IQ (Intelligence Quotient) has long been the standard by which we have judged people. Although technically we only use it to judge a person’s ‘intelligence’, their IQ score tends to carry a lot of other potential judgement, prejudice and discrimination along with it.

  • How would you like to have a low IQ?
  • What sorts of people have a low IQ?
  • Or a high IQ?

The IQ test was devised in the early 1900s by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon as a way of weeding out retarded children and placing the remainder at the appropriate levels in French schools. It was a way of testing suitability for school as it existed 100 years ago. The test does not show suitability for leadership, commerce, politics, manual skills, agriculture, the caring professions, the arts or sports – all of which are essential in a healthy society. Everyone is judged according to whether they are suited to an academic life. The test remained largely unchallenged within the education profession who themselves, by and large, do well in the current system (although apparently there are finally plans afoot to explore an alternative).

In 1983, Howard Gardner, in his book Frames of Mind, challenged the IQ test by proposing a theory of ‘Multiple Intelligences’. Gardner suggests there are numerous qualities that can be termed ‘intelligences’, including things which have traditionally been called ‘talents’ or ‘natural abilities’, e.g. ‘she’s a brilliant dancer’, ‘he’s a natural footballer’, ‘she’s a really talented painter’, ‘he’s got great social skills’, etc.

What is intelligence?

Gardner’s definition of an intelligence is: ‘a biophysical potential to process information in certain ways in order to solve problems or fashion products that are valued in a culture or communit‘. Compare that with the Shorter Oxford Dictionary’s definition of intelligence, ‘the faculty of understanding; intellect‘ – and then of ‘intellect’, ‘that faculty, or sum of faculties, of the mind or soul by which one knows and reasons (excluding sensation, and sometimes imagination; distinct from feeling and will): power of thought; understanding‘. The accepted meaning is totally to do with a receptive quality of the mind, whereas Gardner is also interested in the application and practical usefulness of ability.

What intelligence is NOT

The idea of Multiple Intelligences has been taken up and represented by so many different people, that in his book Intelligence Reframed, Gardner challenged several myths about what an intelligence isn’t. These myths include:

  • NO! if there are eight intelligences, we should set up eight tests
  • NO! an intelligence is the same thing as a learning style
  • NO! it is inherently good to exercise each intelligence
  • NO! what I call intelligences should be called talents
  • NO! there is a proper way to set up a ‘multiple intelligences school’

Initially, Gardner proposed seven intelligences:

  • Mathematical-logical
  • Verbal-linguistic
  • Visual-spatial
  • Musical
  • Bodily-kinaesthetic
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal

Later he added an eighth – naturalist – which is about having an affinity with nature and being able to categorise. He is currently testing the presence of another intelligence, which he calls ‘number eight and a half’, the existential intelligence, i.e. a capacity to contemplate the ‘big’ philosophical questions, such as why we are here and the purpose of life. (He specifically rejects the notion of a spiritual intelligence, although that has been put forward by others, specifically Danah Zohar in her book with Ian Marshall SQ: The Ultimate Intelligence.)

The IQ test examines only the first two, possibly three, of Gardner’s intelligences. It is limited in other ways too:

  • It has a strong cultural bias – anyone from a culture which thinks in a significantly different way from the western norm is unlikely to do well.
  • It tests discrete items unrelated to one another or to everyday life, which is not at all how the brain works optimally.
  • It assumes that intelligence is fixed, without potential for development.
  • It is a test of learning and experience up to that point and not an indicator of future performance (although that is how it is applied).
  • It also tests product, not process – there is no indication of how an answer is arrived at or whether the process is transferable.

If it is truly a test to see whether children will do well in schools, then what does it say about our schools and their relationship to our culture?

In contrast, Gardner’s theory of intelligences proposes that any test is simply a snapshot of where the person is at that time, that intelligences can be an indicator of potential, and they can be developed.

Other intelligences

Now that Gardner has widened the understanding of intelligence, there are potentially hundreds of attributes, which might qualify as intelligences.

David Perkins, from Harvard, refers to the reflective intelligence and says it is the most important when it comes to learning. He defines it as ‘metathinking – thinking about thinking‘. The sorts of questions you might ask yourself to stimulate this intelligence are: What brings me most joy when I’m learning? Why? What do I not understand? What can I do to understand better? What are my biggest successes and ‘aha’ moments? What works and what doesn’t work for me?

