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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

An Educator's Journey Toward Multiple Intelligences

One teacher discovers a powerful alternative to education narrowly focused on high-stakes testing.
By Scott Seider
Assistant Professor of Education from Boston University
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Credit: Getty Images

During my first year as a high school English teacher, I got into the habit each Friday afternoon of sitting in the bleachers and grading papers while the players on the freshman football team squared off against their counterparts from nearby towns. I had been assigned four classes of rambunctious freshmen, and several of my most squirrelly students were football players. I hoped that demonstrating my interest in their gridiron pursuits might make them a bit easier to manage in the classroom.

My presence at their games unquestionably helped on the management front, but a second, unexpected benefit emerged as well. A couple of those freshmen -- kids in my class who struggled mightily with subject-verb agreement and the function of a thesis statement -- had clearly committed several dozen complex plays to memory. During one particularly impressive series of plays, I remember thinking, "These guys are really smart! I'm underestimating what they're capable of!" And over the course of my first year in the classroom, that same thought emerged several more times -- at the school musical, visiting the graphic design class, and even just watching a couple of students do their math homework during study hall. Without my realizing it, my relationship with multiple-intelligences (MI) theory had begun.

Rethinking IQ

In 1983, Harvard University professor Howard Gardner published his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences that began with some simple but powerful questions: Are talented chess players, violinists, and athletes "intelligent" in their respective disciplines? Why are these and other abilities not accounted for on traditional IQ tests? Why is the term intelligence limited to such a narrow range of human endeavors?

From these questions emerged multiple-intelligences theory. Stated simply, it challenges psychology's definition of intelligence as a general ability that can be measured by a single IQ score. Instead, MI theory describes eight intelligences (see below) that people use to solve problems and create products relevant to the societies in which they live.

MI theory asserts that individuals who have a high level of aptitude in one intelligence do not necessarily have a similar aptitude in another intelligence. For example, a young person who demonstrates an impressive level of musical intelligence may be far less skilled when it comes to bodily-kinesthetic or logical-mathematical intelligence. Perhaps that seems obvious, but it's important to recognize that this notion stands in sharp contrast to the traditional (and still dominant) view of intelligence as a general ability that can be measured along a single scale and summarized by a single number.

Multiple Misconceptions

During my eight years as a high school English teacher and an administrator, MI theory came up periodically. Colleagues shared assignments with me that sought to tap into the multiple intelligences. At parent-teacher conferences, I fielded questions about whether schools today are too focused (or, alternatively, not focused enough) on verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. In professional-development seminars, I was urged to keep multiple intelligences in mind while developing curriculum.

I also assured my students that everyone is gifted in at least one of the intelligences -- a sentiment uttered with the best of intentions, but not entirely accurate.

Not only didn't I fully understand the theory, but when I began teaching at an urban public high school in Boston, I believed I had no time to concern myself with it. I was determined to help my students develop the tools they needed to make it into college: reading comprehension, writing skills, critical thinking, SAT vocabulary. I was certain there simply weren't enough hours in the day to foster students' musical intelligence or bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

And, then, in 2004, my views began to change. I started working on my doctorate at Harvard University and asked Professor Howard Gardner to be my adviser. My interest in working with Gardner had more to do with his work on ethics than on MI theory, but over the next four years, MI theory was like fluoride in the water. There was a constant clamor from educators across the globe to hear from him about MI theory. Working each day about 20 yards away, I couldn't help overhearing the uproar and, amid that din, I started to pick up on my own misconceptions.

What MI Is -- and Is Not

MI theory asserts that, barring cases of severe brain damage, everyone possesses all eight of the intelligences with varying levels of aptitude, giving each person a unique profile. And MI theory makes no claims about everyone being gifted in at least one of the intelligences.

The Bear Essence:

Some kids' minds dwell in the world of naturalistic intelligence, where they are often quick to distinguish patterns in nature.

Credit: Getty Images

I also discovered that neither Gardner nor MI theory has ever argued that educators should spend equal amounts of time teaching to the eight intelligences, or that every lesson should provide students with eight options for demonstrating their learning. In fact, MI theory offers neither a curriculum nor a goal toward which educators are expected to strive. Rather, MI theory is an idea about the concept of intelligence. A psychologist by training, Gardner left it to educators to decide how MI theory can be useful in the particular community and context in which they teach.

Nowadays, as a professor of education myself, when students or colleagues learn that I trained with Gardner, I am often asked facetiously, "How many intelligences is he up to now?" In truth, the original formulation of MI theory included seven intelligences, and Gardner has added just one (naturalistic intelligence) over the past 25 years.

Many other scholars and educators have proposed other intelligences -- everything from moral intelligence to cooking intelligence to humor intelligence -- but none have provided compelling evidence to justify an addition to the list. That said, advances in fields like neuroscience and genetics may well lead in coming years to the identification of new intelligences or the reorganization of existing intelligences. Ultimately, what is important about MI theory is not the number of identified intelligences, but, rather, its core premise that intelligence is better conceived of as multiple rather than general.

