The value of evoking and projecting the law of diminishing returns is its capacity to stop professionals momentarily in their tracks. It compels a proactive calculation of diminishing gains, which if unheeded may stall and place training back in the situation from which it was recently rescued. In short, it may be time to sharpen the saw, except now it may have to be the softer and more speculative cutting edge of theory.
The title above is a good place to start because it is taken from a paper given by Howard Gardner, the Harvard educational and cognitive psychologist, to the American Educational Research Association on April 21, 2003. The paper was titled, “Multiple Intelligences After Twenty Years.” That double-paired focus on retrospect and prospect also might be just the sort of balancing act CLOs, CIOs and corporate universities need to undertake now.
There are eight intelligences identified by Gardner, which in turn had to survive eight criteria. The intelligences are:
Looking back to his seminal work “Frames of Mind” (1983) and reviewing his identification of eight multiple intelligences (MI), Gardner comes to a number of general conclusions that perhaps can be applied to alter the focus of training:
- All human beings possess multiple intelligences.
- The profile of intelligence dimensions varies with each individual.
- Multiple intelligences are relatively autonomous and operate with a will and direction of their own.
- Goals can guide and determine the configuration of intelligences, but which ones may remain mysterious and non-repeatable.
- For goals to be optimal, they should always combine the small and the big, the immediate and the long-term. Multiple intelligences are brought fully into play, mobilized and energized by both immediate task completion and task extension. The more focused and the bigger the task, the greater the number of intelligences involved and the greater the synergetic interplay between them.
- Multiple intelligences are the intellectual staples of the species. They are not synonymous with learning styles or talents. The former are externally mercurial and appear and disappear with social preferences and fashions. The latter are precious and distinctive gifts of special individuals but are not the common drivers of the species.
- Multiple intelligences describe all the basic and archetypal ways the mind works and learns. What determines which ones are used is a complex of three factors: genetics, experience and societal priorities.
- Tapping multiple intelligences is enhanced when the emphasis also is placed on “uncovering” rather than “covering” subjects or topics—when the focus is on square-one thinking or discovering first causes—no matter how temporary or even illusory they may be.
- Multiple intelligences rest on brain and genetic research. It is thus a process of describing and utilizing the basic learning pathways of the species. The brain is still being mapped. When completed, it will be equivalent to the cracking of the genetic code.
- The ultimate value of MI may be to serve as an optimal taxonomy of human capacities and to be the mainstay of a new science and art of mobilizing and measuring human potential.
To many this may appear to be pretty heady stuff and too far out and off to be of any practical value. But a counterargument, which takes the form of reviewing and re-evaluating current training offerings, may keep the subject central, stirring and beneficial. Here are five critical checklist questions learning leaders and managers should ask as they review their current program array:
- To what extent, if any, do the offerings assume and tap multiple intelligences?
- Are training goals and parameters typically narrow and short-term and thus prematurely constricting?
- To what extent does training address only how and not why, seek end results only, not source drivers?
- How extensively, if at all, does training encourage multiple, alternative and even divergent ways of exploring, communicating and solving problems?
- Finally, what does the totality of offerings say about the basic corporate assumptions of human potential and productivity? Limited or unlimited, circumscribed or yet-to-be-tapped?
If enough or all of the answers above point to the need for adding MI to the training mix, how should it be done? The obvious approach is to employ Gardner’s eight versions of MI as an overlay, note where it is lacking and remedy the various sins of omission. But such add-ons perhaps should be put on hold until more basic spadework is done—until, in short, a list of learning processes is compiled that parallels and invites the learning pathways of MI. Such essential and recurrent processes common to all training would include communications, problem-solving, interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, decision-making, innovation, etc. Let us use problem-solving as an illustrative example.
As with all basic learning processes now under the aegis of MI, the starting point with problem-solving is to characterize the process as essentially multiple in nature. That assumption, however, goes way beyond the externally oriented notion of the various tools in the toolbox or arrows in the quiver. MI initially engages not learning outcomes but pathways, not applications but first principles. It assumes the potential and power of all eight intelligences not only to engage, but also to multiply problem definition. The goal then is to strengthen the problem-solver by enriching the problem—to have it speak to the problem-solver in minimally eight different languages—to make the problem increasingly multi-faceted and more demanding.
