Forget the standard IQ test — that only measures a very narrow definition of intelligence. Meet psychologist Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, and one of the foremost thinkers and writers in the fields of education, cognition, and multiple intelligences. His fascinating research into different kinds of intelligence (there are 8!) has the potential to revolutionize education, turn our kids into better citizens, and help us all identify our purpose in life. Learn more about our 5 minds, and how our education system should help us to move the needle from “I” to “we” not just personally, but globally.
Plus, the “dark history” of IQ testing.
Phil Stieg: Hello, I’d like to welcome Dr. Howard Gardner, a research professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr. Gardner has written numerous books about the mind, but he is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, which proposed that there were many different types of intelligence and ways of learning.
He has been called one of the most influential thinkers in U.S. education. In his memoir, “A Synthesizing Mind,” Dr. Gardner reflects on his influential career, his groundbreaking work, and on his own synthesizing mind.
Howard, if I may, thank you for being with us today.
Howard Gardner: Thank you. I look forward to our conversation.
Phil Steig: For the sake of the listeners, can you review the various intelligences that you defined years ago in your seminal book, “Frames of Mind?” I’m curious to know if you think that there is one or two that are most important, or they’re just different intelligences that everybody’s either blessed or not blessed with?
Howard Gardner: Sure. What the standard intelligence tests are — skill with language and skill with logical math. Linguistic and logical mathematical intelligence. I always say it’s the intelligences of a law professor, because you can’t be a good law professor unless you’re good with language and you’re very logical. There probably are some lawyers who can do only one, but you couldn’t be a good law professor unless you’re logical and mathematical. And that’s what the IQ test was designed to assess. And if you want to know who’s going to be better in a certain kind of school and you have a half an hour, the IQ test is fine.
It is worth pointing out that in the 18th and 19th century, linguistic intelligence was valued much more than mathematical. And now in the 20th and 21st century, it’s the other way around. If you wanted to go to Harvard College in the 19th century, you had to do Latin, Greek and Hebrew. We would laugh at that now. So the balance between language and logic can change dramatically. And if Chat GPT is as good as it looks like it’s going to be, then we really look at the other remaining six intelligences: musical intelligence; bodily kinesthetic intelligence — intelligence of the dancer, the athlete; spatial intelligence — geometry, navigation, painting, sculpture.
Two kinds of personal intelligences: interpersonal is understanding other people, often called social intelligence; intrapersonal intelligence is understanding yourself. I say that’s hard to measure. Only your psychoanalyst knows whether you have intrapersonal intelligence, whether you have good understanding of yourself. And it’s actually much more important in modern Western societies than it’s been traditionally. I mean, a lot of people spend a lot of time on the couch, legitimately trying to understand themselves better. This is not a project that would have interested most people in the 17th century.
The 8th intelligence is the naturalist intelligence — the capacity, inclination to recognize species, different plants, different cloud configurations, different rock configurations, patterns and classifying them and grouping them.
I’ve speculated about two other intelligences: the existential intelligence, I call that the intelligence of big questions. I always joke that every child asks big questions, but most of them pay no attention to the answer. It’s the one who listens and then follows up, that’s the one who has existential intelligence. And then pedagogical intelligence — knowing how to teach something to somebody, because you can be very good at something, but be clueless about how to teach it, because you have to know what that own person’s level of understanding is and what works for them.
Phil Stieg: When you first proposed it forty years ago, your Theory of Multiple Intelligences had an enormous impact on the field of education. How have you seen Multiple Intelligence or “M.I. Theory” applied over the years?
Howard Gardner: In the United States. I would say it’s great if teachers are aware of M.I. Theory. And I often hear from parents or from people who are once children now parents who say, learning about your work really made a difference for me, because I realized that while I was stupid on tests, there were things which I could perform very well on. And those were things which actually had given me my vocation or my avocation.
Here’s one bit of uncharacteristically practical advice I tell parents. Take your young child to a children’s museum and take the child over and over again and just watch the child, what he or she gravitates to, what the child returns to. And then, most crucially, do they just return and do the same thing over and over again, in which case you can’t draw any conclusion, or do they begin to explore it in new ways, bring new questions up, combine it with new things? And that’s a wonderful litmus test of what that child’s current profile of intelligences are.
