The educational angle on Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Published on Tuesday, 20 October 2020
Last updated on Wednesday, 21 October 2020

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In 1983, Harvard University Professor, Howard Gardner, proposed the Multiple Intelligence (MI) Theory, it is a model that has become increasingly popular with teachers and parents as a guide to explain and differentiate the various talents and abilities of children.

Gardner’s theory was released in his book Frames of Mind and it provides a useful framework to nurture young children to engage and develop by catering to their individual needs and strengths within a learning environment.

The theory of MI challenges the idea of a single IQ, where human beings have one central "computer" that houses intelligence. Gardner proposed that there are multiple types of human intelligence, each representing different ways of processing information. Simply put, people can be intelligent in different ways and all individuals possess different types of intelligence in varying measures.

Many educators have had the experience of not being able to reach some children until presenting the information in a completely different way or providing new options to engage a child. According to Gardner everyone learns in a different way and the one-size-fits-all approach to education can leave some children behind.

“Once we realise that people have very different kinds of minds, different kinds of strengths – some people are good at thinking spatially, some in thinking with language, others are very logical, other people need to be hands-on and explore actively and try things out – then education, which treats everybody the same way, is actually the most unfair education.”

Gardner’s theory proposes that:

  • People are not born with all the intelligence they will ever have; they are the result of a constant interaction of biological and environmental factors
  • The idea of intelligence should include: Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Musical, Spatial, Bodily Kinaesthetic, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal and Naturalist
  • There may be other “candidate” intelligences such as Pedagogical Intelligence – the intelligence of teaching – and Moral Intelligence
  • One form of intelligence is not better than another; they are equally valuable and viable
  • Different cultures are biased towards and against certain types of intelligences, with Western cultures favouring Linguistic and Logical/Mathematical and undervaluing others such as Kinaesthetic
  • We may all have these intelligences, but our profile of these intelligence may differ individually based on genetics or experience.

Gardner defines intelligence as:

  • The ability to solve problems that one encounters in real life
  • The ability to generate new problems to solve
  • The ability to make something or offer a service that is valued within one’s culture.

Here is a brief description of each intelligence and how they relate to early childhood settings:

  • Verbal – Linguistic Intelligence: A child’s ability to express themself and understand others
  • Logical – Mathematical Intelligence: An understanding of numbers and quantities
  • Musical Intelligence: A child’s sensitivity towards music and sound
  • Visual Intelligence – Spatial: A child’s awareness of physical space as well as the arts
  • Kinaesthetic Intelligence - Body: An awareness of the body and movement. This can include the sense of touch or a potential towards physical activity
  • Interpersonal Intelligence: A child’s ability to relate to and interact with others
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence: A child’s awareness of what he can or cannot do as he feels confident with himself

Naturalist Intelligence: Introduced in 1994 and added to the original seven intelligences, this is an understanding and sensitivity towards all living things.

Implications for learning

Gardner has suggested that no scientific theory can really be translated directly into educational applications because "education is suffused with values", yet his theory does have educational implications.

Educators interested in the personalisation of learning find his work has a useful theoretical basis, particularly his suggestion that technology can be used to deliver the same material in different ways for different learners.

In a 2015 article for a Spanish magazine, Gardner said, “I’ve never encountered anything of importance that can only be taught in one way. And when you teach pluralistically, you not only reach more students; you also show what it is like to really understand something when you can represent that knowledge in several formats.”

This doesn’t mean lessons need to be presented to address each intelligence criteria, rather that it’s important to offer more than one way to learn about a subject. Gardner points to individuation and pluralisation as the most important educational implications of MI theory.

“Individuation means knowing as much as you can about each student, giving each student the chance to learn in a way that is most comfortable and to demonstrate learning and understanding in ways that are comfortable, said Professor Gardner.

“Pluralisation means deciding what is really important for students to know, learn, and understand and then to convey that information to students in a variety of formats and media, thereby addressing the multiple intelligences.”

Three key takeaways for early childhood educators are:

  • Children learn in different ways so the more you know the child and which form of intelligence they demonstrate, the easier it is to stimulate them and expose them to a variety of ways to learn, to make learning more enjoyable and efficient
  • Offering a variety of teaching pathways in lessons is important to capture more of the intelligences, and engage children to better understand and learn
  • Through environments offering a variety of stimulating, hands-on materials that children individually select, and by creating opportunities to move, be active, and fully engage in either solo or small group experiences, educators can better serve and meet the needs of more children.

When planning and delivering educational activities and lessons, combining multiple learning styles in your activities is important for fulfilling the learning needs of children and optimising the learning process. By doing this, educators can engage and reach more children, by helping them learn content matter in a way that they better understand and enjoy. 

Gardner does not offer a new educational approach, or a practice about how to use intelligence. What he does do is give intelligence a new dimension and offer a different perspective for people who work with children to better recognise, evaluate and engage their abilities.

References and further resources:

Early Childhood News: Developing Multiple Intelligences in Young Learners

Simple Psychology: Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner Discusses Multiple Intelligences: Blackboard BbWorld 2016 – video

Project Spectrum: An alternative approach to assessment and curriculum development for preschool based on the belief that each child exhibits a distinctive profile of different abilities, or spectrum of intelligences

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