The Theory of Multiple Intelligences


Professor Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has wide spread currency in education. This is due to the appeal of its suggestion that there are a range of intelligences rather than a single IQ that is based on abstract mathematic/logical deductive thinking.

Gardner has questioned the idea that intelligence is a single entity, that it results from a single factor, and so can be measured by one metric via  the  so -called  IQ test. We need instead  to take a   fuller account and demonstrate greater appreciation of human cognitive capacities.  According to Gardner ‘All human beings possess not just a single  intelligence (often called by psychologists “g” for general intelligence). Rather, as a species we  human beings are better described as having a set of relatively autonomous intelligences’.

Some children are, for instance, intuitively brilliant at acting but cant add up. A pupil might be a master of a musical instrument and sight read music at astonishing speed but be weak at expressing themselves on paper. Another child might have highly developed interpersonal skills, make friends easily, and get the best out of and inspire those around them but are hopeless at processing and weighing up academic data.  Indeed, its  not uncommon for  those individuals with very  high IQs, according to the accepted metrics, to be   poor team workers and lacking  in the   ability to  empathise  with  others-doesn’t that imply a missing ‘intelligence’’?

The multiple intelligences set out by Gardner represent a broad range of culturally valued achievement recognised in the outcomes of schooling. Gardner’s multiple intelligences have therefore been utilised to justify the development of broader curriculum opportunities and increased differentiation in teaching. Gardner defines intelligence as “the capacity to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in one or more cultural setting” (Gardner & Hatch, 1989). Using biological as well as cultural research, he formulated a list of seven key intelligences. This new outlook on intelligence differs greatly from the traditional view which usually recognizes only two intelligences, verbal and computational.

Gardner, initially, identified  in Frames of Mind (1983) seven intelligences :

(1) Logical-Mathematical Intelligence — the ability to detect patterns, reason deductively and think logically. Most often associated with scientific and mathematical thinking.

(2) Linguistic Intelligence – the ability to use language masterfully to express oneself rhetorically or poetically. Also allows one to use language as a means to remember information.

(3) Spatial Intelligence — the ability to manipulate and create mental images in order to solve problems. Not limited to visual sight, Gardner noted that blind children can possess spatial intelligence.

(4) Musical Intelligence — the ability to read, understand, and compose musical pitches, tones, and rhythms. (Auditory functions are required for a person to develop this intelligence in relation to pitch and tone, but it is not needed for the knowledge of rhythm.)

(5) Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence — the ability to use one’s mind to control one’s bodily movements. This challenges the popular belief that mental and physical activity are unrelated.

(6) Interpersonal Intelligence – the ability to apprehend the feelings and intentions of others.

(7) Intrapersonal Intelligence — the ability to understand one’s own feelings and motivations.

The latter two intelligences are separate from each other. Nevertheless, because of their close association in most cultures, they are often linked together.  Subsequent research and reflection by Howard Gardner and his colleagues looked  at three other intelligences -a naturalist intelligence, a spiritual intelligence and an existential intelligence. Gardner concluded that the first of these ‘merits addition to the list of the original seven intelligences’ (Gardner 1999).

Naturalist intelligence enables human beings to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment. It ‘combines a description of the core ability with a characterization of the role that many cultures value’

Gardner (1983) argued that culture also plays a large role in the development of the intelligences. All societies value different types of intelligences. The cultural value placed upon the ability to perform certain tasks provides the motivation to become skilled in those areas. Thus, while particular intelligences might be highly evolved in many people of one culture, those same intelligences might not be as developed in the individuals of another. Although the intelligences are separated from each other, Gardner claims that the seven intelligences very rarely operate independently. Rather, the intelligences are used concurrently and typically complement each other as individuals develop skills or solve problems. An example is given of a dancer- a dancer can excel in his art only if he has 1) strong musical intelligence to understand the rhythm and variations of the music, 2) interpersonal intelligence to understand how he can inspire or emotionally move his audience through his movements, as well as 3) bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to provide him with the agility and coordination to complete the movements successfully.