Thus, in many ways the initial gain of MI is to multiply access. Each intelligence becomes a learning pathway not only to the facade, but also to the core of the problem. On the one hand, the extent of the impact of the problem is assessed and problem definition now spells out all that it can and may affect. On the other hand, MI approaches the problem as a brain and probes its particular learning pathways in order to define what makes it a problem in the first place. Then combining both external manifestations with internal dynamics, MI finally defines what state the problem has to acquire or how it has to be perceived for it to be no longer a problem.
The goal of problem-solving then, as with all basic learning processes, is mutual enrichment and tapping the optimal taxonomy of human learning capacities. But that involves a double attribution. The first is the recognition that the value of MI is to extend learning range and depth. To be sure, the cluster of MI selected and embraced by each individual is determined according to Gardner by genetics, experience and societal preference. But because problem-solving itself, and especially when driven by MI, can both alter experience and be future-driven, the potential for expanding the learning cluster is always available and can be tapped. In short, under the aegis of MI, the solution always involves stretching—it must always expand the range and depth of the problem-solver. He should not be the same afterward. His growth gain not only should have expanded the range of his productivity, but also stirred the depth of his MI potential. To work optimally, the process now has to be doubling—a win-win.
The first dimension of the problem-solving dynamic is thus primarily internal; but the second is external. MI has to be applied to the problem itself. The problem is now defined or redefined in terms of the eight intelligences. What determines its final cluster is what sticks to it. That is the equivalent of the problem’s genetics, experience and social preference. It is its core as a problem and the extent of its impacts. In other words, the problem-solving process has been transformed from a top-down highly directive and unilaterally controlling process to a collaborative, mutually driven negotiating process. It is no longer a subject contemplating an object, but two subjects contemplating each other. Moreover, each is now amplified—more substantial and challenging, more demanding of the other.
In many ways, the attribution of MI to the problem itself and the recognition that what finally adheres constitutes the learning identity of the problem also establishes the threshold for its solution. The ideal is not the cry of “Eureka!” by the problem-solver but the quiet capacity of the problem to solve itself. In fact, what the problem finally selects as its operational multiple intelligence not only functions as its definition, but also as its core and applications solution. The problem becomes self-solving. Its solution has about it an unarguable logic, clarity and inevitability.
MI is thus a two-edged sword. It cuts both ways. On the one hand, it opens up the full range of learning pathways and the potential of being more than we are by virtue of learning more than we knew. It also enables learners to attribute to all the learning processes the same expansive array of intelligences. Such mutual attribution in fact changes the basic relationship between learner and what is learned. To borrow from Gardner, it aligns intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships and makes them not alternatives but versions of each other. In short, MI brings to training the science and art of realizing not only of human potential, but also process potential. It totally engages who we are and what we do and pushes both further to all that we can be and all that we can do. But such gains are always mutual and reciprocal. They inevitably involve the species and its historical and evolutionary partners. It is no longer nature versus nurture, but nature via nurture, and in the process it may grant training a new lease on life and perhaps a new future.
Finally, it clearly would be lamentable at this point in history to grant machines greater potential for intelligence development than human beings. What would also make that ironic is that bypassing or not tapping the optimal capacity of the human species, the future potential of machine intelligence would itself be limited. What Gardner is essentially claiming is that composing an obituary on the limits of learning and productivity is minimally premature and optimally impoverishing. Indeed, training may be the ultimate proving ground of MI and thus add to the LMS a new fusion—MIT (Multiple Intelligence Training).
Irving H. Buchen received his Ph.D. in communications from Johns Hopkins and has taught at Cal State, University of Wisconsin and Penn State. He currently teaches communications at Florida Gulf Coast University and is a member of the business online doctoral faculty at Capella University. He also serves as management and human resources consultant at COMWELL, HR Partners and his own company Optimum Performance Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.