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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Redefining Smart: Multiple Intelligences

Edutopia reports on the resurgent relevance of Howard Gardner's ground-breaking theory, which changed the game for students and teachers.
By Edutopia
Edutopia Team
Credit: iStockphoto

Editor's Note (2013): There is no scientific evidence, as of yet, that shows that people have specific, fixed learning styles or discrete intelligences, nor that students benefit when teachers target instruction to a specific learning style or intelligence. However, providing students with multiple ways to learn content has been shown to improve student learning (Hattie, 2011). Read more about the research on multiple intelligences and learning styles.

In his landmark book Frames of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences, published in 1983, Harvard University education professor Howard Gardner unveiled a theory of multiple intelligences that famously rejected the traditional and long-held view that aptitude consists solely of the ability to reason and understand complex ideas.

Instead, he identified seven separate human capacities: musical, verbal, physical, interpersonal, visual, logical, and intrapersonal. And not all of them, including the category he added years later -- naturalistic -- could be easily evaluated by the standard measuring stick of the time: the IQ test.

Psychologists, unimpressed with Gardner's mold breaking, mostly looked the other way. Teachers, on the other hand, were electrified. The book supported what educators had known for a long time: Kids in their classrooms possess natural aptitudes for music, sports, emotional understanding -- strengths that cannot be identified in traditional tests. Gardner had given voice to their experience. Boston University education professor Scott Seider describes the reaction as a "grassroots uprising" of educators at all levels who embraced multiple intelligences (MI) theory "with a genuine passion."

In the articles that follow, we cast our light on places where the passion awakened by Gardner burns brightest today -- in schoolwide curricula, in the hearts and minds of individual teachers, in the continuing research on intelligences, and, as ever, in the evolving philosophy of Gardner himself. Like so many education reforms, the theory of multiple intelligences still is the subject of vociferous and ever-changing debate. Such is the bumpy path to change.

In keeping with our mission to illuminate what works in public education, we look at the specific ways MI enriches the experience of students and advances the goals of their teachers. Be sure to look for more of our MI coverage here on Edutopia.org, which includes a quick personal-assessment test that could help you discover a sense of your own native MI brilliance.

Comments (64)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jim Pangborn's picture
Jim Pangborn
college English teacher: end-user of the k-12 system!

I would caution those who want to tailor their lessons to individual students' MI leanings. Too many kids are taught that they are one sort of learner or another, and this serves as an excuse to not develop other aspects of their minds. This goes cleanly against Gardner's own intentions! Those who want to use MI in their teaching should work to encourage all students to develop all their intelligences.

Darlene Pope's picture
Darlene Pope
8th Grade Social Studies teacher & Dept. Chair, AVID Coordinator

I teach middle school in a ethnically and economically diverse environment which makes differentiation an essential component of any lesson I plan. MI theory allows me to do this in a way that empowers my students to think about how they learn best and choose products that integrate those strengths. At the same time it allows me to design lessons that allow them to grow in their less strong areas. As a result I can both challenge and support every student in my classrooms and increase the likliehood of long term learning.

Every one of my students take several MI tests throughout the year. This helps them understand the plasticity of their brains and once again empowers them to stretch and discover more of themselves.

Darlene Pope's picture
Darlene Pope
8th Grade Social Studies teacher & Dept. Chair, AVID Coordinator

Tim, I agree with your statement. Indeed we have our greatest capacity to learn in our weaker areas. I find this an amazing concept for a lifelong learner.

Tractatus's picture

Before positing a link inviting readers to take "a quick personal-assessment test that could help you discover a sense of your own native MI brilliance" that then takes them to a learning styles (LS) assessment, you might want to read Howard Gardner's own words about how MI and LS should be seen as distinct (see Reflections on Multiple Intelligences: Myths and Messages. Phi Delta Kappan, v77 n3 p200-03,206-09 Nov 1995).

Part of why I clicked on the "native MI brilliance" link relates to what I remember of Gardner's ideas about assessment: Surely one wouldn't be able to characterize, say, kinesthetic intelligence with an on-line, text-heavy, multiple choice, assessment?!?

I guess the good news is that you didn't do this (although similar issues might be raised relative to assessing LS) ... but I hope your readers might understand that what is outlined above betrays a very substantive level of confusion regarding the core claims of MI and, quite possibly, LS as well. At the very least, the claims of MI theory are generally not considered the same as the claims of LS theories.