Mindy L. Kornhaber (2001), a researcher involved with Project Zero, identified a number of reasons why teachers and policymakers in North America have responded positively to Howard Gardner’s presentation of multiple intelligences. Among these are that:

… ‘ the theory validates educators’ everyday experience: students think and learn in many different ways. It also provides educators with a conceptual framework for organizing and reflecting on curriculum assessment and pedagogical practices. In turn, this reflection has led many educators to develop new approaches that might better meet the needs of the range of learners in their classrooms.’

So, what is controversial about this theory? First, some academics believe that it is not based on sound science or robust empirical evidence. Secondly, if true, we would have to radically rethink and re-imagine how we teach our children and indeed  what we teach them. Learning styles would have to be adapted to suit children with different intelligences. Teachers would be expected to think of all intelligences as equally important. This is in vivid contrast to traditional education systems which typically place a strong emphasis on the development and use of verbal and mathematical intelligences. Thus, the Theory of Multiple Intelligences implies that educators should recognize and teach to a broader range of talents and skills. And Teachers should structure the presentation of material in a style that engages most or all of the intelligences.

The theory has been aligned with learning styles in the USA. But Gardner has been somewhat frustrated by the way his work has been interpreted and applied, in some schools at least. Memorably, on a visit to Australia he was surprised to be told that there was a state-wide programme that was supposed to be partly based on his theory. But what he saw instead was ‘ a mish mash of practices-left brain and right brain contrasts, sensory learning styles,”neurolinguistic programming” and multiple intelligences approaches all mixed up with dazzling promiscuity’.(Intelligence-Reframed-2000).

Transforming this theory into practice is undoubtedly a challenge

Wellington College has loosely adapted Gardner’s theories to determine that each child has “eight attributes”, which, it sees, as four sets of pairs: the logistical and the linguistic, the creative and the physical, the spiritual and the moral, the personal and the social. The school has incorporated this holistic  thinking into its physical space. The school says ‘Each of these intelligences, or aptitudes, is embedded in Wellington life, providing direction to the development of individual education. In this fashion the whole child is prepared to manage self, manage relationships and manage their own learning, work and performance’

But  not everyone buys into the theory.

Professor John White, Emeritus Professor of philosophy and education at the Institute of Education London, believes that the distinctions and criteria used by Gardner are as arbitrary as traditional eugenic theory. “Gardner suggests there are eight different types of intelligence,” White told the Guardian in 2006, “But at no point does he explain how he arrives at this number. Rather than being based on extensive observation, Gardner appears to derive his taxonomy from the cultural world. He also identifies eight criteria that each intelligence has to meet, without adequately explaining how these are derived or satisfied. It’s a grandiose theory that works on an artistic rather than a scientific model.” Most damning of all, as far as White is concerned, is that multiple intelligence theory dovetails too   conveniently with the existing national curriculum. Children can flourish in different areas, such as music, PE and art, and no one need ask difficult questions about the actual content of what’s on offer. Except, of course, for White. “Intelligence is about exercising good judgment in adapting means to ends,” he says. “We all have different goals, and it simply seems confusing to corral thousands of types of intelligence into just eight categories”. But it is also presumably wrong using this logic  to seek to have one IQ test to determine an individual’s intelligence. Talk about blunt tools!

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, however, provides a useful theoretical foundation for recognizing the different abilities and talents of students.  Students are not one dimensional. Many   have potential that is neither recognised nor supported. This theory acknowledges that while all students may not be verbally or mathematically gifted, or obviously intelligent using normal accepted metrics many children may have particular strengths in other areas, such as music, spatial relations, or interpersonal knowledge which are valued by them as individuals   but also by society and of course the employment market.

Approaching and assessing learning in this manner allows a wider range of students to successfully participate in classroom learning and encourages parents and teachers to provide the necessary support to build on pupils strengths and improve their confidence and self-esteem.  It is also worth noting how highly employers rate interpersonal skills in the workplace which if Gardner is to be believed requires a particular type of intelligence that can be nurtured and developed in schools and elsewhere .

It is surely a pity that so few schools do much or indeed anything to focus on this element of a childs development



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