Why Learning Styles Based on Sensory Organs Make No Sense

This article (click here for link) describes what is occurring in the human brain when an individual encounters a literary work. I used the word “encounter” deliberately. That’s because, according to the research team quoted here, the same areas of the brain are activated, whether one encounters the literary work through reading a book or through listening to a recording, for example on a podcast.

I have always taken care to distinguish “multiple intelligences” from “learning styles” (see my article in The Washington Post, click here for link.) And what I have found particularly objectionable is the claim that individuals have “auditory” or “visual” or other sensory-based learning styles. Were this the case, then how we process literature would differ, depending on whether we read it or listen to it. In contrast, in speaking of intelligences, I always stress that the intelligence becomes operative only after information has been received by the cortex, whether it is received by sensory organ A or sensory organ B. And, thinking specifically about language, what matters is not whether the language is heard (auditory), read (visual) or perceived by touch (tactile, as with braille). This research nicely confirms this important distinction.

Where is Talent?

Times Higher Education recently published my article on talent (click here for link). You can read the full text below.

July 31, 2019

By Howard Gardner

Nurturing talent is complex – and it is not enough

Students’ talents wear many guises, depending on the person, the field and the judge. But instilling ethics is also crucial, says Howard Gardner

For those with educational responsibilities, how we choose and promote learners is crucial. In universities, if we are asked how we select our students, we typically say that it is a case of identifying and building on raw talent. But what does that really mean? And does it bear scrutiny?

Dating back at least to biblical times, our species has had a notion of talent. Speaking broadly, talent was something inborn – a gift from God or the gods that allowed its possessor to perform extraordinarily well. And barring extraordinary circumstances, talent was expected to be readily noticed, developed and publicly displayed.

If the talent appeared in an offspring of privilege, it could be readily nurtured. And if it manifested itself in an unexpected place, neighbours were expected to lend a hand so that the talent could partake of educational opportunities. And so it remains in certain spheres, such as sports or the arts.

With respect to academic talent, more technical means of identification were introduced in the past century. Even if they lived in remote surroundings, young people with a high IQ or an unexpectedly high SAT score (or its overseas equivalents) would have the opportunity to study at first-rate institutions of higher learning. And, if the stars aligned, they could undertake a career in teaching, research and scholarship.

I contend that we should think about this issue in a quite different way. Instead of asking “Who is talented?” or “What is talent?”, we should ponder “Where is talent”?  In so doing, we need to consider at least three entities: the person, the domain of expertise and the field of judges.

Regarding the person, psychological testing has led us to think of intellect as being singular, of a piece. But we now recognise that there are various spheres of intellect – what I have called multiple intelligences. A person may be strong in language but not in mathematical thinking, or vice versa. And neither of those strengths or weaknesses predicts how the person will perform in an art form like music, or in understanding other people (often called social intelligence) or themselves (sometimes called emotional intelligence).

In short, individuals can have quite different intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, there are other issues of character, will and motivation that determine whether talents will develop and how they will be deployed.

Just as individuals can be intelligent in various ways, they can excel in a multiplicity of domains, spheres or sectors. Even within the academy, it takes quite different skills to become an expert physicist or chemist, as opposed to an esteemed historian or philosopher – let alone an outstanding lawyer, doctor, engineer or teacher. Each of these domains has its own set of requirements for training – and a still further set of skills and desiderata come into play when it comes to leadership or collaboration.

It is also important to bear in mind that these skills and desiderata change over time. Looking at institutions of higher learning, we might say that until the 20th century, skills in language were primary. In the 20th century, mathematical and scientific thinking became valorised. In our time, both computational and interpersonal skills are at a premium. And perhaps, looking ahead, as AI and deeper learning tools gain in power and versatility, we may look for yet different human skills – or perhaps human-cum-device skills.

In an ideal world, talent and expertise might speak for themselves. But in every sector of which I am aware, across the arts and sciences, there are individuals and rules that determine how talent is noticed and evaluated – and, therefore, who is given an opportunity, who is promoted and who is rewarded – and, conversely, who is denied those opportunities. Those rules, moreover, are highly time- and culture-bound. For example, while the field judging painting talent in the 18th century would have favoured realism, it would not have done so in the 20th century.

We would like to think that these judgements are entirely objective. But even when obvious favouritism and bias are eliminated, judges are rarely neutral: often, they favour individuals like themselves – or, in an effort to counter bias, they may go to the opposite extreme. Presumably, in the past, many potentially excellent students and scholars were overlooked, precisely because they did not resemble the archetypal talented young person.

So identifying and nurturing talent is not simply a case of looking for markers and pushing along those so marked. All three nodes of the talent triangle must be taken into account, and their interaction noted.

Moreover, our job as educators is not simply to identify and nurture talent. We need to do more. We need to form individuals who will use their talents to do the right thing. To do this, we must exemplify and reward the models of human behaviour and character that we desire in our future workers and leaders – and sanction those of which we disapprove.

History shows that talent devoid of ethical character may just as easily bring humanity to its knees in gas chambers as enable giant leaps for mankind in spacesuits.

Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs research professor of cognition and education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. He will be speaking on a panel about new definitions of talent at Times Higher Education’s World Academic Summit at ETH Zurich on 10 to 12 September, whose theme is how talent thrives. He is grateful to his teacher, Nelson Goodman, and his colleague, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, for suggesting how to go beyond a simple definition of talent.

An Interview with Long Term Economy

Howard Gardner was recently interviewed by Dario Ruggiero, founder of the Italian organization Long Term Economy. The interview presents Gardner’s current views about multiple intelligences and its application in education and society.

Below is the interview in full.

Interview with Howard Gardner 

(Hobbs Research Professor of Cognition and Education Harvard Graduate School of Education)


May 2000. I went out for a pizza with my friends. Mike who had the highest IQ was not able to have a word with any girl in the group. Josh who had the worst IQ was a genius in relating with girls and the other friends of the group. Why that? Why the most intelligent person was defeated by Josh in relating with the girls and the group. The answer is simple: Josh has higher interpersonal intelligence!

Having a big IQ simply means that you have good Logical and Linguistic intelligences. But there are 6 other kinds of Intelligence the IQ does not take into account and that can be determinant in your success in life and can be determinant in solving some complex challenges like the ones humans are to face in the next decades. Howard Gardner (Hobbs Research Professor of Cognition and Education Harvard Graduate School of Education) developed the Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the publication of the book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. He says “Each person has a unique spectrum of intellectual strengths and weaknesses.” We all (parents, teachers, professors, politicians, head of companies etc…) should understand this principle. We should understand that it is a very, very big failure for the system if it is not able to get the best from each person and make him happy (by doing what he can do best).

So, what are Multiple Intelligences? How does it affect the educational approach? How can it help humankind face the current and future challenges? Can it help society develop Long Term Thinking? Should educators and parents understand the MI model before trying to educate a child? Howard Gardner answered to these and other questions.

This interview was made by Dario Ruggiero and published in July 2019 on www.lteconomy.org.


Thanks go to Long Term Economy Board (Priscilla Asamoah Baffour, Geetha Packal, Stephen Saunders, Tazeen Siddiqui) and Fatjona Filipi and Grazia Giordano (Long Term Economy collaborators) for their help in making the questionnaire.


  • …Rather than human beings having a single intelligence, which can be adequately assessed by an instrument like an IQ test, human beings are better thought of as having a set of capacities.

  • The intelligences are like a mental chemistry set – you can create a poison or a an antibiotic with chemical elements.

  • … And not surprisingly, “MI approaches” to education are more likely to be found in smaller and more flexible educational environments.

  •  Nearly every day, I hear from educators all over the world, who have found these ideas compelling, and who sometimes combine them with an interest in ‘the good project’.

  • For the first time in human history, we have developed machines and approaches (like deep learning and other forms of ‘artificial intelligence’) which equal or surpass human capacities.

  • So the intelligences in themselves are amoral. They need to be yoked to a purpose and that purpose can be positive or destructive. And that’s why my colleagues and I have been studying Good Work – work that is technically excellent, personally engaged, and carried out in an ethical manner.

