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Commentary: Reforming School Reform: Comments on Multiple Intelligence: The Theory in Practice

by Robert Sternberg - 1994

This commentary on Gardner's "Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice" examines implications of Gardner's belief that his theory is a basis for educational reform, proposing reforms that would immediately benefit students and suggesting that formulating educational reform around the whole child rather than hypothetical ability structures will produce superior outcomes. (Source: ERIC)

When Howard Gardner proposed his theory of multiple intelligences ten years ago, there was, as he notes in his book, the inevitable mixed reception that accompanies any new and innovative theory.[1] Because Gardner presented no new research designed specifically to test his theory, the theory was viewed as rather speculative, and hence, the criticisms of the theory were necessarily speculative as well. The universal hope and expectation was that, with time, specific tests, experimental or otherwise, would be conducted of the theory, and when such tests were well under way, it would then be possible for both theorist and critics to become more concrete.

Curiously, to date, not only are the tests not well underway, but they have not yet been initiated. To my knowledge, there is not even one empirical test of the theory. There may well be one somewhere in the literature that has escaped my notice, but what is clear is that the anticipated program of research has not been forthcoming, and may never be. As Gardner says in his book, his own attention turned to educational interventions, and apparently other people's did as well, because the number of educational interventions is indeed impressive, as anyone who reads Gardner's book will see.

As a psychologist and educator, I am pleased that a promising theory of intelligence is being recognized, acclaimed, and implemented. In contrast, I am concerned that yet another theory without direct supporting evidence is being avidly sought by educators as the "new panacea," as was Bloom's taxonomy some years back.[2] The concern is that we may be once again falsely raising expectations that will later be dashed, with the predictable reaction by educators that the time has come once again to return to the three Rs.

I think there are various problems with Gardner's theory as a psychological theory, but I and other psychologists have written of them before.[3] As no new evidence has been forthcoming regarding the validity of the theory, I have no new criticisms to offer of the theory, and see no point in repeating criticisms I have made before. Besides, except for a few features, I basically like the theory, and believe that in its emphasis on the multiple nature of intelligence, it contributes a valuable service to our thinking about intelligence, whether it is basically right or wrong. We need to think about abilities more broadly than we have, and this theory provides one framework in which we can do that.

Because Gardner's emphasis in this book is on the theory as a basis for educational reform, rather than on the theory as a psychological entity, I will concentrate here on the educational implications. In this regard, I think the theory again performs a valuable service in helping teachers and other educators realize the multiple nature of abilities. But I am convinced that the theory does not provide the royal road to school reform, and indeed I think it more likely to prove yet another distraction to our confronting the real issues that face us if we want to improve our schools. In this respect, my sentiments toward the theory are less positive, not because the theory is wrong in this or that aspect, but because I think that we are once again following red herrings in our attempts to provide better-quality schooling for our children.

I believe, like Gardner, that true school reform is possible only when one takes into account the psychology of the child. Many efforts at reform seem to focus heavily on administrative structures, but relatively little on how children learn and think. However, I do not believe that any theory of abilities, my own included,[4] provides the right entree to what we need to do. What we need to do, I believe, is not exceedingly complex. Rather, the difficulty is in our will to do it. In international competitions, children from the United States repeatedly score near the bottom of the educational barrel. It is not because other countries utilize better theories of intelligence. On the contrary, some, like Japan, strongly deemphasize intelligence and instead focus on motivation. Yet the Japanese repeatedly outscore us in educational comparisons. Focusing on this or that theory of intelligence is not going to make our educational system competitive; on the contrary, it may have the opposite effect. Gardner's theory may help us produce better dancers, athletes, and musicians, all of which are important, but it focuses away from rather than toward the traditional academic abilities in which our students are weak. I believe that we need to ask ourselves what we can do most to improve the education of our children, going beyond their intelligence to children as whole persons.

To this end, I propose here ten reforms I believe we could make now, and that would have immediate benefits for our children. I believe that formulating the problem of educational reform in terms of the whole child instead of in terms of hypothetical structures of abilities will produce superior outcomes.

1. We need to move away from a conception of intelligence as constituting a fixed set of abilities, regardless of the number, and toward a conception of intelligence as involving capitalization on strengths and compensation for and remediation of weaknesses. Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences moves beyond many past ones in its emphasis on the multiple nature of intelligence, but it does not move far enough. What we have learned from theories like multiple factor- analytic theories and multiple-intelligences theories is that intelligence is not unidimensional.[5] But these theories really tell us more about the structure of the tasks we give people than they do about the abilities those people have to offer. Whether the factor analysis is explicit, as in the psychometric literature, or implicit, as in Gardner's work, what comes out is a transformation of what goes in--and what goes in reflects the tasks that a particular society at a particular time considers important.

