The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

The theory of multiple intelligences-first presented in the 1980’s by Howard Gardner-proposes that human beings have multiple intelligences. To understand the theory, think of the intelligences as “learning styles” that are genetic as well as cultural.

There are eight intelligences. They are: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.

Before Gardner’s work was published, intelligence was measured-as a single entity-by I.Q. tests or other methods. In reality, they only measured logical, mathematical and maybe linguistic intelligence. It seems laughable now, more than 25 years later. And yet the old paradigm still lingers. Because “old school” educators are still alive and teaching, and because budget cuts don’t allow for sophisticated learning tools, many children fall through the cracks.

Most teachers in the United States are familiar with the theory of Multiple Intelligences. In fact most teachers probably believe in the diversity of learning styles. Unfortunately, US classrooms are far too crowded and education budgets are being cut in nearly every state. American schools traditionally teach to verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. Students who are not strong in these intelligences are often the “problem kids” in classrooms. They may develop attitude issues and, of course, their grades and achievement suffer as a result.

Everyone has all of the intelligences to some degree. Usually a person will be strong in two intelligences and have supporting strengths in the others.

Howard Gardner conducted his research while working with brain-injured adults and autistic children. He discovered that the different intelligences operate from distinct areas in the brain. After a brain injury, one of his subjects lost her speaking ability, but was still able to sing. So her verbal-linguistic ability resided in a different part of her brain than her musical intelligence.

Even more interesting is Gardner’s discovery that, while the intelligences emerge from distinct parts of the brain, they work together when called upon to perform tasks. When playing a game like Checkers, a child will access his logical and spatial skill to plan moves on the board.

As mentioned earlier, Gardner discovered that a child’s cultural environment will promote the development of one intelligence over another. He states: “It is the culture that defines the stages and fixes the limits of individual achievement.” A child’s predominant intelligences will be determined early in life.

This environmental predisposition led to an even more important discovery. The intelligences evolve over time. This is important because it demonstrates the adaptability of children over time. Given the proper environment and encouragement, a child can learn to develop all of his intelligences. Rather than becoming frustrated in the classroom, an astute teacher can make observations and encourage her students to stretch the strength of their secondary intelligences. Because the intelligences will change over time, it can be concluded that they can be learned. And, because they can be learned, they can also be taught.

Our children are living in a society that values some intelligences over others. Additionally, certain intelligences are obviously more useful in completing higher education and various careers. A child may aspire to a career that is not supported by one of her intelligences. Teachers can incorporate games and learning toys that are engaging and encourage the development of secondary learning styles. As children improve in all of the intelligences, they become more self-assured learners.

One of the most positive results of teaching to multiple intelligences is that it assumes that everyone is intelligent in his or her own way. In an MI classroom environment students begin to relax about learning because it is a place where everyone is “smart!” Blocks to learning spontaneously fall away. As students find success in the learning experience, they become more courageous about tackling increasingly difficult tasks.

What follows is a brief description of each of the intelligences:

The verbal-linguistic intelligence is the tendency to excel in language and communication-both written and spoken.

The logical-mathematical intelligence relates well to numbers and symbols. As in mathematics, they understand abstract relationships. They are logical and analytical.

The spatial intelligence understands the manipulations of three-dimensional objects within a space. They can design and visualize objects within a given space.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence uses the body to communicate and solve problems. Drama, dance and role-playing would be examples of how they prefer to express themselves.

The musical intelligence understands and resonates with pitch, rhythm and timbre. They respond to sounds. Their understanding could be described as auditory.

The interpersonal intelligence “gets” other people and relates well to people and groups. They are social and they can experience the feelings of others. They tend to be leaders.

The intrapersonal intelligence is self-aware. They have an acute sense of self and prefer to work alone as opposed to working in teams.

The naturalist intelligence resonates with the natural world. They are good scientists and can see the world in terms of the elements and biological science.


-Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
-Blythe, T., & Gardner, H. (1990). A school for all intelligences. Educational Leadership.
-Gardner, H. (1995a). Multiple intelligences as a catalyst. English Journal, 84 (8), 16-18.
-Gardner, H. (1995b). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages.