Understanding Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligence

Understanding Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligence

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The next time you walk into a classroom full of students leaping mid-air, painting passionately, singing soulfully, or writing madly, it's likely you have Howard Gardner's groundbreaking Frame of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences to thank. When Gardner's theory on multiple intelligences came out in 1983, it radically transformed teaching and learning in the U.S. and around the world with the notion that there is more than one way to learn - in fact, there are at least eight! The theory was a huge departure from the more traditional "banking method" of education in which the teacher simply "deposits" knowledge into the learner's mind and the learner must "receive, memorize and repeat."

Instead, Gardner broke open the idea that a disengaged learner might learn better by using a different form of intelligence, defined as a "biophysical potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture." This defied the previous consensus on the existence of a single, general intelligence or "g factor" that could be easily tested. On the contrary, Gardner's theory posits that each of us has at least one dominant intelligence that informs how we learn. Some of us are more verbal or musical. Others are more logical, visual, or kinesthetic. Some learners are highly introspective while others learn through social dynamics. Some learners are especially attuned to the natural world whereas others are deeply receptive to the spiritual world.

Gardner's 8 Intelligence

What exactly are the eight types of intelligence posited in Howard Gardner's theory? The seven original intelligence are:

  • Visual-Aesthetic learners think in terms of physical space and like to "read" or visualize their words.
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic learners are keenly aware of their physical bodies and like creative movement and making things with their hands.
  • Musical learners are sensitive to all kinds of sound and often access learning through or from music, however, one may define it.
  • Intrapersonal learners are introspective and reflective. They learn through independent study and self-guided experiences.
  • Interpersonal learners learn through social interaction with others and enjoy group dynamics, collaboration, and encounters.
  • Linguistic learners love language and words and enjoy learning through verbal expression.
  • Logical-Mathematical learners think conceptually, logically, and mathematically about the world and enjoy exploring patterns and relationships.

In the mid-1990s, Gardner added an eighth intelligence:

  • Naturalistic learners have a sensitivity to the natural world and can easily relate to plant and animal life, enjoying patterns found in the environment.

Theory in Practice: Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom

For many educators and parents working with learners who struggled in traditional classrooms, Gardner's theory came as a relief. While a learner's intelligence was previously questioned when he or she found it challenging to grasp concepts, the theory pushed educators to recognize that each student has myriad potential. Multiple intelligences served as a call to action to "differentiate" learning experiences in order to accommodate the multiple modalities in any given learning context. By modifying the content, process, and expectations for a final product, teachers and educators can reach learners who otherwise present as reluctant or incapable. A student may dread learning vocabulary through test-taking but lighten up when asked to dance, paint, sing, plant, or build.

The theory invites a great deal of creativity in teaching and learning and over the last 35 years, arts educators, in particular, have used the theory to develop arts-integrated curricula that acknowledge the power of artistic processes to produce and share knowledge across core subject areas. Arts integration took off as an approach to teaching and learning because it taps artistic processes not only as subjects in and of themselves but also as tools for processing knowledge in other subject areas. For example, a verbal, social learner lights up when they learn about conflict in stories through activities like theater. A logical, musical learner stays engaged when they learn about math through music production.

In fact, Gardner's colleagues at Project Zero at Harvard University spent years researching the habits of artists at work in their studios to discover how artistic processes may inform best practices in teaching and learning. Lead researcher Lois Hetland and her team identified eight "Studio Habits of Mind" that can be applied to learning across the curriculum at any age with any kind of learner. From learning to use tools and materials to engage with complex philosophical questions, these habits release learners from the fear of failure and focus instead on the pleasures of learning.

Are There Limits to "Containing Multitudes"?

Multiple intelligences invite limitless possibilities for teaching and learning, but one of the biggest challenges is determining a learner's primary intelligences in the first place. While many of us have an instinct about how we prefer to learn, being able to identify one's dominant learning style can be a lifelong process that requires experimentation and adaptation over time.

Schools in the United States, as a reflection of society at large, often place imbalanced value on linguistic or logical-mathematical intelligence, and learners with intelligence in other modalities risk getting lost, undervalued, or ignored. Learning trends like experiential learning, or 'learning by doing' attempts to counter and correct this bias by creating the conditions to tap as many intelligence as possible in the production of new knowledge. Educators sometimes lament a lack of partnership with families and note that unless the theory extends to learning at home, the methods don't always hold in the classroom and learners continue to struggle against stacked expectations.

Gardner also warns against labeling learners with any given intelligence over another or implying unintended hierarchies of value among the eight types of intelligence. While each of us may lean toward one intelligence over another, we also have the potential to change and transform over time. Multiple intelligences applied to teaching and learning contexts should empower rather than limit learners. On the contrary, the theory of multiple intelligences radically expands our immense and untapped potential. In the spirit of Walt Whitman, multiple intelligences reminds us that we are complex, and we contain multitudes.

Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein is a poet, writer, and educator from Chicago, IL (USA) who currently splits her time in East Africa. Her essays on arts, culture, and education appear in Teaching Artist Journal, Art in the Public Interest, Teachers & Writers Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, The Equity Collective, AramcoWorld, Selamta, The Forward, among others. Visit her website.


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