Howard Gardner


For psychologist Howard Gardner, professor at Harvard University, our brain is like an orchestra. Instead of brass or string sections, Gardner describes a landscape made from regions of cerebral cortex specialised in numbers, music or socialising. The distinctive feature is that every section performs with relative independence and does not play with the same dexterity. An individual can be useless with body language and be a sublime orator, or a great musician may not understand anything about numbers. That is why Gardner maintains that we have multiple intelligences, more specifically eight different ways to process information and solve problems. Professor Gardner therefore formulates an alternative theory to substitute the traditional concept of intelligence –general intelligence, represented with the letter g–, which considers that mental skills of an individual are uniform and interconnected, and that by means of a test one can get to determine the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) of any such individual.

Howard Garner’s theory provoked a great deal of criticism against the field of neurology –some scientists even consider it a pseudoscience–, and some claim, for instance, that the number of intelligences established by the theory are purely random. Nonetheless, the fact is that the idea of a single IQ measuring every intellectual ability at once is not compatible either with the results of the largest study about intelligence to date. Adam Hampshire and Adrian Owen, among others, carried it out in 2012 at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. According to these authors, «intelligence is an emergent property of anatomically different cognitive systems, and each one has its own potential». That is, intelligence has multiple faces, impossible to reduce.

Professor Gardner is considered one of the most influential intellectuals in the world. Awarded with the Príncipe de Asturias and many other awards, his ideas have inspired thousands of schools in all five continents, where different intellectual abilities are cultivated in each student and all kinds of innovative methods are used in order to achieve it. Gardner’s ideas also boost creativity, suggest teachers to think on new ways to bring the concepts they are explaining closer. There are alternative focuses to the logical and verbal, such as music or painting, and each approach will contribute in involving more and more students in what they are learning.

The psychologist claims that memory education is superficial. Students should rather be given the intellectual tools to think as a scientist or a painter would. According to Gardner, students develop theories about everything that surrounds them before going to school, and teaching them new ideas is as important as fighting those previous conceptions. When it is not like that, new content goes unnoticed and do not transform the mind of the student (the ultimate goal of education).

The fundamental questions about education were asked to Howard Gardner: What do we expect of education? What to learn and how to learn it? Essential issues about the society we want to build lie in education. Concepts such as truth, goodness or beauty articulate society and have to be the backbone of education as well (this is precisely the topic of his last book, “Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Education for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century?”). During the interview, I cannot avoid telling him that he seems a revolutionary, defending these virtues, when it is a cliché to brand them as illusions.

You maintain that while teaching, teachers communicate an idea about how the human being has to be
Teachers serve as a role model of how to live, what kind of a human being to be, what you should and should not do. In the choice of curricular material and in the ways that they teach and assess, teachers should also model what it is to be a human being worth admiring. No wonder that nearly everyone remembers a teacher who affected them in a positive way—unfortunately many of us also remember a teacher who was not admirable.

You defend that students have to learn basic intellectual skills in schools. The problem is that it is much easier for teachers to teach lists of names. How can we change these old routines?
Teachers (and those of us who are not officially teachers) tend to teach in the way that they were taught. If teachers have not had experience in learning in more active, more project-based ways, more creative, then they need to have those experiences. That is a task of good teacher education. Of course, there is no point in memorizing lists, names, formulas, since they are all contained in our smartphones and pads. Even a mediocre teacher will soon realize that such an approach is no longer acceptable. Still, that teacher will help in developing new and better methods and habits.

Which of your ideas do you think are more accepted and which ones do you think deserve more attention?
Clearly the idea of mine that has had the greatest acceptance is the idea that human beings possess multiple intelligences. I wish that more attention were paid to two other ideas. First, the importance of learning to think in disciplined ways, the ways that a scientist, or artist, or historian thinks. And secondly, the importance of educating young people to be good citizens and good workers. Much of my work in the last 25 years has been directed toward those two goals. But «Multiple Intelligence» is easier to summarize!

Some neurologists claim that Multiple Intelligence Theory is a myth1. Are you worried about this criticism? Do you think these critics are unfair
Of course, any new theory that gathers attention is going to be controversial and draw criticism. MI theory is actually based on the specialization of different parts of the brain and in that sense it is consistent with neuroscience. MI theory is a synthesis of findings from many disciplines (anthropology, evolutionary biology, etc.) and observations of many kinds of human beings (prodigies, autistic individuals, etc.). It will endure to the extent that new empirical findings are consistent with the theory. After thirty years, I am impressed with how robust the theory is, but I am certainly open to changing it if new data warrant modifications.

Do you have any expectations that neuroscience will improve the way to teach and learn?
I am an enthusiastic follower of findings in neuroscience. I think that our understanding of difficulties in reading has been enhanced by neuroscientific work and that work also contains hints about how, early in life, to help individuals with reading problems. I think that the same will happen with other kinds of difficulties –for example, in spatial reasoning or in understanding the motivations of other people. But no neuroscientific finding in and of itself will ever dictate what to do. Education is fundamentally an area where values are paramount. Science will never tell us what to teach, what kinds of human beings we want to nurture, and it will never indicate the one best way in which to teach or to learn. Human beings are far more varied, and we have different goals and values.

Psychologist Geoffrey Miller recently talked in Edge2 about Chinese eugenics and the selection of embryos to obtain more intelligent individuals carried out by the authorities of the country from the 1990s. What do you think about this social experiment?
I don’t like playing deliberately and actively with nature. I think it is immoral and dangerous. No doubt, there are people who will do that. There is no way to stop it. I am glad that I am old enough that I won’t be around to see the possibly horrible results of such hubris; horrible results for the individuals who are the «guinea pigs» and horrible results for the fabric of society.

In Spain, Pisa report indicates that our students obtain poor results in comparison with other countries in subjects such as Mathematics or Reading. Right now, the Spanish government has developed a new education law that tries, in part, to solve those negative trends. Are those tests a good guide
Of course everyone would like to have high test scores, and there is nothing wrong with that achievement. But it is far more important to decide what kind of human beings we want to have and what kind of a society we want to have, and then to work toward those goals. I wish that political leaders and ministers of education would talk more about values, and less about scores. Education should not be like a soccer league, with rankings; it should be an effort to create a better world. In fact, if we directed our attention to having a healthy society, I think that we would have life scores as well as test scores of which we could be justly proud.

How do you imagine the schools of the future? Are we really going to need schools?
I am quite sure that in the future education will look very different. We will learn many things via digital means, on line, at home or in the park. Because the apps and the software will be of high quality, educators will be more like coaches and support systems, and less like didactic presenters of information. It is less likely that students will go to school from early in the morning till the middle of the afternoon and less likely that they will all go to a single building called a school. But we will still need to socialize individuals, young people will want to be with other young people, parents will have to work, and society will want the young to have positive role models. These needs, now represented by a single schoolhouse, will have to be met in some way. While I am glad that I won’t be around to watch genetic experimenting to get custom made children, I wish I could return to the earth in fifty years to see how education takes place… and whether good work and good citizenship have become high priorities.

1. A potent critique to a number of conceptions influencing pedagogy, such as the Multiple Intelligences Theory, can be read in Paul Howard-Jones’ study Potential Educational Developments Involving Neuroscience that May Arrive by 2025. (Go back)
2. Geoffrey Miller’s full text can be checked at Edge, responding to the annual question made in the portal, 2013: What Should We Be Worried About? (Go back)

«There is no point in memorizing lists, names, formulas, since they are all contained in our smartphones and pads. Even a mediocre teacher will soon realize»

24-78-howard-gardnerJordi Play

«No neuroscientific finding in and of itself will ever dictate what to do. Education is fundamentally an area where values are paramount»

© Mètode 2013 - 78. Online only. The Light of Evolution - Summer 2013
Journalist, Barcelona.