Applying Multiple Intelligences

How it matters for schools today, 25 years after its introduction by Howard Gardner by Joanna A. Christodoulou

As you enter the grounds of the amusement park, you encounter several activities and games from which you can make selections. Use robots to move objects around the room, play games involving balancing or juggling, mimic a phrase in an exotic language, or seek to lower your pulse rate!

These options may not sound like the type of amusement park you have visited. That is because you’ve just sampled a few of the offerings of Explorama at Danfoss University in Denmark — a theme park that features activities based on the theory of multiple intelligences.


ChristodoulouJoanna Christodoulou is an instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Indeed, the ideas of multiple intelligences introduced by Howard Gardner of Harvard University more than 25 years ago have taken form in many ways, both in schools and in other sometimes-surprising settings. The silver anniversary of this learning theory gives us the opportunity to reflect on the theory of multiple intelligences — where it’s been, how it’s been used and what might be its future course? What exactly has come from the idea that the mind can be parsed into several types of intelligences, and how might these issues matter for those who lead elementary and secondary schools?

The answers come packaged in diverse ideas and applications, with a few warning signs as well.

A Starting Point
Let’s first review the basis for the theory of how the mind can be parsed into components. That is, what capacities make up the mind? In the early 1980s, Gardner identified seven intelligences: logical-mathematical, linguistic, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, musical and spatial. More recently, he updated the list with an eighth, naturalist intelligence, and potentially a ninth, existential intelligence. (See sidebar on page 23 for descriptions of each intelligence.)

The goal of multiple intelligences is to offer a pluralistic view of intelligence, promoting the notion there is more than one way to be smart. The list of current intelligences remains a work in progress. More types of intelligence based on the strict set of criteria established by Gardner may become recognized moving forward.

In addition, Gardner also has proposed a distinction in the way in which individuals deploy their intelligences. Consider Principal Courtney and Principal Alex. Principal Courtney transitioned to the education field after years of experience in the business world. She had drawn on many of the intelligences regularly and flexibly to adapt to new challenges in the schoolhouse. Principal Courtney’s approach to interacting with her world can be likened to a searchlight for the characteristic range and adaptability of her intellectual profile.

Principal Alex started as a linguistics major in college, then became an English teacher and a reading teacher. He always enjoyed working with people and thinking about the ways in which language plays a role. His intelligence profile can be likened to a laser as he demonstrates particular strengths in a few intelligences (in this case, linguistic and interpersonal). He draws from these deeply, at times to the exclusion of other ways of thinking.

In just the same way these examples highlight the role of searchlight and laser approaches for administrators, the same applies for students. Learners with a searchlight approach run the risk of focusing on so many topics and experiences that these students have difficulty in distinguishing the important from the evanescent. Conversely, learners with a laser approach risk missing important things that are happening outside of their normal purview.

Some Misconceptions
The concepts and intentions of multiple intelligences require clarification since the ideas have entered the public domain. Is intelligence a general capacity to learn, a way or approach to learning or a skillset used to deal with challenges or problems?

The best answer is none of these choices, though often these explanations are invoked when talking about a student’s profile. According to a definition honed by Gardner over the years, an intelligence describes the biopsychological potential to process information in certain ways, in order to solve problems or fashion products that are valued in a culture or community. The term “learning styles,” in contrast, implies an approach that applies equally to all contents. So-called styles may or may not pertain across multiple intelligences or domains.

Similarly, any domain or discipline (e.g. chess, architecture, chemistry) involves the activation of multiple intelligences and any intelligence can be applied to multiple domains or disciplines. The differences among intelligences, learning styles and domains or disciplines are common areas of confusion.

To put these key concepts that are relevant to multiple intelligences together, consider the cases of Paul Farmer, a leading activist for health and medical access in Haiti and elsewhere; Jonathan Kozol, author and education activist; or Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. You might think each of these individuals is categorically smart. Consider instead asking, in what ways are these individuals intelligent, and how does the domain they entered draw on these intelligences so effectively?

This is the question educators need to ask of their students (and of themselves). Forget considering how smart a person is. The multiple intelligences revolution changed the way we can think about intelligences. Everyone has a degree of competency in each of the intelligences. How much and what the combination of intelligences is within an individual will dictate his or her approach to learning (searchlight or laser). Because succeeding in different domains requires different combinations of intelligences, consider the demands of educational activities and how these will challenge or impede learners with different intelligence profiles. How information in different domains, like chess or chemistry, is taught and assessed will matter for how students learn and demonstrate learning.

Returning to the exemplars, one might imagine that Farmer draws on particularly developed logical-mathematical and interpersonal intelligences to manage medical and logistical challenges involving health care in the Third World. Kozol’s intelligence profile may draw from a strong linguistic and interpersonal intelligence combination that drives his interest and dedication to other people that he then can record in books. Edelman likewise exudes mastery within the domains of activism and education, for which she developed intelligence in intrapersonal and interpersonal arenas. Well-known figures like Yo-Yo Ma, Pablo Picasso and Tiger Woods exemplify other combinations of intelligence, as do each of us as learners. The challenge is to figure out what these combinations are and how to best engage them.