The structure of abilities is, I believe, in a way both more simple and more complex than is acknowledged by these theories. It is more simple in the sense that the number of abilities that is especially important to a given person may be quite small. It is more complex in the sense that the abilities that are important for one person are different from those that are important for another person; and these various abilities may not even be the same. If you ever carefully watch successful teachers at work--or lawyers or scientists or artists or writers--you will see that they do not all succeed in the same ways. There are as many ways to succeed as there are people to be successful. Each of us finds our own unique path to success. Indeed, we are intelligent in our lives to the extent that we are able to find such a path. Often, to do well in our work, we do not have to be good in many things. The trick is to find something we are good at, and then make the most of it, at the same time that we figure out what we do not do well and then find ways of either making ourselves good enough to get by or to compensate for what we do not do well.[6] For example, we may find other people to help us in the areas in which we are weak, or we may simply deemphasize such areas to the extent possible.

We need to do with our children what we do as adults. We need to help them discover their own patterns of strength and weakness, and then help them to capitalize on their strengths and to compensate for and remediate weaknesses. We need to recognize that there is not just one general ability, or seven multiple intelligences. Rather, each person has a different configuration of abilities, and how these abilities manifest themselves will depend on the tasks they confront in their lives, and the situations in which they find themselves. I believe that Gardner's own recent work as expressed in this book moves him in this direction as well. Rather than trying to find which of seven abilities is the key to success for a child, we need to look at all the things he or she can do or potentially can do well--and then help the child make the most of those things.

2. We need to emphasize effort and each child's working up to his or her own potentials. I believe we would do better to move away from our very heavy emphasis on abilities and toward an emphasis on effort. Moreover, we need to emphasize not the competition of each child with every other child, but the competition of each child with himself or herself. Children should strive to be their best, and thus to compete with themselves rather than others.

3. We should set high standards for our children and be demanding of them in what we expect from their schoolwork. Perhaps inadvertently, we have become a country of low standards. That is not how we got to where we are as a country, but I am afraid it is how we are getting to where we are going, which is toward decline. We place too much emphasis on remediation, and too much emphasis on "mastery." Instead, we need to reaffirm a commitment to excellence in our schools, in the way that the corporate world has been doing. In practical terms, we need to expect more from our children. My own son gets nearly straight As in his middle school--a well-reputed public school--but works little more than an average of perhaps a half-hour a night. He is not alone. He is not challenged, and neither are many of his classmates.

Even worse, I am afraid that many of his teachers have a spurious notion of what challenge means. The representative of the English Department, in a parents' night for the high school, indicated that the difference between an honors class and a regular class was that the honors class required the child to read one or two more books and to write one or two more papers. That is more work, but it is not more challenge. The representative of the Spanish Department said that fifth-year Spanish students in the high school use Destinos in their work. Destinos is a first-year program! Why does the geometry program not meet the challenge of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics? "Because we can't afford a textbook that does so," according to the math representative. Children are not going to realize their potential unless we demand their best, and unless we give them our best. We need to challenge children to the utmost, not only by giving them more work, but by giving them more difficult but also more meaningful work.

4. We need to take into account children's styles of learning and thinking. Children learn and think in different ways. I am not referring here to how much ability they have, but to how they prefer to use those abilities. In my own theory of mental self-government, for example, I talk about thirteen different styles, among them what I call legislative, executive, and judicial styles.[7] A legislative child likes to create, come up with new ideas, and see things in new ways. An executive child, in contrast, prefers to be told what to do, and generally will do his or her best once told what he or she should be doing. A judicial child prefers to evaluate and judge, to compare and contrast. Children with different styles learn optimally in different ways. The legislative child learns best when given a lot of independence, and when doing projects, writing papers, and inventing things. The executive child learns best in more conventional modes of classroom instruction and assessment. The judicial child learns best when asked to speak or write papers that involve evaluation of contrasting ideas, theories, or principles.

Although I am partial to my own theory, the point I am making transcends any one theory. There are different ways of capturing children's learning styles. The important thing is to take them into account--to teach in a way that meets the needs of each child. In practice, I often teach the very same concept in different ways, and then assess that concept in various ways. The result is that children with different learning and thinking styles are given the opportunity to show what they can learn and how they can use it.

During the past two summers we have been running a summer program at Yale for bright high school students. Students were selected for excellence in analytic, creative, or practical skills. They were then taught introductory psychology in a way that emphasized either analytic, creative, or practical thinking. Students were randomly assigned to classes, so that some were in classes that matched their pattern of excellence, and others were not. Finally, all of them were evaluated through analytic, creative, and practical assessments of their learning. The critical result was that creative and practical children performed substantially better if they were placed in a class that emphasized their own excellence, and that evaluated them for it. In other words, children can do better if we match instruction to their patterns of excellences.

5. We need to show children explicitly how they can use what they learn. When we, as adults, attend lectures, we usually find that we learn much more if we can relate what we hear to the problems that confront us in our work or in our lives in general. Indeed, if we cannot relate what we hear to our own personal concerns, we often tune out, or listen but do not comprehend. Children are no different. If they see how they can use what they learn--how it can be made relevant to their lives--their comprehension and overall understanding will be much higher than if they merely learn by rote or without a sense of why they are learning what they are learning. Learning needs to be made practical for the children.

Consider an example. Why is it that children in certain European countries, like Holland, easily learn three or four different languages beyond their native language, whereas children (not to mention adults) in our country have trouble learning even a second language? It is not plausible to speculate that the Dutch or other Europeans somehow have a second-language learning ability that is absent in our children. Nor is it plausible to say that the Dutch have secret methods of teaching that are unavailable elsewhere, except in other countries (such as Portugal) where children learn multiple languages. The reason behind these children's success is simple. They know that they need to learn the additional languages. Dutch is hardly spoken outside Holland, and if the Dutch are to communicate with anyone outside their relatively small country, they will simply have to learn other languages. The answer is motivation.

How ironic it is, therefore, that we put so much effort into ensuring that anyone in our country who speaks another language learns English and often loses the native language (thereby becoming a so-called substractive bilingual, the type who will achieve less within school and without). Instead, we should be emphasizing the necessity of learning multiple languages for succeeding in the world of the future. But one has only to watch a non-English speaking person trying to communicate in the United States to realize that our attitude tends to be that there is something wrong with anyone who does not speak English, and speak it well.

In sum, we need to show children why they are learning what they are learning, and if we do not know, we cannot expect them to either.

6. We need to encourage our children to take sensible risks. Some children start school as natural risk-takers, and others do not. But after several years of schooling, most of them learn that the name of the game is to play it safe. Children become afraid of taking too many courses for fear of over-committing themselves academically; they become afraid to take hard courses for fear of getting low grades and compromising their chances of being admitted to the college of their choice; and they become afraid of writing anything in their papers or of doing projects that might in any way challenge the beliefs of their teachers. Why risk a low grade? The result is the suppression of children's natural creativity and the learning by our children that it is more important to play it safe than to make any kind of real contribution, whether to themselves or to others.[8]

In a competitive and rapidly changing world, children need to learn to take sensible risks, and they need to learn what it means for a risk to be sensible. They need to take chances, and they need to make mistakes. Most important, they need to learn that the smart child is not the child who never makes mistakes, but the child who learns from the mistakes he or she makes. Thus, instead of discouraging mistakes, we need to encourage children to make them and learn from them. That is not what we are doing.

7. We need to take maximal advantage of children's intrinsic interests. All children have natural loves for certain kinds of activities. For some children, it is sports; for others, reading; for others, music; for others, art; and so on. Children do their best if we can help them take advantage of these natural interests. When my son Seth did not want to read, I bought him sports novels and turned a nonreader into a reader. Later, his interest in schoolwork doubled when he started using a computer to do his work. When my daughter Sara was bored with science, she started working on a science project (on tastes in foods) of particular interest to her, and her interest in science blossomed. There is nothing magic about turning these children around. We figured out what they liked, and then found ways of bringing what they liked into what they did not like.

Obviously, no child is going to love every activity that he or she needs to confront. No one can always do what he or she wants. But if we can help children make the most of their natural interests, and bring these interests into their work, even in other fields, we may find that some of our most unmotivated children rather suddenly become motivated.

8. An expert is not the person who knows the most, but the person who best uses what he or she knows. Experts know more than novices--about that the psychological literature leaves no doubt.[9] But when we focus on learning for its own sake, rather than for use, we do not teach children to face the challenges that the world holds for them. What is important is not what children know, but how well they can use what they know. As an adult, how often have you had a recall-the-facts test where your performance determined how well you would do in your job or in your life? Probably never. Rather, what has mattered is your ability to make the most of what you know, and to learn what you do not know that you need to know.