1. When I first came across the concept of Multiple Intelligences (MI) I was shocked by the fact that it is still not used massively in school and that IQ remains the only assessment method. Can you kindly better explain the concept of MI and how can it benefit our society?

Gardner: The idea of multiple intelligences is a psychological theory. I contend that rather than human beings having a single intelligence, which can be adequately assessed by an instrument like an IQ test, human beings are better thought of as having a set of capacities, which I call the multiple intelligences. A person may be strong with linguistic intelligence, but not with spatial intelligence, or vice versa. And there are several other intelligences, ranging from musical to interpersonal. (See my writings or my website www.multipleintelligencesoasis.org.) Each person has a unique spectrum of intellectual strengths and weaknesses.

Any psychological theory can be used beneficially or destructively. The intelligences are like a mental chemistry set – you can create a poison or a an antibiotic with chemical elements. I believe that intelligences need to be yoked with ‘good work’ or ‘good citizenship,’ as I mention below with reference to Question 5.

As for IQ tests I don’t think you are correct. At least in the United States, IQ tests are not used routinely anymore. And there are many tests for more specific kinds of abilities. Yet, as the creator of MI theory, I prefer not to use short answer tests but rather to observe individuals in various kinds of environments and to observe which kinds of things they like to do, and which things they can do well.

2. You say that there are 2 main educational implications: Individuation (also termed personalization) and Pluralization (ideas, concepts, theories, skills should be taught in several different ways). How can the current standardised, competitive-based and non-inclusive current model of education move towards this approach?

Gardner: As you imply, it’s easier to individuate when you have a more progressive, more flexible educational system, than when you have a ‘one size fits all’ approach. And not surprisingly, “MI approaches” to education are more likely to be found in smaller and more flexible educational environments.

But any teacher and any school can decide to pay more attention to individual differences; and certainly any schools can approach complex concepts and procedures in a variety of ways. That’s a choice to be made by teachers and by the heads of school. And when they choose to embrace individuation and pluralization, and the students learn more or better, then there’s no need to revert to more old-fashioned approaches.

One other important thing: In the age of the internet and the web, it is possible to individuate and to personalize as much as one wants to. No need for ‘one size fits all’ any more. But of course, that means that you can’t just do social media (like Facebook). You have to explore the web and approach important concepts and processes in ways that are comfortable to you, the learner – take courses, converse with others, and the like.

3. You developed MI theory in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the publication of the book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Since then has the educational system moved towards your model?

Gardner: You are right that these ideas are several decades old, and I have nuanced some of my views since then. It would not be correct to say that ‘the educational system’ has moved towards my or anyone else models. There are hundreds of countries and millions of schools!

I can say that whether or not parents and teachers have heard of me, or know the phrase ‘multiple intelligences,’ these ideas have had considerable influence in education around the world. In 2009 my colleagues and I published a 400-page book ‘Multiple intelligences around the world.’ Forty-two scholars in 15 countries on five continents described ways in which they used “MI ideas” in schools, museums, workplace, and other educational contexts. And nearly every day, I hear from educators all over the world, who have found these ideas compelling, and who sometimes combine them with an interest in The Good Project (see Question 5).

4. Perhaps the 20th century was a period where intelligences making up the IQ, specifically linguistic, logical-mathematical, and sometimes spatial intelligence, were more important in that kind of society (where efficiency request was high, economic growth was the only main goal and no uncertainty was present). Do you think that the 21st century, with all its upcoming uncertainties, will boost the need for a multiple intelligences approach?

Gardner: That’s a good and complex question. For the first time in human history, we have developed machines and approaches (like deep learning and other forms of ‘artificial intelligence‘) which equal or surpass human capacities. In some cases, we will not need to draw on certain human intelligences because the relevant tasks are solved much better and easier than human beings can do. Also, for the first time in human history, we are understanding the nervous systemwell enough that we can begin to operate directly on the brain, diagnose strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps also link the human brain directly to mechanical entities or vice versa. And to top it all off, we may be able to operate directly on the human genome, thus changing the nature of our species at a speed that has no connection to the speed with which evolution has worked for thousands of years.