Far-Reaching Impact

Since its inception 26 years ago, thousands of schools, teachers, and researchers across the globe have drawn on MI theory to improve teaching and learning. There are Howard Gardner MI schools in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Washington State and "multiple intelligences" schools in Bangalore, India, and Quezon City, Philippines. A 2002 conference on MI theory in Beijing attracted 2,500 educators from nine provinces and six neighboring countries. In 2005, a theme park opened in Nordborg, Denmark, that allows Danish children and adults to explore their aptitudes across the intelligences.

Some schools, like Indianapolis's Key Learning Community, aim to build all eight intelligences for each student. Others, like New City School, in St. Louis, focus on the two personal intelligences. Both schools are exemplary practitioners of MI theory.

It also happens that MI theory is used in ways that are neither educationally sound nor appropriate. Perhaps the most glaring example has been a state ministry in Australia that compiled a list of ethnic groups within the state as well as the particular intelligences that each group supposedly possessed and lacked -- a practice Gardner has denounced as a perversion of his theory.

In Gardner's view, MI theory is used most effectively by educators who have a particular goal they are seeking to achieve and who conceive of the theory as a tool for achieving this goal. For instance, at the start of the school year, an elementary school teacher might want to identify students' strengths and weaknesses among the eight intelligences. That teacher might carefully observe the students' activities and interactions on the playground during recess or, alternatively, ask both students and parents to fill out a short survey identifying what they believe to be their (or their child's) strengths among the eight intelligences. Such information can facilitate lesson and unit planning down the road.

Or perhaps a school leader or department head seeks to improve communication among faculty about student achievement. For this objective, MI theory could serve as a framework or common language for discussing the strengths and challenges of individual students. In this instance, the concept of multiple intelligences may not even be raised directly with students, but, rather, may serve as a tool for fostering dialogue and collaboration among their teachers.

The irony of MI theory's tremendous impact on the educational community is that the theory was not developed with educators in mind. Rather, Gardner wrote his 1983 book, Frames of Mind, with the goal of inciting debate among psychologists about the nature of intelligence. By and large, such a debate did not occur. The psychology community has demonstrated relatively little interest in Gardner's theory, perhaps because, in sharp contrast to the traditional IQ test, it offers no easy scale for measuring aptitude across the various intelligences.

In what amounted to a sort of grassroots uprising, however, educators at all grade levels in many types of communities have embraced MI theory with a genuine passion. In describing this groundswell of support, Gardner has often speculated that MI theory provided empirical and conceptual support for what educators had known all along: that the notion of a single, general intelligence does not accurately depict the children that educators see in their classrooms each day.

Perhaps it is for this reason that the earliest groups of educators to embrace MI theory were teachers whose daily work entailed supporting students with learning disabilities. Even more so than their general-ed colleagues, special educators see firsthand that youth who struggle with, say, language can simultaneously possess a strong aptitude for numbers or music or graphic design, and vice-versa. These teachers knew intuitively that IQ tests were not measuring what they purported to measure.

A Broader View

Perhaps the greatest contribution of MI theory, I would argue, has been its role over the past decade as a counterbalance to an educational climate increasingly focused on high-stakes testing, such as the IQ test, the SAT, and the various state assessments that have emerged from the No Child Left Behind Act.

Even if one believes that these assessments have contributions to offer to the practice of teaching and learning, it seems equally true that these tests have presented new challenges to the educational world as well. The IQ test and the SAT, two assessments unquestionably correlated with an individual's class status and schooling opportunities, have been utilized to declare some children intrinsically "smarter" than others and more deserving of seats in gifted-and-talented programs, magnet schools, and elite universities. Particularly in urban schools, the pressure from testing has narrowed the curriculum to focus on those subjects on which graduation and accreditation rest -- at the expense of art, music, theater, physical education, foreign language, and even science and social studies.

In the face of these powerful forces, MI theory has served as a reminder to educators to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual child and has also offered conceptual support for educators seeking to prevent individual students from being stigmatized by a low score on one of these standardized tests. On a schoolwide scale, administrators contemplating eliminating or reducing funding for the subjects not covered by state assessments are likely to hear protests (from parents, teachers, students, and even internally) about neglecting children's multiple intelligences. I would argue that MI theory has offered an important check on the standards-based reform movement that has dominated American education for the past decade.

Or, put more simply, MI theory has helped facilitate in the heads of thousands of educators the same sort of appreciation I experienced while watching my students march down the football field: "These guys are really smart! I'm underestimating what they're capable of!" MI theory is neither a curriculum nor a goal nor an endpoint, but it remains, 26 years after its birth, a powerful tool for helping educators to teach more effectively and students to learn more deeply and enduringly.

Scott Seider, a former public school teacher, is an assistant professor of curriculum and teaching at Boston University. He is coauthor of Instructional Practices That Maximize Student Achievement.

Go to "Teachers Are Taking Multiple-Intelligences Theory to Heart."

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eric torrence's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that students and people in general exhibit multiple intelligences, as in Gardner's set or using some other groupings. I also agree that, with planning and time, these multiple intelligences can be incorporated into the curriculum, and this can help foster student achievement.