You may have noticed that emotional intelligence does not feature in Gardner’s list. In fact, this term was coined by Daniel Goleman as the title of his best-selling book, and it incorporates Gardner’s two ‘personal’ intelligences (although Gardner does not agree entirely with all Goleman’s suggestions for implementing the intelligences). The intrapersonal relates to how well one knows oneself and the interpersonal to how well one relates to others, and both are important in the concept of emotional intelligence. Gardner also presented them as closely linked (in the original book they share a chapter). Emotional intelligence is also referred to as ’emotional competence’ and ‘heart intelligence’. Emotional competence implies that understanding emotions is only half the story, and being able to change one’s behaviour because of this understanding is the other component. The term ‘heart intelligence’ comes from the research, which shows that the heart may well be the seat of the emotions and that it is certainly much more than just a pump. Other facts are that biologically it qualifies as being a ‘brain’ in its own right, that it acts independently of the brain in the head, that it has more influence on the brain than the brain has on it, and that its energy field is 150 times stronger than the energy field of the brain. Heart intelligence is also strongly linked with self-esteem, which is arguably one of the most important factors influencing one’s ability to learn.

Other theories

People other than Gardner have also worked on a theory of multiple intelligences (MI). Tony Buzan, in his book Head First, uses the word ‘intelligence’ to describe different aspects of personal development. He identifies 10 intelligences – creative, personal, social, spiritual, physical, sensual, sexual, numerical, spatial and verbal – and provides a series of questionnaires to determine strengths and weaknesses across the range of the different aspects of each intelligence, with follow-up activities and exercises to help build strengths in areas which are not so strong. The aim is for most people to become capable in all fields.

Eva Hoffman has also written about MI and done much to make it understood in schools (specifically in her practical book of photocopiable lessons, Introducing Children to their Intelligences). The thrust of her work is to make learners, especially children, aware of their learning styles and their many intelligences, so they learn to value themselves and others for their uniqueness and individuality, and also have the tools to take responsibility for their own learning. The mind map below shows her own classifications (she has changed some of Gardner’s names to make them more accessible), with the addition of her own ‘practical intelligence’ (Gardner’s eight are indicated in the outer boxes). She also offers a tenth, the spiritual intelligence, but it is not included in the mindmap so that teachers have the choice of whether to present it to children or not.

MI profile

Gardner has acknowledged in private conversation, although he has not written about it, the possibility of an MI profile (what Spencer Kagan refers to as a ‘multiplicity of intelligences’). This is based on the understanding that each intelligence category actually covers a range of different skills and abilities. Music, for example, is made up of rhythm, tone, pitch, notation, playing a range of different instruments, singing, etc. Any one person will have different levels of skill in each of these aspects and we all have potential in them all, but to different degrees. Potential may be enhanced or lost depending on how much we practise and develop each aspect, and Gardner does say that intelligences are to be developed. Just ‘doing a bit of movement’ and ‘playing a bit of music’ isn’t it, while presumably teaching children the many different ways they can move different parts of their bodies to express different emotions, for example, might be.

This idea of an MI profile is rather more useful to the majority of the population than the usual linking of each of the intelligences with an extreme example of each type: Picasso – visual spatial; David Beckham or Rudolf Nureyev – bodily-kinaesthetic; Mozart – musical; Darwin – naturalist, etc.

So what does it mean in practice?

MI theory is simply that – a scientific theory. It does not directly translate into classroom practice. However, Gardner himself suggests that it has two implications:

  1. Individuality We should know as much as possible about each person so they can learn, and demonstrate their learning, in ways which are comfortable for them.
  2. Values The intelligences themselves are amoral – they have no inherent values. How anyone teaches and what they do in the classroom is/should be based on their values and what is important to them.

Although people who are differentially intelligent are likely to learn in different ways, MI theory does not directly correlate with a person’s learning style, nor is it about testing, classifying and labelling people under yet more headings. It’s a useful diagnostic tool for helping individuals know more about themselves, and it’s about appreciating people for who they are and for what they are good at – whatever that might be.

MI theory does, of course, have implications for assessment, curriculum and pedagogy, and many other people have translated the MI theory into classroom practice. In some books, everything seems to be presented and practised with children in eight different ways. Although this is not necessarily a logical consequence of the theory, and certainly not feasible or appropriate for everything, if it results in more varied and interesting lessons then it is to be welcomed.

Gardner’s own ideas about teaching are set out in his other books – The Unschooled Mind, The Disciplined Mind and, most recently, the co-authored Good Work, which emphasizes the importance of living and acting with integrity. In The Disciplined Mind he shows how complex topics such as the theory of evolution, the music of Mozart and the holocaust might be approached, but he is by no means saying this is the only way of approaching these subjects, nor being dogmatic about how MI theory should be applied. One thing he is clear on: MI theory is not an educational goal in itself. It is not enough to say ‘I have done all the intelligences’ (whatever that means). It is important to know for what purpose the theory is being used.

So, for the moment, it is up to each individual to understand the theory as much as possible to inform their own view of schooling and society, and to influence their own learning (and teaching) in whatever way seems most appropriate. What is its relevance to you?

For me, if the theory of MI helps us value every child (and person) for who they are, then it has served an important function.

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, September 2005.