Abilities and Multiple Intelligences (page 2)
What is mental ability? How would you characterize someone who is mentally able? A moment of reflection tells us that there are lots of tasks for which we use our minds, and most of us are good at some of them and not so good at others. In other words, we have to talk about mental abilities, not mental ability. We've all known people who seemed gifted with words but could barely handle the math necessary to balance a checkbook, or who could pick out a tune on any musical instrument but seemed to fall all over themselves when attempting anything athletic.
The logic underlying the idea of mental ability is as follows: if there is a single ability—call it intelligence, if you like—underlying different mental activities, then someone who is good at one type of mental activity (for example, math) should be good at all mental activities. But if some people are good at one mental activity (math) and poor at another (reading comprehension), then those activities must be supported by different mental processes. For more than one hundred years, psychologists have been using this logic to investigate the structure of thought. In a typical study, an experimenter takes one hundred people and administers to each of them, say, an algebra test, a geometry test, a grammar test, a vocabulary test, and a reading comprehension test. What we would expect to happen is that each person's scores on the English tests (grammar, vocabulary, and reading comprehension) would hang together—that is, if a person scored well on one of the English tests it would mean he was good at English, so he would tend also to score well on the other English tests. Likewise, people who scored well on one math test would probably score well on the other math test, reflecting high math ability. But the scores on the math and English tests wouldn't be so highly related. If you did this experiment, that's more or less what you'd see.
This sounds like pretty obvious stuff. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors called commonsense findings "bubbe psychology." Bubbe is Yiddish for "grandmother," so bubbe psychology is giving fancy labels to stuff that your grandmother could have told you (Figure 6). As far as we've gone, it is pretty obvious stuff. It can get a lot more complicated when we try to get more detailed (and the statistical techniques are pretty complex). But roughly speaking, what you noticed in school is true: some kids are talented at math, some are musical, and some are athletic, and they are not necessarily the same kids.
Educators got much more interested in this type of research in the mid-1980s when Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard, published his theory of multiple intelligences. Gardner proposed that there are seven intelligences, to which he later added an eighth. They are listed in Table 2 (on p. 124).
As I've mentioned, Gardner was certainly not the first to generate a list of human abilities, and his list does not look radically different from the ones others have described. In fact, most psychologists think Gardner didn't really get it right. He discounted a lot of the work that came before his, for reasons that researchers have thought were not justified, and he made some claims that were known at the time to be wrong—for example, that the intelligences were relatively independent of one another, which he later deemphasized.
Educators were (and are) interested not so much in the particulars of the theory but in three claims associated with the theory:
Claim 1: The list in Table 2 is one of intelligences, not abilities or talents.
Claim 2: All eight intelligences should be taught in school.
Claim 3: Many or even all of the intelligences should be used as conduits when presenting new material. That way each student will experience the material via his or her best intelligence, and thus each student's understanding will be maximized.
Gardner made the first of these claims, and it is an interesting, debatable point. The other two points have been made by others on the basis of Gardner's work, and Gardner disagrees with them. I'll describe why each claim is interesting, and try to evaluate what it might mean for teachers.
Let's start with Claim 1, that the list shown in Table 2 represents intelligences, not abilities or talents. Gardner has written extensively on this point. He argues that some abilities—namely, logical-mathematical and linguistic—have been accorded greater status than they deserve. Why should those abilities get the special designation "intelligence" whereas the others get the apparently less glamorous title "talent" ? Indeed, insisting that musical ability should be called musical intelligence, for example, carries a good share of the theory's appeal. Gardner himself has commented more than once that if he had referred to seven talents instead of seven intelligences, the theory would not have received much attention.
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