But if you start early in life, you can change the intelligences. I mean, I didn’t say this because I think young kids should be hands on, the number of things that are available online which address different intelligences is amazing. And I think the ideal school in the future, at least in our culture, would be one which begins very hands on, but then a lot of the stuff gets downloaded or uploaded to online kinds of learning for people who are comfortable learning that way.
If we could get young people to spend as much time learning online as they do with social media and TikTok and all these, Facebook and so on, I think the problems that we read about in the newspaper every day about student achievement would disappear. It’s not that students don’t have time to learn. It’s that they have things they do which are, I would say, more fun for them, except we know that particularly for adolescent girls, they’re depressive and even can cause attempts of suicide.
So we can’t just say, Hooray, everything’s available online. It depends on what you access and how you use it and what kind of guidance you have from people who have your interest at heart but know the dangers as well as the affordances.
Phil Stieg: You described whether it’s seven, eight or nine intelligences, but then you also talk about five minds.
Howard Gardner: The way I describe it, Phil, is when I was writing about multiple intelligences, I was writing about it as a psychologist with a lot of background in neurology. I never went to medical school, but I worked for 20 years on an aphasia ward in Boston. I used to joke I could be a neurologist from the neck up because I knew all the tests and so on. But five minds had a very different origin. I was essentially asked, if I were a policymaker and I was asked, well, what are the things that you hope your educational system will achieve? I came up with the answer, five minds. Three of them are basically cognitive. The other two have relationships to other people.
The three cognitive minds are the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, and the creating mind. And that’s really we’re talking about that end of the continuum. The other two minds have to do with our relationship to other people, and I call those the respectful mind and the ethical mind.
Respectful mind is the way we deal with people who are around us. It’s the mind of the ten commandments. The mind of the golden rule is, how do you deal with your family, friends, and neighbors?
The ethical mind is much more difficult. It’s a modern mind. It’s the mind of the professional, the lawyer, the teacher, the doctor. And here’s where you’re dealing with people whom you don’t have a personal relationship with, but you’re trying very hard to do the right thing. And that’s especially true when you’re facing ethical dilemmas. And anybody who thinks that you can solve an ethical dilemma by yourself and get it right the first time is deluding themselves on any complicated ethical issue.
Let’s just take the one everybody’s talking about nowadays — how much should we let Chat GPT go its own way as opposed to monitoring it, as opposed to regulating it or even forbidding it, as may happen in some countries? That’s an ethical question. Anybody who thinks that he or she knows the answer is just fooling himself. On the other hand, if you see somebody who’s fallen down and they need help, that’s a respectful mind thing. You don’t have to take a course in ethics to know what to do there, though many of us might not do it. So those are the human relations minds.
The first three minds are the ones that I’m much more expert in: the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, and the creating mind.
The disciplined mind is basically the classical notion of what we learn in school. We learn certain subjects, the three Rs, history, biology, maybe philosophy, and it’s really what’s valued in school.
The creating mind is one that wants to explore issues and areas and problems and possibilities that other people haven’t and is not afraid to go out on a limb, to fail, to fall flat in your face, to try again, because that’s what you get your satisfaction from is really going into new grounds and looking at things that nobody has looked at before or things that no one has looked at in the way you have before. That’s what I call “Big C” creativity. I mean, we all can come up with a different menu for a dinner party or a different route to get to work. But that’s “little c” creative.
Synthesizing, which I’m now obsessed with, but when I introduced this, it was just one of the kinds of minds for me. Synthesizing is the capacity to take information and methods and insights, which you get in different disciplines and putting them together in ways that are coherent, but they don’t have to be creative. And the best example is a textbook.
Most textbooks are just the earlier textbooks with a five or ten percent update. They’re good syntheses, but there’s nothing particularly creative about them. We all need to learn to do routine kinds of synthesizing. That’s what a term paper is. But people who are able to take in lots of information and really present it in ways that make sense but haven’t been done before, they’re on the border of synthesizing and creating. And I think that’s where I am. I think I’m basically a synthesizer, but maybe a few times in my life I wandered into the creative realm, and I’m very happy to be there, but it’s not where I spend my life.
