, homemade games, plants to care for, and things to do in the kitchen.

    Lisa Rivero (Creative Home Schooling) suggested spending a day with your child (if your child has siblings, perhaps someone else could watch the other children) allowing him to freely choose activities for the two of you to do together. If you try this, I suggest you pull the plug on the T.V., computer, and video games. Given freedom to choose what to do in your home, what excites him? What activities would he choose in the community? Is he eager to listen to stories or choose books at the library? Does he urge you to head to a wooded area or pond to explore nature? Does he prefer physical play at a park or indoor play area? With what activities does he excel? What does he really love?

    If you want to use an informal questionnaire to "score" your child's multiple intelligences, there are many on-line. Oak Meadow, which sells Waldorf-inspired curricula, offers this one. I have always believed, both as a professional counselor and as a parent, that any test, whether it be a formal psychological tool with an established reliability and validity or an informal questionnaire, is best used as a conduit to communication rather than as "the answer." You could use the test results as a springboard to conversation. For example, you could ask: "Do you agree with this?" "Does this make sense to you?" "I think this points out that you have a special feeling for other people, and how they feel. That does seem to be one of your many gifts. Do you agree?" "Do you think this could be part of the reason why you like building things better that you like reading?" This kind of exploration could help your child come to his own conclusions about his strengths and weaknesses and how he can use his special gifts to enhance his learning in all areas. This has infinitely more value, in my view, than any test result or professional opinion.

    If you and your child explore her multiple intelligences, I suggest that you be careful that your child not label himself as "not good in math and science" or "not a music person." Such assumptions are limiting and may become self fulfilling prophecies. I accepted an assessment of myself as "lousy at math and science" until well into adulthood. As a result, I was unwilling to risk exploring my interests and abilities in these areas, which was a great loss. The purpose of assessing someone's multiple intelligences is not to label him or narrow down his options. It should serve to help celebrate his various strengths and find those paths - whether they be reading, composing music, or performing scientific research - that will lead to the most effective and deepest learning.

    Misconceptions About Gardner's Theory

    This book was written about ten years after the publication of Frames of Mind made the theory of multiple intelligences famous. Gardner pointed out some ideas which he felt were based on misconceptions about his work. For example, it is not necessary to try to teach all subjects using all of the multiple intelligences. This can result in simply throwing together a collection of "multiple intelligence" techniques, rather than creating a thoughtful, well-planned curriculum. He also warned against trying to "activate" an intelligence through a certain activity. For example, simply exercising does not "activate" the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, and singing a song does not "activate" the musical intelligence. These activities certainly have value, but exploring human intelligences is much more complex that this.

    I have seen some "how to" articles on home education which recommended strategies such as singing the multiplication tables to help a child with a strong musical intelligence to learn math. This certainly might be a worthwhile activity. Music is a useful mneumonic technique for most people (I am not musically gifted, but I have never forgotten those old "Grammar Rock" tunes.) However, this does not get at the heart of multiple intelligence theory. Musical intelligence is a complex process of perceiving and appreciating rhythms and patterns, and singing catchy tunes to help memorize material does not really touch this.

    Garder's Vision for Education

    Gardner emphasized the fact that enhancing a person's multiple intelligences is not, in itself, the goal of education. These abilities are paths to meaningful learning. Meaningful learning involves more than gathering knowledge; it involves comprehending large ideas about the world.

    "Education in our time should provide the basis for enhanced understanding of our several worlds: the physical world, the biological world, the world of human beings, the world of human artifacts, and the world of the self." (p. 158).

    He believed this could be best accomplished through using multiple intelligences as "entry points" to learning.

    Using Multiple Intelligences as Entry Points

    Gardner suggested using the student's strengths as "entry points" to exploring and understanding topics of study. He emphasized that these topics should be rooted in important ideas that help students better understand the world. As examples, he chose the Theory of Evoultion and The Holocaust. I have chosen a different example. Gardner defined seven entry points:

    1. Narrational: A person with a strong verbal-linguistic intelligence may enjoy learning through stories. For example, big ideas in science might be introduced through biographies of great scientists. I believe that writing, family discussions of subjects of interest, and Charlotte Mason-style narrations fit well here.