So I have little doubt that 100 hundred years from now, if there are psychologists or cognitive scientists (or new creatures!) interested in human cognition, they will draw the map of human intelligences in quite a different way. I’ll bet that it is closer to an “MI” perspective than to the traditional IQ perspective.  But I won’t be around to know the answer!

5. Finally, we are a community of Long Term Thinkers. The project wants to move from a short term into a long term vision in making decisions (take into account long term effects) in order to make humankind really sustainable. The fact is that being Money (short-term asset) the main goal in the current society is in contrast with long term sustainability. In which way do you think a Multiple Intelligences Model can help developing Long Term Thinking and a more sustainable and thriving society? Is in your opinion for example MI more suitable to face the current Ecological Crisis?

As a result of twenty five years of research on Good Work, I think about this question differently. Any human intelligence can be used benignly or destructively. Both the poet Goethe and the propagandist Josef Goebbels had plenty of linguistic intelligence; one used it to write great literature, the other to foment hatred. Both Nelson Mandela and Slobodan Milosevic had plenty of interpersonal intelligence: the first used his intelligence to heal a wounded country, the other to generate ethnic cleansing.

So the intelligences in themselves are amoral. They need to be yoked to a purpose and that purpose can be positive or destructive. And that’s why my colleagues and I have been studying Good Work: work that is technically excellent, personally engaged, and carried out in an ethical manner. And that’s why we have been studying Good Citizenship: an approach to one’s role in various sectors that is informed, involving, and takes into account the needs of the broader society (rather than just one’s own selfish desires).

So when someone says that they are using the idea of “MI”, I ask “To what end?” And I am delighted if an individual or a group is devoted toward longer term thinking, and toward dealing with crises like the ecological crisis, and my colleagues and I offer to work with them if that proves feasible. If readers are interested, they should look at the website for thegoodproject.org and write to hgasst@gse.harvard.edu.

An Interview on Children and Multiple Intelligences

I was recently interviewed about multiple intelligences by French publication Magazine Les Plumes.

I answer six questions below concerning the nature of intelligence with special attention to implications for children.

The interview appeared in the June 2019, No. 44 edition of the magazine.

1) How do you define intelligence? Is it innate (genetic) or acquired (socio-cultural environment)? How is it different from a talent?

An intelligence is the ability to make products or solve problems that are valued in one’s cultural setting. I believe that human beings have a small number of relatively independent intelligences, which I call the multiple intelligences. Standard tests of intelligence typically probe linguistic and logical intelligences, but do not probe the other intelligences that I have identified: musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.

Each of these intelligences has a genetic component, but each can and is enhanced by opportunities to practice the exercise of that intelligence.

You can call all of these capacities “talents” or all of them “intelligences.” I object to picking one or two of them out, calling them “intelligences,” and down-grading or marginalizing the others by calling them (mere) “talents.”

2) Does a person have only one dominant intelligence? Can a person's intelligence profile be changed during life (childhood or adulthood)? (Is it possible to improve or diversify one's intelligence?)

Absent gross injury, we each have the full component of intelligences, though we differ in which one(s) are strong, or not strong, at a particular time. Our profiles can and are changed continually throughout life. Practice or exercise increases an intelligence; disuse or misuse decreases the intelligence. If one wants to enhance an intelligence, it is best to live in a society where there are good teachers and teaching methods, many opportunities to practice, and various kinds of prosthetics, which can certainly include all kinds of technological aids.

3) More and more children are tested for IQ when intellectual precocity is suspected. However you are opposed to these tests. Why?

I am not opposed to tests per se. Tests need to be used sparingly and to be interpreted intelligently. If an individual is really intelligent in an area—be it language, music, or the understanding of other persons—there is no need to test them.

IQ tests are best suited to determine who will be successful in a certain kind of educational environment—that is why and how they were created in Paris by Alfred Binet over a century ago. But as the nature of schooling changes, and as the skills needed for success in society also evolve, these tests need to change—or they will become increasingly anachronistic.

4) What would you recommend to parents who want to discover the intellectual profile of their child?

I recommend taking the child to a children’s museum, or some other kind of rich environment (like a new city, or a farm, or the seashore). Observe what interests the child, how he or she interacts with materials, what they return to and what they ignore, and especially which materials they interact with, over time, in an increasingly sophisticated way. 

