Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

In 1983, a new idea about intelligence was introduced that changed the way educators think about teaching and learning. Howard  Gardner developed the concept of Multiple Intelligences.

Howard Gardner is a professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He won a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981, has written 25 books published in many languages and hundreds of articles. He has also received 26 honorary degrees. He is best known for his theory of Multiple Intelligences. (Howard Gardner.com)

In 1983 Gardner published a book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In this and later books, he suggests that our current definition of Intelligence is too narrow. “In a traditional view, intelligence is defined operationally as the ability to answer items on tests of intelligence.”( Multiple Intelligences p.15)  These tests generally focus on verbal and math skills.

He lists seven intelligences:( pp. 8-9) In a later book, he adds an eighth intelligence, “Naturalist.” Other authors have suggested additional possibilities. I do not list Naturalist here because it isn’t usually included in books on Learning Styles. I have added occasional comments based on material from David Lazear’s book, Seven Ways of Teaching (pp. xiv, xv, xvi)

The Seven Intelligences

  1. “Linguistic Intelligence:” This is sometimes called Verbal/Linguistic. It includes reading, writing, speaking, abstract reasoning, story telling and more.
  2. “Logical-Mathematical Intelligence”
  3. “Spatial Intelligence” This is often called Visual/Spatial. It includes art, architecture and other areas that require the ability to visualize. Lazear mentions chess as an example
  4. “Musical Intelligence”
  5. “Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence” This includes dance, gymnastics, sports, and other physical skills.
  6. “Interpersonal Intelligence” I find the last two categories confusing. I prefer to call this Social Intelligence.
  7. “Intrapersonal Intelligence” I call this reflective Intelligence. It is about knowing yourself.

Many asked Gardner how these intelligences were different from talents or skills. I describe the differences with these examples.

You can train thousands of children to play the violin or other musical instrument. Some will do poorly. Others will learn to play well. You might say they have  talent. They might also have worked harder. Still others go beyond what they were taught. They not only play well; they have a deep understanding about what is involved in creating great music. They have great musical intelligence.

Most of us have learned to read and write. While some do poorly in these areas, others are excellent readers and writers. You might also call this a talent. There are those who go beyond this, however, those who read with deeper comprehension, those who create great works of literature, and those who are inspirational speakers. These individuals have unusual linguistic intelligence.

Learning Styles and Teaching Styles

After educators grew interested in the idea of multiple intelligences, there were dozens of writers who published books on the subject. Of  those I have read, all made several assumptions:

The first assumption is that if you enjoy music, you have musical intelligence. If you draw fairly well, you have visual/spatial intelligence. If you prefer physical activities in class rather than reading or listening, you have body/kinesthetic intelligence. This is quite a leap. There is no reason at all to believe any of it.

They make a second interesting assumption. They suggest that, if your strongest area of intelligence is verbal/linguistic, that you learn best by reading. This sounds logical. But does this mean the student who has musical intelligence will learn math best by some musical method?  Does the Intrapersonal (reflective) student learn biology best by thinking about it?  Does the athlete or dancer learn literature best through physical activity?

To some extent these ideas make good sense. That explains why so many teachers bought these books and tried to apply the ideas in their classrooms. Some teachers used surveys to identify the intelligences for each student so they could teach different students by different methods. That created a terrible burden for the teachers. Picture the readers in one corner reading history, the Logical/mathematics students solving problems about history, the Visual/spatial students creating art about history, the Musical students playing music about history, etc.

Some teachers simply gave up on the idea. Others changed their approach. Instead of trying to teach individual children according to their “leaning style” we began to  include at least two or three of these teaching styles in each lesson, realizing that all students learn be”tter if taught with a variety of styles.

Howard Gardner did not describe related “Learning Styles.”  When asked if the intelligences were the same thing as “Learning Styles, ” Gardner responded, “Without doubt, some of the distinctions made in the theory of multiple intelligences resemble those made by educators who speak of different learning or working styles. … But MI theory begins from a different point and ends up at a different place from most schemes that emphasize stylistic approaches.” (p.44)

Gardner also does not make the clam that each student has at least one of these intelligences. I believe that some students are pretty much mediocre in all areas.

Conclusion: How should we use Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences?

1. I strongly believe we should accept the idea that Intelligence is about more than reading, writing, and math. The concept of having different (multiple) ways of being intelligent is an extremely helpful approach to this situation.

2. I firmly believe teachers should learn about and use Multiple Teaching Styles. The more ways students learn material, the greater the number of places it is stored in our brain, and the better they understand.

3. But I object strongly to the notion of encouraging students to learn with the Styles that describe them best. All Students benefit from learning through many styles, not just their strongest or favorite style.