Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences: Myth or Truth?

As a parent, if you have been talking to educators and teachers from the school that your child attends or have been doing some research about early childhood education, it is quite possible that you might have heard of the ‘theory of multiple intelligences’. Or maybe you have heard terms like ‘kinesthetic intelligence’ or ‘spatial intelligence’ and wondered what these terms mean. These terms have been popularised due to Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.

In this blog, we critically analyse the 35-year-old theory. We analyse the latest research related to this theory and will present to you the findings in a concise and easy-to-understand manner. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding this theory. Unfortunately, many educators have also fallen prey to some of these misconceptions! We hope to bring clarity to this topic.

What is Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences?

Gardner's theory of multiple Intelligences

This theory was proposed by Howard Gardner in the year 1983. Howard Gardner, in this theory, proposed that rather than viewing intelligence as a general ability, it is more accurate to view it as comprising of 7 different and specific modalities. He postulated that people might possess one type of intelligence in high amounts but might lack other types of intelligence. It should be noted that in 1995, Gardner added ‘Naturalistic’ as the 8th type of intelligence, which we will not discuss in this blog. We focus on the original 7, which are:

  1. Musical-Rhythmic
  2. Visual-Spatial
  3. Verbal-Linguistic
  4. Logical-Mathematical
  5. Bodily-Kinesthetic
  6. Interpersonal
  7. Intrapersonal

We have also prepared a short presentation of this blog. For those who are in a hurry, here’s the link

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A brief description of the original 7 Intelligences in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences
  1. Musical intelligence relates to sensitivity and ability of people with regards to aspects of music. People who possess this intelligence to a high degree would be able to sing well, identify pitch, tone, rhythm and raags (or raagas) more accurately than the general population and may even compose music. It is quite evident that people and professionals associated with music in any capacity, require this kind of intelligence in abundance.
  2. Visual-spatial intelligence can be thought of as the mental skill to solve spatial problems related to navigation, visualization of objects from different angles, facial recognition etc. People who possess this intelligence to a high degree can grasp the transformation of the whole from the changing parts. This kind of intelligence has been found to be useful for architects, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) practitioners and even surgeons.
  3. Verbal-linguistic intelligence relates to a person’s ability to understand, speak and write in a language or various languages. The 4 essential underlying functions that are key to this intelligence are speech generation, speech comprehension, writing generation and writing comprehension. Journalists, authors, speech writers, bloggers, media industry professionals, marketing and advertising professionals etc. tend to be dependent on this type of intelligence.
  4. Logical-mathematical intelligence is directly related to logic, abstract thinking, reasoning, critical thinking and deductive thinking. This kind of intelligence helps in identifying causality or principles of causation of any phenomenon. Scientists, mathematicians, engineers, doctors, researchers etc. would be finding this kind of intelligence useful as they try and understand the underlying causes and principles.
  5. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is the ability to control one’s bodily motions and handle objects skillfully. Parents of young children should note that gross and fine motor skills of your child are directly related to this type of intelligence. This type of intelligence is especially important in the fields of sports, armed forces, acrobats, dance, skilled manual labour like sewing, knitting, handicrafts etc. It is to some extent it is important even for astronauts.
  6. Interpersonal intelligence is social and emotional intelligence. It is important in any field that involves working, collaborating, communicating with other people. This kind of intelligence involves skills such as verbal communication, non-verbal communication, negotiation, assertiveness etc. You can read our blog on this topic, to know more about interpersonal intelligence. This kind of intelligence is very important for managers in the corporate world, sales personnel, politicians, social workers, teachers etc.
  7. Intrapersonal intelligence is the ability to introspect and understand one’s self. One can safely say that this intelligence is a must in all human endeavours. Without the ability to introspect, one cannot get a clear sense of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, which is crucial for continually improving and learning. This intelligence is also needed for effective control and regulation of our emotions.

Having understood the basics of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, let us now take a look at some of the misconceptions surrounding it.

Myth 1: A person might be intelligent in one field but not necessarily good at other things!

Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

We often find people saying things like, that that they are good at writing but weak at science. Some might feel that they are good at biology but are not good at mathematics. Some might claim to possess keen artistic intelligence but lack in logical reasoning. The proponents of the multiple intelligence theory too believed this and claimed that there would be weak correlations between different types of intelligences, thus supporting the statements of the above kind.
Unfortunately, this is not true! While exceptions will always exist, there is conclusive scientific evidence that there are strong correlations within the 7 different types of intelligences. What this means is that, in general, people who tend to be intelligent in one area, tend to be good at other areas also. Of course, exceptions will always be present.

