Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences


The Traditional View of Intelligence

The traditional view of intelligence can be traced to French psychologist Alfred Binet.  At the request of the French Ministry of Education in the early 1900s, Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon developed a test that identified children at risk for school failure.  The test was effective for that purpose. However it was soon used as the basis for the psychometric measurement of individuals' general capabilities or intelligence. Since that time, intelligence tests have been heavily weighted toward the types of highly predictive abilities Binet measured in his test, including: verbal memory, verbal reasoning, numerical reasoning, and appreciation of logical sequences.  And intelligence tests have defined how we define intelligence.

A New View of Intelligence: Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Gardner began to question the traditional view of intelligence as he worked on studying the nature of human cognitive capacities in the 1970s and 80s.  At the Boston University Aphasia Research Center, Gardner conducted studies with aphasic patients. He wanted to understand the pattern of abilities of stroke victims suffering from impaired language and other kinds of cognitive and emotional injury. At the same time, Gardner worked with ordinary and gifted children at Project Zero, in an attempt to understand the development of cognitive abilities. In his work with both children and brain-damaged adults, Gardner observed that People have a wide range of capacities.  A person's strength in one area of performance simply does not predict any comparable strengths in other areas.

From this observation Gardner developed his Theory of Multiple Intelligences.  According to Multiple Intelligence Theory, intelligence may be defined as the biological potential to process information in certain ways that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or make products that are value in a culture. This definition suggests that intelligence represents potential that will or will not be brought to bear depending on the values, available opportunities, as well as personal decisions made by individuals, of a particular culture.

Gardner's definition located intelligence in what people can do and the products they create in the real world, in contrast to the implied intelligence that is measured by a test score.  Gardner’s definition of intelligence suggests a qualitative expression, a description, of an individual's collection of intelligences rather than a quantitative expression of a unitary ability.

Identifying Intelligences

Gardner's "new view" of intelligence initially gave rise to a list of seven intelligences:

  1. Linguistic-- the capacity to use language, your native language, and perhaps other languages, to express what's on your mind and to understand other people. 
  2. Logical-mathematical—the capacity to understand the underlying principles of some kind of a causal system, or to manipulate numbers, quantities, and operations
  3. Musical-- the capacity to think in music, to be able to hear patterns, recognize them, remember them, and perhaps manipulate them. 
  4. Spatial—the ability to represent the spatial world internally in your mind
  5. Bodily-kinesthetic-- the capacity to use your whole body or parts of your body--your hand, your fingers, your arms--to solve a problem, make something, or put on some kind of a production. 
  6. Interpersonal—the capacity for understanding other people
  7. Intrapersonal refers to having an understanding of yourself, of knowing who you are, what you can do, what you want to do, how you react to things, which things to avoid, and which things to gravitate toward

An eighth intelligence, Naturalist, has since been added; naturalist intelligence designates the human ability to discriminate among living things (plants, animals) as well as sensitivity to other features of the natural world (clouds, rock configurations).  This ability was clearly of value in our evolutionary past as hunters, gatherers, and farmers. A ninth, Existential Ability, is currently under consideration.

Gardner proposed eight criteria for identifying an intelligence.  These were:

1.      potential isolation by brain damage/neurological evidence

2.      evolutionary history and evolutionary plausibility

3.      an identifiable set of core operation(s)

4.      susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system

5.      recognizable end-state and distinctive developmental trajectory

6.      existence of savants, prodigies, and other individuals distinguished by the presence or absence of specific abilities

7.      support from experimental psychological tasks

8.      support from psychometric findings 

The criteria have served well as the principal means to identify a set of intelligences that captures a reasonably complete range of abilities that are valued by human cultures. By keeping the criteria in active use, MI theory can and has been modified to reflect our increasing understanding of the ways in which people are intelligent. MI theory offers the most accurate description to date of intelligence in the real world, and it continues to be a helpful articulation and organization of human abilities.

How Teachers Apply MI Theory in the Classroom

Teachers may use MI theory as a basis to reflect on and identify students' strengths and preferences or to emphasize student participation in MI-based reflections.  Teachers may create a “bridge” from  students' MI strengths to appropriate learning strategies. They may emphasize using students’ particular strengths to assist in areas of particular difficulty. Teachers may provide a range of MI-informed “entry points” into a topic and “exit points” for students to demonstrate their learning. This technique emphasizes using students’ identified strengths to develop entry and exit points. Teachers may also develop a project-based curriculum using MI theory as a framework. This technique emphasizes authentic problems and activities.