Of course, this is easier to do if you have seen and observed lots of children. And so it’s good to have someone who teaches children of that age; such an individual can help you to distinguished between behavior that is to be expected from a child of that age and experience and behavior that is extraordinary for a child of that age and experience. But it is also important to deserve change over time: two youngsters can look equally intelligence at Time 1; but at Time 2 or Time 3, there can be quite a difference—one child shoots ahead because he or she is more intelligent in that sphere. Yo-Yo Ma could not play the cello at age 3; but he certainly learned more quickly than most other three-year-olds!

5) It is increasingly common to be willing to adapt the way of teaching according to the learning profile (auditory, visual or kinesthetic) of the child. Do you think it is relevant? What is the difference between the learning profile and the intelligence profile when it comes to teaching?

It certainly makes sense to have more than one way of teaching any topic or skill. But I do not agree that the teaching should be done by varying the sensory modality; rather it should be done in terms of the intelligences that the child has exhibited. There is no secret formula for determine the best way(s) to teach a child; one has to experiment with various “entry points.” And often the child can tell you how he or she learns best, which approaches work, and which ones don’t work. Of course, motivation can help a great deal, and the effective parent or teacher attends to what experiences excite and energize the learner and which ones alienate them.

6) How can a better understanding of multiple intelligences and a better knowledge of each child’s intelligence profile facilitate learning? When one wants to facilitate learning, do you believe that teaching should only take into account the child’s intelligence profile or that teaching should call upon all different intelligences even if they are not the child’s profile?

That’s a good question. Optimally, a child should be able to learn in a number of ways, drawing on the several intelligences. And if a child is learning well, we should celebrate that fact and just encourage the child to continue.

The challenge arises when the child is not learning well. That’s the time to experiment with different “entry points” and different ways of continuing the lesson—until one hits upon the ways that are effective. And as mentioned, the child can often help by indicating what works and why. Almost all children want to learn. It‘s up to those in their environment to help the child figure out what works for him or her and to remain in regular dialogue with the child—until such time as the child can take charge of his or her own learning. At this point, the most important educational goal has been reached—the child is now a lifelong learner!

Trump and IQ

There he goes again—President Trump bragging about his own high IQ and the IQs of his close colleagues (click here to read the article).

Of course, in most cases, we don’t actually know about the IQs of these individuals.  IQ, as conventionally measured, is a quick measure of how one will do in a certain kind of school. Accordingly, we can assume that graduates of elite institutions and recipients of prestigious fellowships will on the whole have reasonably high IQs… as well as those who dropped out of selective institutions because they sensed a way to become very rich very quickly (think Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg).

In this context, Trump stands out in two ways.  First of all, he not only refuses to release his grades or transcripts or test scores, but actually threatens jail sentences for those who might be tempted to do so.  (Does this seem like someone who is proud of his academic achievements?) Second, in Trump’s case, I would bet that his IQ would vary significantly, depending on whether the test was written or oral (Trump does not like to read and, if his spelling of tweets is any cue, he may be somewhat dyslexic), whether it involved language, or was completely non-linguistic (like the Raven’s progressive matrices).

I suspect that when Trump assesses an individual’s IQ, he is instead paying attention to gender, height, quickness of response, ability to quip, speed with figures, and perhaps, alas, willingness to cut corners and to go along with him. Indeed, the speculated IQ is likely to go down a standard deviation if someone breaks with Trump, as did Cabinet Secretaries Tillerson or Mattis, and to go up a standard deviation if one protects Trump, as do his current favorites, or is a member of his family, as in the case of Jared Kushner. (We don’t discuss certain members of the family). And if the person is Steve Bannon, the IQ probably fluctuates like the stock market.

Interesting that Trump praises the ‘poorly educated’.  Presumably he makes an exception for low IQ individuals who support him.

So, what does the multiple intelligences person think about Trump’s IQ? Let’s read what I wrote ten days after the election (click here for link.) And let’s look at what Mindy Kornhaber wrote months before Trump’s (click here for link.) And of course, you should read this article.

By Howard Gardner