Finally, yes many teachers find MI or LS compelling. Just as true, however, is the fact that many more teachers don't. The big difference between these groups (I say as someone who taught for many years) is that the skeptics regarding learning styles in particular have the overwhelming support of every major research group that has ever looked into the core issues and/or the empirical claims. So I guess I'm a little perplexed that the wisdom of these 'other' classroom educators seems never to be represented as, perhaps, pointing toward well-founded concerns about the use of MI or LS to structure actual educational practice in schools. Of course children are different. But this fact, in and of itself, is not proof that either MI or LS represent a credible, convincing or responsible characterization of, or response to, this diversity.

Petrillo Pat's picture

Thanks for such great info, it gave me insights and I think as well for everyone.

Mr. Pat Petrillo
MMA Pound for Pound

Tracy Patton's picture
Tracy Patton
parent of 2 elementary kids, PTA chair, and community volunteer

Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., is presenting a workshop for educators and parents in Bellevue on May 15, 2010, on effective strategies for working with "different learners"--children who are gifted, fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, have dyslexia, ADHD, or face some other learning challenge. She's a great speaker and presents the latest research in compelling, practical ways. Check out www.thepci.org.

Matt's picture

Just wondering how much time people have invested in understanding the reliability of the research behind multiple intelligences. Most people in the cognitive neuroscience fields are highly skeptical. These "multiple" intelligences are all correlated with each other, bolstering support for the often-demonized concept of "g" general intelligence. While it is convenient and comforting to theorize about multiple intelligences, the more appropriate concept might be to consider multiple "interests", "attractions" or "patterns".

Let's just be careful not to accept something wholesale simply because it feels right. We have science for a reason. More than 25 years after the theory was proposed by Gardner, it is still not well-supported by science.

yvonne f fine's picture
yvonne f fine
LEFTY.grand mom and 4 grands so far

amazing hope very close the way i was processed close to real me

Christine Termini Passarella's picture
Christine Termini Passarella
Founder of The Kids for Coltrane Project in Education

I am grateful to Dr. Gardner for his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In addition, his brilliant team at Harvard's Project Zero is doing transformative, generative and vital work. I have based my Kids for Coltrane Project in Education on his theory and other research coming out of Project Zero. Please view their web site to read more about the Project Zero research and researchers.


I have had amazing experiences attending professional development institutes at Harvard. Learning directly from the PZ team is "electrifying" for sure! My work with my students is the focus of the last chapter of Nat Hentoff's latest book entitled "At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Scene". Mr. Hentoff told me it gives him hope for the future. The PZ research gives me hope for the future. Thank you Howard Gardner, Dave Perkins, Steve Seidel, Shari Tishman, Veronica Boix Mansilla, Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Tina Blythe, and all of the other researchers at PZ. I will leave you with a quote and wish you all a productive and uplifting new school year. "Do not then train youths to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amused their minds so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each." ~ Plato

Don Hagelberg's picture
Don Hagelberg
Motivational Interviewing and Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences

Motivational Interviewing is a technique which came out of the field of Addiction Treatment. The basic insight of this technique is to find out what the reasons a client has to get sober and to gently re-enforce them in order to increase the possibilities of positive treatment outcome. It proceeds from the truth that the client is the best if only person to know why s/he should get into treatment or become clean and sober.

Multiple Intelligences as expressed by Doctor Howard Gardner expands the stifling definitions of intelligence as being only Word-Intelligence and Math-Intelligence. While the exact number of intelligences is still being researched, eight intelligences have seemed to be verified. The duel functions of an Intelligence could be defined as being both a mode of instruction as well as a way of knowing.

If we were to marry these two insights, we could then: 1) find out the set of reasons which motivates a student and 2) find out the intelligence cluster by which a student learns and:
Use the highest scoring intelligence or cluster of intelligences as ways of teaching less than interesting intelligence subject material enforced by those motivations which were uncovered in the first paragraph.

What have we done by marrying these two insights? We have given the teacher leverage to teach by knowing and gently enforcing the motives which move the individual student as well as being able to select and use a way of instruction where by material of little or no interest can be more effectively transmitted to the individual student.

And if the only thing you think is "That is grand for the Alcoholic/Addict, but what does it have to do with my sixth grade?"
Then you have been skewed by my mention of alcoholism and addiction.
You now have my permission to apply these two insights to whatever grade with which you are involved.

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