The discussion of intelligence is not an absolute “you have it or you don’t” issue. Rather, the degree and combination of the range of intellectual capacities described by multiple intelligences dictates competence within different domains or on different tasks.

Assessing Intelligences
In a classroom of students, the daily hustle and bustle of academic, social and emotional challenges takes many forms. What value then would theorizing about a student’s profile of intelligences hold?

Consider the case of Alexis, a high school student deciding what to do for college, and perhaps a subsequent career. She’s excelled at problem solving across academic areas (especially math and science), takes care to listen to the predicaments of her friends and prefers socializing in small groups or one on one rather than in large groups. Putting her profile in the perspective of multiple intelligences suggests a person who excels at logical-mathematical and interpersonal intelligences.

An informed guidance counselor or teacher-mentor might point her in the direction of potential areas and disciplines to explore, such as counseling or psychology. Using multiple intelligences contextualizes and parses the workings of the mind. Understanding a student’s profile in terms of multiple intelligences can be much more valuable than a categorical “smart or not” description.

One challenge to learning about a student’s profile is the assessment of multiple intelligences. A quick Internet search of “multiple intelligences and assessment” yields several sites claiming to categorize an individual’s profile based on questionnaire data. While following these efforts with interest, Gardner has not endorsed any of them. Most are actually self-reports of interests rather than direct measures of intellectual capacities and potential.

Multiple intelligences may best be measured in the context of a meaningful activity or a topic area. Two promising examples of this latter approach are Project Spectrum for young children and the aforementioned Explorama at Danfoss University for older children, adolescents and adults. Project Spectrum features a classroom rich in opportunities to work with different materials in the manner of a children’s museum. Application of the Spectrum approach yields information based on meaningful activities that allow for a demonstration of different intelligences. This information then can be culled into a Spectrum profile, which may be drawn upon by parents, teachers and ultimately the child herself.

A New Lens
As we have shown, a multiple intelligences approach turns the traditional IQ question (how smart is she and how should she be tracked?) on its head. Instead the MI advocate asks, “In which ways is she smart, and how can that profile be marshaled for meaningful goals?”

MI is more than a way to consider intelligence. It is a mentality with which to approach learning and teaching. Because the MI approach allows for and recognizes different strengths and challenges for different students, it also is a valuable tool in working with the children on the extreme ends of the spectrum of ability — those who are gifted with strengths in many intelligences or deeply in one of them and those who are typically referred to as learning disabled. (Note that David Rose, chief education officer and founder of the Center for Applied Special Technology, often corrects this term and instead diagnoses curricula, not students, as disabled when not all students are successful learners.)

Furthermore, the theory of multiple intelligences highlights that intelligence is not fixed, but rather is a dynamic capacity amenable to change via good teaching, high motivation and adequate resources, including those provided by technology.

It is essential to note that the theory of multiple intelligences is not an educational end in itself. It is most useful as an educational means to a publicly stated goal. That said, an MI way of thinking brings with it two specific educational recommendations:

Individualize teaching methods and curricula as much as possible (no “uniform schools” where all students are taught and assessed in the same way); and

Teach important concepts in multiple ways, thereby reaching more students effectively.

Assessment criteria and paradigms should take into account the various ways in which students can demonstrate knowledge and the various ways in which they can be intelligent. In this context, it is helpful to provide assessments that let students use their stronger intelligences rather than use short-answer, multiple-choice items that depend most heavily on linguistic and logical-mathematical skills, and possibly favoring students with strengths in these areas.

From an MI perspective, if one wants to assess interpersonal intelligence, one does not give a set of true-and-false questions. One puts a group of young people together, asks them to solve a difficult human problem, and observes how they interact and who is able to motivate others effectively to get the job done. Testing approaches that fairly capture the diverse types of intelligence with a focus on individuals rather than the average student can account for the diverse intellectual capabilities of children in a classroom. They also capture the often dynamic interactions among intelligences.

Future Use
The past 25 years of multiple intelligences have yielded updates, applications and a share of confusions. But most importantly, the theory has inspired many schools all over the world to improve teaching and learning. The advent of new digital media is likely to enhance the productive use of the theory of multiple intelligences.

With the increasing integration of computer technology in education settings comes a practical way to present or teach the same topics via the activation of several intelligences. Advances in the biological sciences allow examination of the bases of multiple intelligences from a neuroscience and genetic perspective as well as the possible relationship of intelligences to one another.

Finally, as our opening example of Danfoss University shows, multiple intelligences theory offers a way to stimulate diverse uses of mind across ages and stages of formal and informal education.

Joanna Christodoulou is a doctoral student and instructor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass. E-mail: jac765@mail.harvard.edu. Howard Gardner, author of several books on multiple intelligences, contributed to this article.