In a project called Practical Intelligence for Schools, done in collaboration with Howard Gardner and his group, we have tried to teach children of roughly ten to eleven years of age how to exploit their knowledge and skills in school situations. Many children have the academic skills, but do not know how to channel them effectively. We have had considerable success in teaching children skills of self- management that help them to maximize on their natural abilities.[10]

When we teach and when we test, we need to emphasize teaching and testing children in a way that teaches them not just knowledge, but how to use it.

9. Do not lock into predictive tests. Other cultures manage to get by with a minimum of testing. We go to the other extreme. We have tests for everything. What is worse, we take the results of these tests much too seriously. My own career as a student got off to a bad start when, because of test anxiety, I did poorly in elementary school on intelligence tests. My teachers, convinced that I was slow, expected little of me, and because I wanted to please my teachers, I gave them what they expected. It was not until I had a teacher who expected more of me that I started being an A student--and no one was more surprised than I was. My son Seth had a similar experience. A low score on a reading test given to him his first day in a new school in a new community with new friends and new teachers resulted in his being placed in a slow reading section. As a result, he fell way behind his capabilities in reading. When teachers saw that he was reading much better than the reading test said he should, instead of placing Seth in a higher group, they retested him to check where he should be placed. In other words, performance on the test was viewed as more important than Seth's actual performance in reading. I have countless stories of the same kind that I cannot repeat here for lack of space. What starts off as a predictor somehow becomes a substitute for, or even more important than, what it is supposed to predict. This backward logic characterizes too much of our thinking in education.

The answer is not a new set of tests. There is much emphasis now on performance~based tests. The advantages and disadvantages of these tests are almost complementary to those of the traditional tests. They are less objective and reliable, but more face valid. They are probably more influenced by cultural variables than are the traditional tests. Ideally, a combination of traditional and new types of tests would be used. But no tests are perfect. They are only rough guides. To the extent that we want to maximize on our children's potentials, we need to get away from the rigidity of predictive tests, and concentrate instead on real performances in natural settings.

10. There are no panaceas. Teachers, administrators, and everyone else want panaceas. Right now, in the United States, people are disappointed that a new political administration, like an old one, has no panaceas. In education, people have been awaiting the magic bullet that will solve our educational woes. There is no panacea. Moreover, I doubt that any educational or psychological theory will provide the answer. What we need to do is use our common sense, and to provide our children with the most effective educational opportunities possible. I have tried in this article to suggest some commonsense principles for how to do this. It is not that I lack theories--I have plenty of them. I also have some views as to how we might best organize our schools. But ultimately, I believe, we will be best served if we ask what commonsense things we can do to improve the teaching and learning in our schools, and I hope that, in this article, I have reviewed at least some of what these things might be. They do not replace the need for psychological or educational theory. What they do do, I believe, is to say what we need to do when we go beyond theories to everyday practice. It is true that we need to stop looking for magic bullets and to stop diverting ourselves from what we need to do to improve our education. We need theories, but most of all, we need to use our common sense.


1 Howard Gardner, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence (New York: Basic Books, 1983).

2 B.S. Bloom, M.D. Engelhart, E.J. Frost, W. H. Hill, and D. R. Krathwohl, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain (New York: David McKay, 1956).

3 Robert J. Steinberg, Beyond IQ: The Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985); and idem, The Triarchic Mind: A Theory of Human Intelligence (New York: Viking, 1988).

4 Sternberg, Beyond IQ.

5 see L. L. Thurstone, Primary Mental Abilities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938); and Gardner, Frames of Mind.

6 Sternberg, The Triarchic Mind.

7 Robert J. Sternberg, "Mental Self-government: A Theory of Intellectual Styles and Their Development," Human Development 31 (1988): 197-224.

8 Robert J. Sternberg and T. I. Lubart, "An Investment Theory of Creativity and Its Development," Human Development 34 (1991): 1-31.

9 See, for example, M. T. H. Chi, R. Glaser, and M.J. Farr, eds., The Nature of Expertise (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1988).

10 Robert J. Sternberg, L. Okagaki, and A. Jackson, "Practical Intelligence for Success in School ," Educational Leadership 48 (1990): 35-39.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 95 Number 4, 1994, p. 561-569
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 98, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 3:43:23 PM

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