Phil Stieg: From my perspective, the synthesizing mind is one that can view all aspects of a subject and make up their own mind. And that’s not what we’re seeing in society today.
Howard Gardner: Okay, well, I think that’s good. I like that definition. And one reason I became so interested in this phenomenon, whatever it is, is I think that most parents and teachers aren’t even aware of this capacity. So there are a few oddballs like me and maybe you, who read encyclopedias when we’re young and spend the rest of our life re-accessing them, so to speak.
Phil Stieg: I wish I still had my old world book.
Howard Gardner: I used the world book, too, exactly. So, yeah, a motivation for me is to raise the consciousness of parents, educators, policymakers, that this is an ability that’s very useful, and it may even be more useful in the 21st century, because almost anything factual, we can just look up. So memorization, a lot of this stuff, it’s a bonus. It’s not necessary.
But as you say, putting stuff together in a way that makes sense for you and let’s be honest, for the wider society, we don’t want to upload or download that to some kind of an AI system. When I think most radically (and I’m just beginning to say this more publicly), I think I want to go back to the division of the five minds, because it’s really much more relevant than I would have thought.
Usually when I was talking about the five minds, I was focusing on discipline, synthesizing, and creativity, because that’s what intellectuals like me are interested in. And the other two minds, ethical and respectful, I wouldn’t say was a bonus, but it was a much more recent thought in my mind.
My radical thought is that maybe in the future, that’s what most of schools should emphasize, how we get along with other people, particularly people who we need to live with but we don’t agree with, and how do we do the right thing when it’s easy to do the wrong thing? And it may be that the three Rs and the classical liberal arts disciplines, which I love, and probably most of your listeners love them too, will be more for people who want to do it rather than necessary.
Maybe the school should be much more of a social environment. The way I put it, in shorthand, is we have to move the needle from I to we. And this isn’t just individual I and we friends. It’s I, the United States, to we, which has to include China and India and the 150 countries that I don’t know the names of because they won’t be a species at all if we don’t.
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In 1908, educational psychologist Henry Herbert Goddard was excited to publish his translation of the Benet-Simon intelligence test, which had been developed in France as a way to identify students who needed remedial help. Finally, Goddard declared, American psychologists would have an objective, scientific way to measure a child’s intelligence and assign it a fixed number… an idea that future critics would derisively call “Physics Envy.”
Early intelligence testing was based on the concept referred to as the “G factor,” a level of cognitive ability that Goddard believed could be accurately measured — with the right test. This test, he claimed, could measure a child’s “mental age” — a number that, when divided by chronological age and multiplied by 100, gave the child’s “Intelligence Quotient” or “I-Q.”
Goddard became a self-appointed evangelist for IQ testing. He originally used it to sort out students at New Jersey Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys, where he was director of research. By 1913 the test was being used to sort out so-called “feeble-minded” immigrants at Ellis Island.
The start of World War One saw a massive deployment of the Benet test by the military, using it to identify which recruits were worthy of being officers, and which were destined to become cannon fodder.
The history of IQ testing is a classic example of the dangers of “reification.” Reification is the belief that, simply because you can give a name or number to an abstract concept, it actually exists in the real world.
From the start, the popular concept of IQ shifted from being a numerical score you receive on the specific day you take a written test, to an actual part of your brain that is unchanging.
Which is why we don’t ask “what was your IQ score,” we ask “what is your IQ?”
Goddard not only believed that IQ was a physical part of one’s body but insisted that people who scored in the “feeble-minded” range on his tests should be separated from society and be prevented from having children. The growing eugenics movement in the US used these early IQ tests as a scientific justification for forced sterilization policies and racial segregation laws.
A few years later, the reification of IQ in Nazi Germany condemned thousands to death in a campaign to eliminate those deemed unworthy of the “Aryan” race.
There’s a saying in the field of General Semantics that might be helpful here. “The word is not the thing; the map is not the territory.” To which we can add; the IQ is not the Brain.
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Phil Stieg: How would you define the relationship between creativity and intelligence?
