Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

multiple intelligencesEvery teacher knows that different students excel in different areas. However, traditionally, definitions of success in school have often been limited to academic success (although it has obviously been acknowledged that students’ strengths vary from subject to subject). “Intelligence” has often been considered to be synonymous with doing well in traditional school subjects or performing well academically.

In 1983, a professor at Harvard University named Howard Gardner developed a theory that expands the definition of intelligence.  Gardner felt that the traditional definition of intelligence as linguistic and mathematical was too narrow. He felt that traditional classroom instruction, as well as the tests used to measure intelligence, were inadequate because they focused on the narrow view of intelligence as simply linguistic and mathematical (though some argue that spatial intelligence has been recognized for a long time, too).

Gardner proposed nine different types of intelligence. He argues that everyone possesses all of them but in different strengths and combinations. The nine different types are as follows:

  • Linguistic (effective expression of one’s own ideas through words, and the ability to understand others through words and process information verbally)
  • Logical/Mathematical (the ability to understand logical/causal processes and patterns, and manipulate numbers, quantities, etc.)
  • Musical/Rhythmic (keen sense of pitch and rhythm, strong musical memory)
  • Bodily/Kinesthetic (innate understanding of the body’s movements, quick reflexes, etc.)
  • Spatial (ability to envision physical space within the mind. Keen sense of direction, good at arranging things, paRking cars, etc.)
  • Naturalistic (understanding the natural world, classifying plantS and animals, recognizing weather patterns, etc.)
  • Interpersonal (ability to understand other people — what motivates them, how they will act in certain situations, what they need to function well, what frightens them, etc.- Important for teachers)
  • Intrapersonal (highly developed sense of self, understanding of one’s own abilities, limits, motivations, needs, etc.)
  • Existential (strong inclination and ability to wrestle with questions of life, death, meaning, etc.)

Gardner’s theory has been subject to much criticism, primarily because there is no empirical evidence to support it. This is ironic, considering that the need for empirical evidence is characteristic of logical/mathematical ways of knowing. Despite the criticism, however, many educators use Gardner’s ideas in designing their instruction, whether or not they are consciously following his theory.

The emphasis we see currently on standardized testing seems to indicate a shift away from a holistic view of intelligence since these tests generally measure only linguistic, logical/mathematical, and spatial intelligence.

However, teachers can still use a differentiated approach to instruction, and hopefully they will continue to do so, and to develop their own approaches despite the emphasis on standardized tests. There is hope in the fact that most teachers would acknowledge the sense of Gardner’s theory despite the fact that policy makers may not.

Readers Bureau Contributor