Howard Gardner’s Keynote

I know, it’s been a month since the AATE/ATHE conference, but it takes awhile to unpack it all!

The keynote speaker at the conference this year was Howard Gardner– the architect of Multiple Intelligences Theory, proposed in 1983. Basically MI Theory is an argument against the more traditional notion that Intelligence is a fixed entity– something that can be reduced to a simple IQ, but rather one’s overall “Intelligence” is a hybrid of competencies and talents in several key categories. The Intelligences currently accepted by Gardner are: Bodily-Kinesthetic, Verbal-Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Naturalistic, Musical, and Visual-Spatial. Gardner’s work is considered revolutionary by many, and is cited often in arts education circles especially. For myself, reading about MI Theory as a junior high school student trapped in a failing inner city school system is probably one of the great inspirational moments that led me to become an educator.

Frank Episale tweeted his response to the keynote: “Underwhelming if occasionally charming,” which was more or less my reaction as well. In the “charming” category my favorite moment was Gardner’s explanation of traditional IQ measurements as ways to find out “who would do well in a Parisian school 100 years ago.” I found the keynote “underwhelming” in that in a room of theatre instructors, the vast majority of whom I am certain have had more than a passing introduction to MI Theory, I don’t think most walked away with anything new. Gardner was a great choice for a Keynote Speaker– I’m sure there are people who had his presence on the agenda on their list of Reasons to Come. I’m just not sure that his presentation added as much to the conversation that is Conference as it could have.

That said, here are some Interesting Points and Insights Gardner Made, with some of my thoughts after:

  • Gardner’s definition of Intelligence: “The biophysical potential to process information in certain ways, in order to solve problems or fashion products that are valued in a culture or community.” In what ways does my work in teaching inspire the innate potential in my students? What happens to potential that is untouched? Are there potentials that my students have that are simply not valued in the culture that is my classroom?
  • The traditional Western view of Intelligence is of one fixed capacity you are born with. The traditional Asian view of Intelligence is of a capacity reflected by your hard work. The Western reaction to MI Theory has largely been, “My kid may not be good at X but MI Theory has 7 other categories that will define him/her as smart.” The Asian reaction to MI Theory has largely been, “Here are 8 categories we need to make all of our kids smart at.” Are there ways I also take just what I want from particular theorists and thereby dilute their contribution entirely?
  • There has been exploration of “other” Intelligences but Gardner has not adopted them into his theory (for now anyways)– they include a Moral Intelligence and a Spiritual/Existential Intelligence. Could morality or spirituality ever really be reduced to a competency? Should they? I’ve never really been fully comfortable with the notion of the Naturalistic Intelligence– is it worthwhile to take what I agree with from this particular theory or is there something irreverent/disrespectful in this?
  • “The future in education belongs to those who can mobilize computational resources.” What does this mean for theatre education?
  • In preschool it is “precocious to cheat.” How come that stops being okay?
  • Gardner pointed out how the discourse about intelligence is limited at times by cultural taboos and biases. He argues for instance, that much could be learned from an examination/comparison of the strong interpersonal intelligence demonstrated by Slobadan Milsovic and Nelson Mandela. The intellectual potential, in his view, was the same– the differing moral choices of what to  do with that ability doesn’t change the innate intelligence. But many people would bristle at the notion of describing Adolph Hitler or Augusto Pinochet as “smart,” so if there are things to be learned from such an examination we really never find out. Where should an examination of ethics enter into education, and how could theatre better participate in such an exploration?
  • I was most interested in Gardner’s commentary on MI Theory as a means, rather than an end, to particular goals in educational institutions. It is clear that MI Theory has been co-opted for a myraid of purposes throughout the world, many of which have no basis in research or even fully in MI Theory. Gardner spoke to a tendency in arts education, in his view, to embrace dicta that support what we are doing (“Arts Make Everyone Smarter”) without necessarily holding such pronouncements up for a high degree of scientific backing. I think this is true and not true. Certainly some shoddy research has enlivened the public imagination, but there has also been a great deal of strong research (see Critical Links) into what impact the arts have on students and my only wish is that such advancements in the field were more publicly known.

Question for the World: How has Multiple Intelligences Theory influenced your work?

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