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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Multiple Intelligences: What Does the Research Say?

Proposed by Howard Gardner in 1983, the theory of multiple intelligences has revolutionized how we understand intelligence. Learn more about the research behind his theory.
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Many educators have had the experience of not being able to reach some students until presenting the information in a completely different way or providing new options for student expression. Perhaps it was a student who struggled with writing until the teacher provided the option to create a graphic story, which blossomed into a beautiful and complex narrative. Or maybe it was a student who just couldn't seem to grasp fractions, until he created them by separating oranges into slices.

Because of these kinds of experiences, the theory of multiple intelligences resonates with many educators. It supports what we all know to be true: A one-size-fits-all approach to education will invariably leave some students behind. However, the theory is also often misunderstood, which can lead to it being used interchangeably with learning styles or applying it in ways that can limit student potential. While the theory of multiple intelligences is a powerful way to think about learning, it’s also important to understand the research that supports it.

Howard Gardner's Eight Intelligences

The theory of multiple intelligences challenges the idea of a single IQ, where human beings have one central "computer" where intelligence is housed. Howard Gardner, the Harvard professor who originally proposed the theory, says that there are multiple types of human intelligence, each representing different ways of processing information:

  • Verbal-linguistic intelligence refers to an individual's ability to analyze information and produce work that involves oral and written language, such as speeches, books, and emails.
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence describes the ability to develop equations and proofs, make calculations, and solve abstract problems.
  • Visual-spatial intelligence allows people to comprehend maps and other types of graphical information.
  • Musical intelligence enables individuals to produce and make meaning of different types of sound.
  • Naturalistic intelligence refers to the ability to identify and distinguish among different types of plants, animals, and weather formations found in the natural world.
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence entails using one's own body to create products or solve problems.
  • Interpersonal intelligence reflects an ability to recognize and understand other people's moods, desires, motivations, and intentions.
  • Intrapersonal intelligence refers to people's ability to recognize and assess those same characteristics within themselves.

The Difference Between Multiple Intelligences and Learning Styles

One common misconception about multiple intelligences is that it means the same thing as learning styles. Instead, multiple intelligences represents different intellectual abilities. Learning styles, according to Howard Gardner, are the ways in which an individual approaches a range of tasks. They have been categorized in a number of different ways -- visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, impulsive and reflective, right brain and left brain, etc. Gardner argues that the idea of learning styles does not contain clear criteria for how one would define a learning style, where the style comes, and how it can be recognized and assessed. He phrases the idea of learning styles as "a hypothesis of how an individual approaches a range of materials."

Everyone has all eight types of the intelligences listed above at varying levels of aptitude -- perhaps even more that are still undiscovered -- and all learning experiences do not have to relate to a person's strongest area of intelligence. For example, if someone is skilled at learning new languages, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they prefer to learn through lectures. Someone with high visual-spatial intelligence, such as a skilled painter, may still benefit from using rhymes to remember information. Learning is fluid and complex, and it’s important to avoid labeling students as one type of learner. As Gardner states, "When one has a thorough understanding of a topic, one can typically think of it in several ways."

What Multiple Intelligences Theory Can Teach Us

While additional research is still needed to determine the best measures for assessing and supporting a range of intelligences in schools, the theory has provided opportunities to broaden definitions of intelligence. As an educator, it is useful to think about the different ways that information can be presented. However, it is critical to not classify students as being specific types of learners nor as having an innate or fixed type of intelligence.

For example, Edutopia's Multiple Intelligences Quiz maps to Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences and is a fun way to learn about how some of our tastes and interests can influence how we take in information. However, its results are not intended as a way to label people as naturalistic learners, musical learners, etc. Labeling creates limits, and when it comes to learning, we want to avoid restricting how we define student potential. People have many different intelligences, and strength in one area does not predict weakness in another.

Practices Supported by Research

Having an understanding of different teaching approaches from which we all can learn, as well as a toolbox with a variety of ways to present content to students, is valuable for increasing the accessibility of learning experiences for all students. To develop this toolbox, it is especially important to gather ongoing information about student strengths and challenges as well as their developing interests and activities they dislike. Providing different contexts for students and engaging a variety of their senses -- for example, learning about fractions through musical notes, flower petals, and poetic meter -- is supported by research. Specifically:

  • Providing students with multiple ways to access content improves learning (Hattie, 2011).
  • Providing students with multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills increases engagement and learning, and provides teachers with more accurate understanding of students' knowledge and skills (Darling-Hammond, 2010).
  • Instruction should be informed as much as possible by detailed knowledge about students' specific strengths, needs, and areas for growth (Tomlinson, 2014).