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Myth 2: There are different types of intelligences!

When we observe people around us, commonsensical observations can lead us to believe that there are different types of intelligences. After all, a person could be excellent at sports and bad at everything else, while another could be gifted at mathematics while being terrible at all sports. Therefore, some argue that strong correlations (as mentioned above) between different types of intelligence does not mean different intelligences do not exist. They argue that different intelligences do exist despite strong correlations.

But, here is the problem: If there are indeed multiple intelligences, and each of them can be defined precisely, one would be to develop an algorithm or a test, using which one could conclude which type of intelligence dominates in a person. Unfortunately, no such test or algorithm exists or likely to exist. This indicates that the definition of the ‘intelligence’ as used in the theory, was probably subjective or arbitrary in the first place. This has been admitted by Gardner himself. Also, there is absolutely no empirical evidence for this theory. This indicates that perhaps ‘abilities’, ‘skills’ and ‘aptitudes’ are being inaccurately equated with an ‘intelligence’ in this theory. For example, this may imply that music or kinesthetic abilities are not an intelligence but perhaps just a skill.

Myth 3: Different people think in different ways. And depending on their style of thinking, we ought to teach them in a way that suits them.

Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

The important question here is: are there different learning styles among children? We often hear terms like ‘reflective learning style’ or ‘left vs. right brained thinking’ or ‘visual-auditory-kinesthetic learning styles’ etc. The idea that children could have different learning styles and hence there have to be corresponding ‘teaching styles’ for effective learning, is an attractive one. If this were indeed true, it would have profound implications on our teaching style, pedagogy and perhaps even on entire curricula.

But again, there is no hard evidence to indicate that this is true. There is no evidence for the statement that different students learn in fundamentally different ways. Nor is there any evidence that shows that customizing ‘teaching styles’ to suit the ‘learning styles’ is beneficial to the child. Gardner himself has cautioned against the misconceptions related to ‘learning styles’.

Myth 4: Neuroscience shows that different parts of the brain are associated with different capabilities. This supports the theory.

It is correct that different parts of the brain have been associated with different human activities. For example, the frontal lobe of the brain is associated with complex decision-making process while the parietal lobe is associated with spatial awareness. Does the brain structure support the theory of multiple intelligences?

The answer is no! There is no evidence to suggest that each of Gardner’s intelligences operate via different neural mechanisms. And conversely, there is strong evidence to suggest that there are shared and overlapping neural pathways for many of the intelligences. The brain structure, therefore, supports a theory of general intelligence rather than 7 or 8 specific intelligences.

We have also prepared a short presentation of this blog. For those who are in hurry, here’s the link.
Myth 5: But surely a theory this popular cannot be wrong!

If we consider scientific evidence as essential for establishing the veracity of claims, then popularity does not matter.

So where does this leave us?

It is quite evident that despite the enduring popularity of the theory both among general population and educators, the theory is clearly on shaky grounds. So, does this mean we are back to a one-size-fits-all pedagogical approach when it comes teaching our children?

Well, no! There is sufficient evidence to show that learning outcomes improve:

  1. When we provide children with multiple ways to access content
  2. When we provide children with multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge and skills
  3. When teaching style understands the specific needs and areas of growth of a student. This is not the same as adopting a particular ‘teaching style’ because the student has a particular ‘learning style’.
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Conclusion and Key Takeaways
  1. There are a lot of problems with Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and is quite possibly just pseudoscience.
  2. In this theory, ‘intelligences’ have not been defined precisely that allows any kind of rigorous testing and measurement.
  3. Strong evidence indicates that intelligence is more general and unified in nature rather than comprising of 7 independent types, as claimed by the theory. If someone claims that your daughter has great kinesthetic intelligence but is weak in logical-mathematical intelligence, kindly do not believe such a statement.
  4. There is practically no evidence of different ‘learning types’ among students. Therefore, any suggestion of ‘teaching types’ should also be viewed with scepticism. If anyone says that your son is a ‘visual learner’ or a ‘right-brained thinker’, please do not accept such statements at their face value.
  5. Any claims being made by a school or an educator with regards to their pedagogy being compliant or consistent with this theory should be viewed with scepticism.
  6. Finally, do not think that your child has only one type of intelligence or has one type of learning style. Instead, focus on improving general intelligence with the right kind of exposure.
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