What I do not want to see is multiple intelligences used as an excuse for lack of effort and poor performance. I am also hoping that it will not lead to watered down standards, where Johnny or Janet can't read, but that is OK because he/she has a musical intelligence.

Tammy Steele's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Gardner's work helpfully defined the theory of multiple intelligences and noted its troublesome relationship with paper and pencil tests. But the theory is difficult to apply in the classroom. Certainly identifying a child's strongest intelligences and telling the child what he is good at while also providing opportunities for a child to excell at his strength are extremely helpful things to do. Teachers and parents need to work together to figure out a child's strengths. They also need to support the child's strengths and shore up the weaknesses. One of the criteria of an intelligence is that there is a body of knowledge that can be learned in that arena. In addition there are some things we all need to learn whether or not that is our strength.

The teaching of fine arts: visual arts, drama, dance, media, and music allows children with spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and/or musical intelligences to develop strengths not measured on an IQ test. It is why the arts should not be dropped from any school's curriculum. It is also why teachers should be required to take 2 courses in each of drama or creative movement, visual arts, and music or media arts. It takes one full course for most adults to get over their fear of performance and the learning processes in the arts.

My mother raised six children on the theory of multiple intelligences in the 1950s and 60s. My own child (and two of my brothers and one sister)all had high spatial intelligence. Two became engineers (aeronautical & earthquake), one a computer company software designer, and one an atmospheric chemist. Spatial intelligence, while highly prized by the economy, is not really taught in schools until college level. Students with strong spatial intelligence can easily become school drop outs because they never encounter their strengths in a classroom. Even at the college level valuing spatial intelligence is rare. Schools, at the very least should appreciate forms of intelligence that are not linguistic.

Kristin Hoffmann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always wondered why Dr. Gardner called these eight areas intelligences rather than strengths or aptitudes. It seems to me that the use of the term intelligence has garnered criticism for this theory.

Leif Fearn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Stop the presses! IQ doesn't measure all of the possibilities for being intelligent. Mental abilities tests don't even test any of the ways to be intelligent. They predict school success -- very well, in fact,and similarly over time and takers, which makes them both valid and reliable. That mental ability tests do not measure what has developed over the last near-century as a broad core of abilities tentatively known as "intelligence" is not the test-makers' fault; it is the test-users' fault. The tests have a purpose, and the purpose is not to measure intelligence. Multiple intelligences? It's like multiple literacies -- inelegant but useful for skirting the point that there are students (and we're talking about school and students here, not bricklayers and economists) who do and do not do well on schoolized material, and we don't have a clear etiological explanation . So, it could be that there isn't one intelligence, or literacy; there could be many of each, and now we have an explanation for why our students do not all perform about equally well on what we, and/or the standards-writers and high-stakes test makers have decided is meritorious. There. Now we can carry on.

gloria Bolton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Agree! This realization is key to reforming how we do schooling. Once this understanding is embraced and begins to drive how we design schools, curriculum, materials, assessments, and teacher training programs, we will be on our way to true reform.

Chris Anderson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Aloha Marcia--
Chris Anderson again...
I don't think you're misunderstanding a major concept. You could be entirely right about "teaching to strengths" rather than trying to "shore up weaknesses," as I've proposed. I don't know, and I guess that's my point: we (or at least I) are not certain yet how best to apply the theory of multiple intelligences in daily practice, so each of us has to rely on our own interpretation.
Given the potential value of MI theory to students, teachers and education in general, this shouldn't be the case. We need more applied research now, to carry us beyond theory and provide concrete examples of successful (or not so successful, or misguided) applications of the theory in classrooms. Then we would know whether it's more effective to teach to strengths, or shore up weaknesses, or something in between.
And to conduct applied research, classroom teachers will have to work with education professors to develop models and try them in the classroom. I hope this can start happening, if it hasn't already. And if it has, and anyone is aware of applied research, please clue me in!!


Dennis Rice, Asst Head for Academics, Villanova Preparatory 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In "Intelligence Reframed" he speaks to this question at length.

Joseph Breault's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the principal of a visual and performing arts K-8 school in North Highlands CA. I suppose it could be said we focus the artistic intelligence at Creative Connections Arts Academy. However, we have been developing for the past 4 years an "integrated" approach to teaching the arts and standards that has been successful based on parent fedback, student feedback and even the "Test" results. We spend less than 240 minutes a day on standards based instruction and 120 minutes a day on the arts (dance, drama, music, visual art). We have found that to reach all students you must "expose" them to many different ways to vies the one concept being taught. It seems to work. the staff also has a need to express their multiple intelligences and that does rub off on our instruction and students. You are not teaching, if you are not learning.

Jane Petro's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Theories are just that theories. It is always good to keep an open mind so that you are not stuck in the same circle. Be willing to look at alternative strategies when teaching. There is always more than one way to get a point, idea or concept across.

rosmina's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my experience as a teacher for the last 10 years, i cant help reflecting of a very intelligent child in class 4. this child was excellent at art and math and science however, he was never interested in playing games and preferred his own company. reading about MI now makes me realize the strength of this child. like one of the suggestions was, i hope that MI can be incooperated in the curriculum so that all students can benegit equally. thanks. rosmina

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