As our insatiable curiosity about the learning process persists and studies continue to evolve, scientific research may emerge that further elaborates on multiple intelligences, learning styles, or perhaps another theory. Ultimately, though, the best guides for how to reach students will always come down to a teacher's experienced intuition combined with the continuously evolving knowledge of students as individuals.


Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). Performance Counts: Assessment Systems that Support High-Quality Learning. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Hattie, J. (2011). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Tomlinson, C. A. (2014). The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Resources From Edutopia


Comments (20) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mary Blouin's picture

Dear Melissa,

Indeed the perspectives and ideas we have discussed have been very enjoyable for me. I also hope that others will join us with whatever information or experience they have to share.

The more qualitative information and experience that we all share will indeed help in collecting the experiential evidence so needed to bring awareness to the scientific community.

Thank you again for your respectful comments and enjoyable discussion.

bobobonobo's picture

Contrasting the theory of learning styles with the theory of multiple intelligences is instructive. When you start seeing these differences as innate interests rather than as a means to teach them a curriculum which is somehow more important... you see that there is no scientific research necessary to show that some people are more interested in one sphere than another. The problem with MI theory is that it brings with it the prejudices of IQ- the idea that ability in a field is more important than interest, when in actuality a person with greater ability will soon be outpaced by someone who dedicates themselves to developing that field through intrinsic interest.
Educators shouldn't look on students as commodities. Our job is not to produce STEM babies for Microsoft's consumption, it is to help people find a happy path through life. This will be easy when we lose our obsession with grading people according to talent and turn our attention to how our students engage in their world.

Linda's picture

In general , A person learning style is the particular way in which a person understands and absorbs information. Psychologists believe that each person has their own method of learning style or stagiest to the ability of leaning , to adapted the way of their leaning style. Not every body know that different multiple intelligences, until recognized.

David Pitts's picture

John Hattie's research is a better guide for how to teach effectively than a teacher's individual intuition. I disagree with your final sentence.

Michael's picture
School Psychologist

I was dismayed to see you highlight your updated article on Gardner, multiple intelligences, and learning styles. The most widely accepted current theory of multiple intelligence is the Gc-Gf/CHC theory proposed by Cattell Horn, and Carroll. While imperfect, it is a well-researched approach and is the basis for most modern IQ tests. Gardner's theory approaches intelligence from a more practical basis. After 30 years, it had garnered a lot of popular attention, but it is not backed up by any body of research. See: < http://www.iqscorner.com/2006/09/howard-gardners-multiple-intellignece.h....

Additionally, in your discussion of learning styles (and in the comments), you casually state more research needs work needs to be done into learning styles underplays the lack of support or that "there simply is not enough evidence to refute OR support current concepts of learning styles." In point of fact, that is simply incorrect. While there is a lot of research on learning, and several research based reasons to teach to multiple modalities, there is no current independent research that supports the idea of learning styles. For an simple explanation please see: http://www.danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html. For detailed research reviews see:

Pashler et al 2008: http://steinhardtapps.es.its.nyu.edu/create/courses/2174/reading/Pashler...

Furnham, 2012: Learning Styles and Approaches to Learning
Reiner and Willingham 2010: http://sites.psu.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/10091/2012/03/Reiner-and-W...

Rjenkins's picture

Who is the author of this article? I need to cite this article in a paper. Thanks!!

Michael's picture
School Psychologist

You can see the contact at the bottom, but please see my comment. This article is not scientifically accurate.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Senior Associate, Research Curation

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your comment. For this article, our goal isn't to cover the latest research in IQ testing, but to specifically discuss Gardner's MI theory and address common misconceptions educators have regarding its application in classrooms, in addition to identifying the differences between MI theory and learning styles. Your critique of Gardner's theory is a large reason why we wrote this article -- despite being widely known, it is also widely misunderstood/misused in education.

With regards to the support for learning styles, here's what we wrote:
"Gardner argues that the idea of learning styles does not contain clear criteria for how one would define a learning style, where the style comes, and how it can be recognized and assessed."

To me, that feels like a fairly strong statement on the lack of support for learning styles. We could be more explicit, but a review of the research on learning styles is not the goal of this article (here's another article that does review several viewpoints on LS: https://www.edutopia.org/article/learning-styles-real-and-useful-todd-fi...)

I hope that clarifies things.


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