A wise person once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” The quote, a subject of debate as to its origin, is believed to be over 80 years old. As a nation, however, we are only just beginning to fully understand and implement the paradigm behind the observation, that there are a variety of equally valid ways of learning and, accordingly, many forms of intelligence.
The concept itself is known as Multiple Intelligences Theory and was originally coined by Howard Gardner in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind. In it, he posits that people exhibit at least 7 different types of intelligence that indicate modes of learning; Linguistic, Mathematical, Visual/Spatial, Body/Kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal and Intrapersonal. In actuality, Howard Gardner himself was born cross-eyed, nearsighted, color blind, unable to recognize faces, and lacking binocular vision. Nevertheless, he worked his way through the U.S. educational system of the 1940’s and 50’s, one that was not particularly accepting of differences in abilities. He is currently a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a repeatedly published author.
Prior to Gardner’s discussion of multiple intelligences, a person’s intelligence was thought to be measured in only one way: the student’s ability or inability to sit still, listen to one person lecturing at length, and recall memorized material on a test.
In October of 1990 the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was signed into federal law, codifying the beginning of a different way of thinking about successful learning that complemented Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory. IDEA mandated that kids who were not learning in traditional educational settings because of “Learning Disabilities” or “Severe Identifiable Emotional Disabilities” should have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) outlining a learning process believed to be most compatible with each child’s intelligence type. Unfortunately, kids with IEPs who receive specialized learning services, or “Special Education,” are often stigmatized in our society as having learning deficiencies instead of mere learning differences. These kids can be labeled as having lesser intelligence as opposed to having a varied form of intelligence.
In reality, we all have different ways of learning and relating the knowledge we obtain to the world around us. This is a fortunate thing, because our varied intelligences add to the diversity of our interests and, ultimately, the multiple niches we occupy in society. Different types of learners with various forms of intelligence have become mechanics, chefs, teachers, scientists, performing artists, coaches, accountants and leaders, to name just a few. It is as we embrace these diverse talents in everyone within our society that we truly begin to benefit from the multitude of potential in our midst.
If you happen to be curious, like I was, about your own intelligence type and learning style, there are many resources on the World Wide Web that can help assess your unique talents. For a brilliant discussion about the importance of embracing all forms of intelligence, see Dr. Temple Grandin’s February, 2010 TED Talk, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds.”
Can you guess where my primary intelligences lie? As with most of us, there are clues in my chosen profession. For the answer to this question and a second installment on learning style diversity, check out next month’s column!