Professors – Multiple Intelligences Are Alive and Well in Your Classroom

Multiple Intelligences

Research in the last couple of decades indicates that there is not a single form of “intelligence.” When one only accepts the traditional definition of “intelligence,” a competitive classroom culture is fostered which ensures some students will fail. In recent years, the concept of “multiple intelligences” has emerged to create a contrasting paradigm. Seeking to broaden the scope of human potential beyond the traditional IQ score, Howard Gardner, renowned for having developed the most well known theory of multiple intelligences, defines intelligence as “a biopsychological 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” (1999, p. 34).

Gardner challenges the validity of determining people’s intelligence by taking them out of their natural learning environment and asking them to complete isolated tasks they had never done before. His position that intelligence has more to do with solving problems and creating products in a context-rich environment is an outgrowth of his research, which now yields nine comprehensive categories, or what have come to be called “intelligences”:

  • Verbal/linguistic intelligence – the capacity to use words effectively (think of a skilled author or orator). Students who possess this intelligence have generally been successful in traditional classrooms because their intelligence lends itself to traditional teaching.
  • Logical/mathematical intelligence – the capacity to reason and employ numbers effectively (think Alan Greenspan). In addition to the students who possess high verbal/linguistic intelligence, the students in this group also tend to do well in traditional classrooms where teaching is logically sequenced and students are asked to conform.
  • Visual/spatial intelligence – the ability to accurately manipulate mental representations of large or small spaces (think Air Force pilot or chess player). These learners like to see what is being talked about in order to understand.
  • Bodily/kinesthetic intelligence – expertise in using the entire body to express ideas and feelings (think Maria Tallchief). These students often give the professor every indication of what intelligence they embody–through their constant movement and expressive body language.
  • Musical intelligence – the capacity to perceive, discriminate, transform and express musical forms effectively (think Yo Yo Ma). These learners use patterns, rhythms, instruments and musical expression to represent their world.
  • Interpersonal intelligence – the ability to perceive and make distinctions in the moods, motivations and feelings of other people (think of a skilled psychologist). These learners are noticeably people oriented and outgoing, and do well working in groups or with a partner.
  • Intrapersonal – self-knowledge and the ability to act adaptively on the basis of that knowledge (think someone who knows him-/herself, is comfortable with that knowledge, and can accommodate changes). These learners may tend to be more reserved, but they are actually quite intuitive about what they learn and how it relates to them.
  • Naturalist – recognizing patterns in the living world (think Charles Darwin). A student possessing the naturalist intelligence demonstrates an ease in identifying and classifying living things.
  • Existentialist – a proclivity for asking the fundamental questions about life (think Dalai Lama). This is one of Gardner’s newest intelligences and one that is likely to be more extensively explored. Those with the existentialist intelligence ask questions like, “Why are we here?” and “What is our role in the world?”

It is likely that as you read through these brief descriptions, you find yourself described by at least one–and it is also likely that you identify your field with one of the intelligences more than another. For example, if you are a music professor, it would not be surprising if you believe that you possess the musical intelligence–and that your students (well, your best students) also possess this intelligence. Likewise, if you are working with graduate students who are preparing to be clinical psychologists, I hope you see evidence of both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence in them.

There are some of who have taken the concept of Multiple Intelligences and made it into a cottage industry. Gardner is the first to remind educators to reject the idea that we all need to create MI lessons and “teach to” all of the intelligences represented in our classrooms. There are those who purport to teach every single concept so that it addresses every single “intelligence” represented in their classroom. It is not reasonable to expect anyone to frame every classroom learning experience to tie into each of the *9* intelligences. Rather, just consider this complex concept in an oversimplified way, and be sensitized to the fact that it is likely that in your classroom, you will have students who have talents and problem-solving abilities that support their learning in a variety of ways. Your students’ talents and abilities may be well suited to the content and style of your teaching or, their talents and abilities may require additional effort on their part–and your part–in order for them to learn.

In the traditional paradigm of “intelligence,” students either possessed it or they didn’t. In Gardner’s paradigm, students have more of, or less of, a wider variety of intelligences. In the process of helping every unique student in your class approach their fullest potential, not by imposing preconceived limitations but by proactively soliciting their individual input into learning decisions that have an impact on them, your “job” and your perception of the human development process will become far more rewarding.


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