Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Many of us are familiar with three broad categories in which people learn: visual learning, auditory learning, and kinesthetic learning. Beyond these three categories, many theories of and approaches toward human learning potential have been established. Among them is the theory of multiple intelligences developed by Howard Gardner, Ph.D., John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Research Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. Gardner’s early work in psychology and later in human cognition and human potential led to his development of the initial six intelligences. Today there are nine intelligences, and the possibility of others may eventually expand the list.

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Summarized

  1. Verbal-linguistic intelligence (well-developed verbal skills and sensitivity to the sounds, meanings and rhythms of words)
  2. Logical-mathematical intelligence (ability to think conceptually and abstractly, and capacity to discern logical and numerical patterns)
  3. Spatial-visual intelligence (capacity to think in images and pictures, to visualize accurately and abstractly)
  4. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (ability to control one’s body movements and to handle objects skillfully)
  5. Musical intelligences (ability to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch and timber)
  6. Interpersonal intelligence (capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations and desires of others)
  7. Intrapersonal (capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes)
  8. Naturalist intelligence (ability to recognize and categorize plants, animals and other objects in nature)
  9. Existential intelligence (sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence such as, “What is the meaning of life? Why do we die? How did we get here?”

(“Tapping into Multiple Intelligences,” 2004)

Gardner (2013) asserts that regardless of which subject you teach—“the arts, the sciences, history, or math”—you should present learning materials in multiple ways. Gardner goes on to point out that anything you are deeply familiar with “you can describe and convey … in several ways. We teachers discover that sometimes our own mastery of a topic is tenuous, when a student asks us to convey the knowledge in another way and we are stumped.” Thus, conveying information in multiple ways not only helps students learn the material, it also helps educators increase and reinforce our mastery of the content. 

… regardless of which subject you teach—“the arts, the sciences, history, or math”—you should present learning materials in multiple ways.

Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory can be used for curriculum development, planning instruction, selection of course activities, and related assessment strategies. Gardner points out that everyone has strengths and weaknesses in various intelligences, which is why educators should decide how best to present course material given the subject-matter and individual class of students. Indeed, instruction designed to help students learn material in multiple ways can trigger their confidence to develop areas in which they are not as strong. In the end, students’ learning is enhanced when instruction includes a range of meaningful and appropriate methods, activities, and assessments.

Multiple Intelligences are Not Learning Styles

While Gardner’s MI have been conflated with “learning styles,” Gardner himself denies that they are one in the same. The problem Gardner has expressed with the idea of “learning styles” is that the concept is ill defined and there “is not persuasive evidence that the learning style analysis produces more effective outcomes than a ‘one size fits all approach’” (as cited in Strauss, 2013). As former Assistant Director of Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching Nancy Chick (n.d.) pointed out, “Despite the popularity of learning styles and inventories such as the VARK, it’s important to know that there is no evidence to support the idea that matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning.” One tip Gardner offers educators is to “pluralize your teaching,” in other words to teach in multiple ways to help students learn, to “convey what it means to understand something well,” and to demonstrate your own understanding. He also recommends we “drop the term ‘styles.’ It will confuse others and it won’t help either you or your students” (as cited in Strauss, 2013).


… “pluralize your teaching,” in other words to teach in multiple ways to help students learn, to “convey what it means to understand something well,” and to demonstrate your own understanding.

Summary

Gardner himself asserts that educators should not follow one specific theory or educational innovation when designing instruction but instead employ customized goals and values appropriate to teaching, subject-matter, and student learning needs. Addressing the multiple intelligences can help instructors pluralize their instruction and methods of assessment and enrich student learning.

References

Chick, N. (n.d.). Learning styles. Retrieved from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/learning-styles-preferences/

Gardner, H. (2010). Multiple intelligences. Retrieved from http://www.howardgardner.com/MI/mi.html 

Gardner, H. (2013). Frequently asked questions—Multiple intelligences and related educational topics. Retrieved from https://howardgardner01.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/faq_march2013.pdf

Strauss, V. (2013, Oct. 16). Howard Gardner: “Multiple intelligences” are not “learning styles.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/16/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-are-not-learning-styles/

Tapping into multiple intelligences. (2004). Retrieved from https://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/mi/index.html

Selected Resources

MI OASIS: The Official Authoritative Site of Multiple Intelligences. Access at https://www.multipleintelligencesoasis.org/


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Suggested citation

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from http://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guide/instructional-guide

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