Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Univ.

As a prelude to the Innovate to Educate Symposium in Boston on August 4-6, 2010, we run another in a series of interviews with personalized learning experts. Here we ask Howard Gardner to tell us about his vision for personalized learning in an age of education reform. Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor for Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Here is a list of speakers at the personalization symposium.

ed: What is your vision for personalized learning?

My vision of personalized learning grows out of the theory of multiple intelligences, which I developed thirty years ago. Personalized learning involves Individuation and Pluralization. Individuation means that each student should be taught and assessed in ways that are appropriate and comfortable for that child. Pluralization means that anything worth teaching could and should be taught in several ways. By so doing, one reaches more students. And one also conveys what it means to understand something. When we understand a topic, concept, or theory, we can think of it in many ways.

In the past, there was only one group that received personalized learning—the very wealthy.  Tutors made sure that the student learned.  Today, we live in a computer age.  For the first time in human history, individuation and pluralization are potentially available to any young person.  And so the ideas of non personalized, remote, or cookie-cutter style teaching and learning will soon become anachronistic.

ed: What are the challenges being addressed and the opportunities being leveraged?

The major challenge is a system that has proceeded for centuries on the basis of ’uniform’ schooling and uniform learning: teaching everyone the same thing in the same way.  That tack has seemed fair, because all are being treated in the same way. But it is actually unfair, because school is being pitched to a certain kind of mind—in my terms, a mind that is strong in language and logic.

Added to that is our system of standardized assessment, which focuses on particular bits of knowledge and which often simply presents a set of choices.  Once we have more personalized education, we can provide far more realistic assessments and allow students leeway in how they approach the problems and puzzles that they are presented.

ed: What is the transformation path for an education system (i.e., state, district or school) to transition from the existing model to one based on personalization for each and every student?

Nowadays, almost everyone praises the charter school movement. I have nothing against charters, but I certainly don’t see them as a silver bullet. But charters and independent schools, at least in principle, ought to have far more leeway to try out more personalized forms of learning.

The ‘hitch’ is in assessments.  If one personalizes learning, but then presents the same wooden, multiple choice assessments, the student’s learning may well not be demonstrable.  This is not to say that there should be no common standards.  But students ought to have flexibility in how they demonstrate what they have learned—through essays, through projects, through the creation of works of art that bear on the topic at hand.

ed: What is the intersection of personalization and equity?

In principle, of course, personalized learning is far more equitable. Each student is approached in ways that are appropriate and assessed in ways that are comfortable. However, such learning requires strong resources, both human and computational. In the hands of a rigid or ill-informed teacher, or equipped with simulations that are not well conceived, all but the strongest students will be at a loss.

ed: What is the research and validation work to date on personalized learning, including that it is an effective approach as well as about the attributes and specifications associated with its successful implementation?

It is not easy to carry out controlled studies of this issue. You can hardly say to a teacher “don’t personalize” and then compare that teacher with one who does personalize.  A brief in favor of personalized learning has to draw on various sources of information and on various measures.  Independent schools have smaller classes and so of course they can instruct and assess in more personalized ways.

As for an education based on multiple intelligences, I can recommend two books: MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES, by Mindy Kornhaber; and MULTIPLE INTELLIGENCES AROUND THE WORLD by Jie-Qi Chen, Seana Moran, and Howard Gardner. These books provide ample examples of effective personalized education.

ed: How can educators, researchers and software developers collaborate to create effective personalized learning solutions?

To develop the kinds of materials that I am calling for, it is imperative to involve teachers with deep understanding of their topic(s). Such individuals can put forth numerous ways of approaching key concepts, while also being able to eliminate those approaches that may seem appealing, but that are not legitimate.  I would never claim that one can teach any topic in any way; but I am happy to rest my reputation on the claim that any topic worth teaching can be taught in more than one way.  The educational world of the future belongs to those educators and technologists who can create robust ways to present important but challenging concepts.


  1. I am just so very grateful personalized learning and adaptive assessments are finally being taken seriously by others than the educational psychologists and professors.

    I spoke at George W. Bush’s IT National Steering Committee on the need for adaptive assessments in order to ever make in-roads in “Adaptive Learning” or what i snow called personalized learning. My firm, Adaptive Learning Technology, was acquired by Ignite! Learning in 1999… and after 18 months they changed to “one size fits all”. They missed the opportunity.


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