      We often intuitively use our children's strengths to teach to their weaknesses. My daughter excels at verbal-linguistic learning and has difficulty with math concepts. We have tried in many ways to build bridges from verbal to mathematical learning. For instance, we sometimes learn about math through living books which narrate the lives of mathematicians or explore mathematical concepts (I gleaned inspiration from my favorite home schooling site We also use many verbal logic puzzles, including deductive reasoning activities such as A Case of Red Herrings (Critical Thinking Company) and Perplexors (Mindware). These overlap both the verbal-linguistic and the mathematical-logical intelligences. Therefore I hope they can provide a path, through her verbal gifts, to mathematical-logical learning.

      If you and your child have chosen the narrational road to a topic, you are blessed to have a wealth of excellent children's books available. I am continually amazed at how many interesting and well written kids' books are in print today. For example, if your topic is the American Civil War, you can find many biographies and works of historical fiction that your child might find exciting. She may also enjoy writing her own story set in this period, creating a journal entry by a fictional person living in this time, or writing and performing a play.

    2. Quantitative-Numerical: A person with a strong gift for mathematics has a feeling for numbers and mathematical patterns (this is more fundamental than computation). This relates to concepts of size, ratio and change. A student with this gift might enjoy approaching a subject by exploring numbers and quantities.

      If your child is studying the Civil War, he might be interested in exploring and comparing numbers of people from each state who fought in the war, or numbers of slaves freed in each state. He may want to examine how the numbers of people fighting in the war changed over time.

    3. Logical: This is the other side of the logical-mathematical piece. A student with an aptitude for logic may enjoy deductive thinking. Gardner suggests creating syllogisms related to your topic. For example:

      If it was necessary (as in Abraham Lincoln's view) to keep the existing United States together as one nation, and

      If the seceeding states will not remain without force (war),

      Then it is necessary to go to war

    4. Foundational-Existential: This reflects an understanding in the fundamental questions in life: God, one's place in the cosmos, the nature of right and wrong, life, death, and love. "Nearly all children raise such questions, usually through myths or art;" Gardner wrote, "The more philosophically oriented pose issues and argue about them verbally." Studying the Civil War would raise many fundamental questions, which could be gently discussed during your reading, about life and death, war, and human nature.

    5. Hands-On: "Many people, particularly children, most easily approach a topic through an activity in which they become fully engaged," Gardner wrote, "Where they can build something, manipulate materials, or carry out experiments." In a study of the Civil War era, one could make maps, create a diorama, or make old-fashioned butter. The possibilities are nearly endless. Unit studies can be excellent resources for relevant hands-on activities. There are also books devoted entirely to hands-on activities on a given topic. Your librarian could help you find such a resource.

    6. Aesthetic: Some students will want to be introduced to a subject with something that is visually pleasing, or with art, music, or literature. If you are studying the Civil War, you could explore art or music from that period.

    7. Social: A student who is gifted in the area of interpersonal intelligence may want to approach a subject through group problem solving or role-playing. Your children might enjoy performing a play about the Civil War or staging a mock debate over secession.

    Gardner has made a tremendous contribution to psychology and education by expanding the way intelligence is viewed. Human intelligence is complex, rich, and multi-faceted, and virtually all people are gifted in some way. He has also offered a set of ideas that can help us educate our children. By helping them understand their strengths and weaknesses and using their gifts as paths to learning, we can make education more meaningful and joyful. Furthermore, we can provide what Charlotte Mason called a generous education: one that reaches all their intelligences. Such an education will include opportunities for using language, exploring ideas, playing, creating things, exploring nature, relating to others, and coming to know oneself. This closely reflects the ideas that many thinkers in the home education field - including Charlotte Mason, John Holt, Maria Montessori, and many others - have offered. Through such a rich and varied education a child can gain a thoughtful understanding of the world, develop his gifts, and find great joy in learning.

    Intelligence Reframed by Howard Gardner, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

    Growing Together Family Learning Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 3, page 4

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