Multiple intelligences theory widely used yet misunderstood

Howard Gardner’s many intelligence theories were a groundbreaking notion that challenged long-held views when it was proposed 35 years ago.

Psychologists were interested in general intelligence at the time—a person’s capacity to solve problems and apply logical thinking across a wide variety of fields. The concept of general intelligence was popularized in part by the IQ test, which was first designed in the early 1900s to examine a child’s capacity to “think, reason, and make judgments.” It helped explain why certain children seemed to succeed in several disciplines. Gardner thought the premise was too limited.

“The majority of lay and scientific works on intelligence concentrate on a mix of linguistic and logical intelligence.”

“The special intellectual skills of a law professor,” Gardner explains. Gardner, who grew up playing the piano, was perplexed as to why the arts were not included in conversations about intellect. In the 1960s, as a graduate student studying psychology, he was “shocked by the virtual lack of any reference of the arts in the essential textbooks.”

Gardner’s main breakthrough emerged from his doubt: the prevalent concept of a single, monolithic intellect didn’t reflect the reality he witnessed. Mozart’s genius was undoubtedly explained in part, but not entirely, by his outstanding musical intelligence. 

And wasn’t it true that everyone possessed a diverse spectrum of intellectual abilities—from linguistic to social to logical—that were frequently mutually reinforcing and ebbed and flowed over time in response to a person’s changing interests and efforts?

Recent investigations in the domains of neurology have substantially verified these beliefs. A 2015 study, for example, challenges the centuries-old notion that reading occurs in separate areas of the brain; instead, scientists discovered that language processing “involves all of the regions of the brain, because it involves all cognitive functioning of humans”—not just visual processing but also attention, abstract reasoning, working memory, and predicting, to name a few. 

And a rising collection of research has changed our understanding of brain development, indicating that humans continue to grow and change cognitively long into adulthood.


But, while Gardner’s goal was to extend and democratize our understanding of intelligence—a notion that resonated well with teachers—the lure of the old paradigm has been difficult to overcome. Today, the concept of many bits of intelligence is as popular as ever, but it’s beginning to resemble the hypothesis Gardner intended to disprove.

“I indeed write a lot, and it’s also true that I am frequently misinterpreted,” says Gardner, who postulated seven distinct types of intelligence before adding an eighth a decade later. The enormous blunder: The term “popular culture” and “educational system” are both used interchangeably. The fundamental mistake: In popular culture and our educational system, Gardner’s concept of a multidimensional system has been confounded with learning styles, bringing Gardner’s premise of a multifaceted system down to a single “preferred intelligence”: Students, for example, are either visual or auditory learners, but never both. We’ve fallen into the same old trap: we’ve merely exchanged one intellect for another.

“It’s their choice to describe ‘an impulsive style’ or ‘a visual learner,'” Gardner says. “However, they must acknowledge that these designations may be ineffective at best and ill-conceived at worst.”

Teachers in Edutopia’s audience agree that children learn differently, yet research reveals that when pupils receive and retain material, there is no dominating biological type.

Teachers in Edutopia’s audience agree that children learn differently, yet research reveals that there is no dominant biological pattern when pupils acquire and retain knowledge and that when teachers try to tailor instruction to a perceived learning style, the advantages are nonexistent.

Nonetheless, the concept lives on.


According to Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at the University of Bristol, more than 90% of instructors feel that pupils learn better when they get material adapted to their preferred learning methods. “The interconnectedness of the brain renders such an assumption invalid, and evaluations of educational literature and controlled laboratory research fail to support this method of instruction.”

The concept has also persuaded students. Polly Husmann and Valerie O’Loughlin, medical professors, discovered that many of their students “still cling to the traditional knowledge that learning types are valid” and frequently adjust their study tactics to meet these learning styles in research published earlier this year. However, after assessing these pupils’ test results, researchers discovered no change. Instead, they discovered that tried-and-true tactics, such as seeing microscope slides online, performed as well for all students, whether they were verbal or visual learners.

The study emphasizes the need for learning across many modalities, which is an efficient strategy to improve memory and comprehension. According to a 2015 research, when professors accompany lectures with diagrams, pupils get a greater conceptual comprehension of the material. In addition, a study that spanned three decades discovered that pupils recall more knowledge when textbooks include drawings since the graphics supplement the text. Learning is more thoroughly stored when students use more than one media to understand a lesson—and being unduly reliant on a perceived dominating learning medium is detrimental.

Learning is more thoroughly imprinted when students utilize more than one media to digest a lesson—and being unduly reliant on a perceived dominating learning style is a formula for learning less successfully.


So, what should educators do? Gardner contends that “many bits of intelligence should not be an educational objective in and of themselves.” Instead, here are a few dos and don’ts for using multiple intelligences theory in your classroom.


Allow students to access material in a variety of ways: Not only will your classes be more interesting, but students will be more likely to recall knowledge that is given in a variety of ways.

Individualize your lessons: Even if your pupils don’t have a single dominating learning style, it’s still a good idea to differentiate your training. Avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching and consider your pupils’ needs and interests.

Incorporate the arts into your lessons: While schools frequently emphasize language and logical bits of intelligence, we may foster student growth by allowing them to express themselves in a variety of ways. As Gardner explains, “My theory of multiple intelligences provides a basis for education in the arts. According to this theory, all of us as human beings possess several intellectual potentials.”


Students having a specific sort of intellect should be labeled as follows: We limit pupils’ opportunity to study at a higher, richer level by pigeonholing them. Labels such as “book smart” or “visual learner” might be useful.

Labels like “book smart” or “visual learner” can be damaging because they discourage students from trying new methods of thinking and learning or from improving their inferior skills.

Confusion between multiple intelligences and learning styles: It is a common misperception that learning styles are a practical classroom application of multiple intelligences theory. “This notion is incoherent,” Gardner claims. We use our eyes to interpret and understand spatial information, yet reading and processing require distinct sorts of intellect. It makes no difference whatever sense we utilize to get information; what matters is how our brain interprets that information. “Drop the term styles. It will confuse others, and it won’t help either you or your students,” Gardner advises.

Make an effort to tailor a lesson to a student’s perceived learning style: Although students may like how the content is delivered, no evidence aligning resources to a desire improves learning. Matching makes the premise that there is a single ideal way to learn, which may eventually inhibit students and teachers from learning.

Carter Martin

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