Howard Gardner: Well, I began to look at creativity because people said to me, well, how are the intelligences reflected in creativity? So I did something which was actually the most fun project that I’d ever done. I picked seven creative people from early in the 20th century: Poet T . S. Elliott; the scientist Albert Einstein; the musician Igor Stravinsky; the dancer Martha Graham; Mahatma Gandhi; Pablo Picasso; and Freud. And I studied them very carefully, and I discovered that each of them had more than one intelligence, though only Stravinsky seemed to have a range of intelligences.
Intelligence is a computing power. It’s how quickly and how well you can do problems or projects using a certain mental capacity. Creativity is the ability and the desire to do something innovative. Most of us are not like that. Most of us are pretty cowardly. We don’t want to be doing things which other people don’t approve of or haven’t understood. To the United States’s credit, we are more tolerant of creativity than most cultures in human history. In fact, in most cultures in human history, we kill the creative people or Galileo. We silence them and imprison them.
But I think if you’re a parent or teacher, you let the young people find out which intelligences they like and like to exercise. And do you notice whether they try to do it in ways that are original and you try to provide some encouragement or some support. In each of my creators, except for one, I can’t remember whom, they almost had a nervous breakdown when they did their most creative work because they felt so much alone. And each of them had somebody who supported them, who held their hand, who loved them, and who said, you know, Pablo, Albert, you’re not crazy.
So being creative is a lonely thing. And even though the buzzword of be creative is fine, do a dinner party a little bit different. If you really want to go out on an intellectual or expressive limb, you’re going to be very lonely. And the job of other people who love you is to try to say, you’re not alone, and I may not understand everything you’re doing, but I’m trying to help you.
Phil Stieg: When in your life did it first pop into your mind that you had a synthesizing mind?
Howard Gardner: Again, a very good question. I went back to one of my first books written when I was a graduate student, and I used the word synthesis in there, and this is 50 years ago this year. And then when I became a MacArthur Fellow, which was 40 years ago, I used the word synthesis there as well, so the word was not absent from my vocabulary. But it was only when I wrote the memoir, which is really about multiple intelligences, that I had a look at myself face to face. I said, My theory doesn’t explain what I do, and if I’m a psychologist in the last years of my life, I’d better try to explain what it is that I do, because nobody else is going to do it. And that’s when synthesis moved from the periphery to center stage.
And that’s such an important point about synthesis for anybody who’s listening. You’re not going to synthesize well unless you have a driving question that you want to answer, because in everything that you encounter and read and hear, even if it’s not conscious, you’re saying, does this fit into what I’m thinking? And if not, does it change the way that I’m thinking?
Phil Stieg: So in education, is that something we should be emphasizing as having that questioning mind of all things we look at?
Howard Gardner: If you ask me that question without the preface, I would give the answer that my colleagues Bill Damon and Anne Kobe have, and that is that it’s very important in life to have a sense of purpose, and most of our young people nowadays don’t, and we could have several programs on that. It’s kind of sad. And when you discover or somebody helps you see what your sense of purpose is, that gives meaning to your life, and they define purpose as something that you want to do well but has influence beyond yourself. So it’s very different if I’m a pianist and just play for myself. That’s not purpose to the same extent as if I teach somebody or I perform for somebody.
So I think what’s missing with so many of our young people is life having meaning or purpose. Victor Frankel’s famous statement. But I don’t think synthesizing needs to be the purpose for everybody. I would almost turn it around and say it’s very important for people who seem to have that kind of mind to recognize it and to say, what you’re doing is important, and we can help you, and here’s some good role models. I wouldn’t want to push everybody to be a synthesizer anymore than I want to push everybody to be an analyst.
I don’t mean psychoanalyst. I mean analysis versus synthesis. I can solve problems, I can do puzzles, but that’s not what I get my fun from. I get my fund from having a lot of stuff and reorganizing it and reframing it, and then finally something clicks and says, I’m ready to sit down and write that article or that book.
Phil Stieg: Howard Gardner, thank you so much for sharing your fascinating insights into multiple intelligences. It’s readily apparent why you’re viewed as one of the most influential people in the United States in education and cognition. And I’m especially impressed with how you have applied your skills to the development of respectful and ethical minds at a time when we are in such need of it.
Thank you so much for being with us!
Howard Gardner: Thank you for the invitation. I was looking forward to it, and it met or exceeded expectations.