Early Years Pioneers: Howard Gardner

Jonathan Barnes
Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The influential work of an academic who developed the theory that all children are intelligent in the different ways they learn is described by Jonathan Barnes

Howard Gardner is not one but four professors. He is professor of cognition and education at Harvard University's School of Education, professor of psychology at that university and professor of neurology ('from the neck up', he says) at Boston University's famous School of Medicine. Last year he was awarded a professorship at East China Normal University in Shanghai.

Gardner's chief claim to fame, however, is as the originator of the 'theory of multiple intelligences' (MI) in his 1983 book Frames of Mind, updated in 1993 and extended in Intelligence Reframed (2000).

In these, Gardner argues that, in the west, we have put too much emphasis on just two ways of being intelligent. We value logical/mathematical and linguistic modes of thought above all other ways of being bright. Even today you can't be a teacher, enter university or be interviewed for many jobs unless you can prove at least GCSE ability in these areas.

When Gardner looked at other cultures he saw that different ways of showing intelligence were highly valued in different societies. What is considered intelligent in each society seemed, sensibly enough, to be linked to what the society thought was important. Applying eight stringent neurological, analytical and psychological tests he arrived at distinctly different ways in which the brain processed information about the world. These are: linguistic; logical-mathematical; spatial; musical; bodily-kinesthetic; interpersonal; intrapersonal; naturalist; existential.

Each of these 81/2 'intelligences' (his existential intelligence has not yet fulfilled all the exacting set of tests) work together in all of us, but we each have a different profile of strengths and weaknesses. Gardner points out that there is a distinction between 'intelligences' and concepts like 'learning styles'. Learning styles are about the most effective way for information to enter the mind, but intelligences are different ways in which the mind processes such information.

Early years projects

Howard Gardner has spent much time working with children in school settings. Early in his career in 1972 he took on joint directorship of Harvard's Project Zero with David Perkins, where he remains a senior director. Project Zero is a large research group particularly interested in children's thinking and the arts. It works with museums, theatres, arts organisations, the Disney Foundation and hundreds of schools across the world. MI theory has become the foundation for a large number of research projects, particularly those involving early years. For example, the Making Learning Visible project is considering the nurseries and schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Identifying intelligence

Howard Gardner has shifted the way we regard intelligence. He has suggested that it is not a fixed, single or universal quality to be measured in an IQ test. At the very least, his theory has made teachers ask the inclusive question, 'How is this child intelligent?' rather than the exclusive, 'Is this child intelligent?'

If all teachers and parents looked for the particular ways each individual was intelligent before making other decisions, school might well be a more positive experience for those deemed to be 'failing'.

At its most practically influential, Gardner's theory has significantly affected the curriculum. Initiatives such as Project Spectrum, dealing with the curriculum for children in the early years, concentrated upon early identification of the intelligence strengths of each child and based their entry points into learning on the teacher's assessment of those strengths.

Classrooms became centres where children could choose between different ways of approaching a theme. 'Key abilities' were fostered through regular work in 'learning centres' which specialised in one of the eight intelligences. Later, children were led towards developing their abilities in weaker intelligences through the confidence they gained in their areas of strength. Such classrooms became more active and happier places, and children's abilities in core skills developed faster.

Project Zero also looked at the impact of such a curriculum on several dozen schools through Project SUMIT. This found the achievement of those with special needs, parental involvement, core skills, attendance and behaviour all improved significantly. More than 70 per cent of the teachers, governors and parents credited the improvement to the MI approach.

Misusing MI theory

Gardner's theory has made a powerful impact upon educational thinking. It heralded a more inclusive approach to the curriculum and individual achievement, while recognising the importance of group interaction and communities within the school. There is a danger, however, of going too far.

Gardner relates how he was recently at a presentation where he saw children holding up banners they had made saying what 'intelligence' they had - and he was horrified. The theory of multiple intelligences was intended to support teachers in helping education match the mind of the child. It was not considered a way for students or teachers to 'label' them. Children too aware of their strengths in particular intelligences may be less willing to try out other ways of knowing, and this could limit their development, in the same way that 'knowing' your IQ could limit your aspirations.

Gardner is a firm believer in the 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' outlook. If a child is having difficulties in learning, however, an MI approach may be the best way to bring them back to feeling good about education.

Gardner sees an MI approach as being like a room with many windows: each intelligence throws a different light on the same educational experience. The current Foundation Stage curriculum encourages the cross-curricular play with ideas, materials and situations that Gardner envisaged for the early years - a curriculum where all ways of knowing are equally valued, which generates creative outcomes by promoting every kind of connection-making.

Jonathan Barnes is senior lecturer in education at Canterbury Christ Church University College

Info on projects



Gardner's current 'Good Work' project explores the fundamental question of how workers maintain moral and ethical standards in a world dominated by market forces and technological innovation. He has written on the minds of creative geniuses Creating Minds (1993) and leadership Leading Minds (1996). His proposals for a curriculum where the subject disciplines are introduced in the context of cross curricular work answering life's 'Big Questions' appear in The Disciplined Mind (1999). His latest book Changing Minds (2004) looks at the business and education worlds and 'the art and science of changing our own and other people's minds.'

  • Linguistic
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Spatial
  • Musical
  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalist
  • Existential.


Suggested reading

  • Craft, A (2001) Creativity across the Primary Curriculum. London, Routledge
  • Gardner, H (1993) Frames of Mind. New York, Fontana
  • Gardner, H (1993) The Unschooled Mind. New York, Fontana
  • Gardner, H (1999) The Disciplined Mind. New York, Simon and Schuster
  • Gardner, H (2001) Intelligence Reframed. New York, Basic Books.
  • Jones, R and Wyse, D (2004) Creativity in the Primary Curriculum. London, Fulton
  • For Project Zero see the website www.pzweb.harvard.edu/index.htm
  • For Making Learning Visible see www.pzweb.harvard.edu/mlv/index.cfm

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