Multiple Intelligence Theory and Its Application to Education

Last Updated: 26 Jan 2021
Essay type: Application
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The discourse surrounding multiple intelligence theory (MI) and its integration into education has been that of much debate. Written as an opposition to IQ testing, MI was originally developed as an alternate account of cognitive function, initially identifying seven distinct intelligences (verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal and musical), and later acquiring two more (naturalist and existential).

Applied to an educational context, the main aim of MI theory is to demonstrate the insufficiencies of IQ measurements and traditional testing methods as evaluations of student intelligence and the grounds for planning programs and curricula suitable for all students (Moran, Kornhaber, & Gardner, 2007). MI theory is attractive to many because it offers “a more pluralistic cognitive universe” (Gardner, 1995b, p. 16).

However, vigorous debate challenges MI theory, whilst the lack of clear instruction for its integration into pedagogy has led to misconceptions and unfaithful application of its key elements. Some of the arguments pertaining to the integration of MI in schools, and in art and design classrooms in particular, will be explored below, firstly examining critiques of the theory itself. The first debate considers the empirical aspects of MI. In Frames of Mind (1983), Gardner presents his investigation of numerous empirical studies, from which he identified the initial seven intelligences.

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Thus, it can be said that MI theory is formed solely on empirical evidence. Since there can be no permanence to any empirically based theory, MI can be modified in accordance to new studies, openly allowing for discussion and constant reconceptualisation (Gardner, 1995a). Whilst Kevin Williams (2000) highlights the intuitively appealing natureof MI theory, Robert J. Sternberg identifies the need for a basis for testing and comparing these “attractive” empirical theories (1984, p. 700). Klein (1998, p. 06) points out that Gardner, whilst expanding the claims of MI theory, “provides no evidence for them,” but further demonstrates the virtually “untestable” nature of MI theory that continued to exist over a decade after Sternberg’s critique.

This means that whilst it difficult to prove that MI is wrong, it is equally difficult to prove that it is correct, which questions the validity of the theory in educational contexts. Secondly, MI theory has been accused of confusing intelligence with domain and discipline. Gardner (1995a, p. 02) explains that on the contrary, “an intelligence is a biological and psychological potential… capable of being realized… as a consequence of the experiential, cultural, and motivational factors that affect a person. ” This definition is dissimilar to that of “domain,” which is a cultural concept, relating to culturally organized activities, in which individuals are involved. In the art and design context, sculpture, painting and woodwork would be examples of domains, which, according to MI, can be accomplished through the utilization if intelligences such as spatial, bodily-kinesthetic and logical mathematical.

In saying that, Gardiner argues that intelligences can operate in many diverse domains(Gardner, 1995a; Gardner, 1998). Logical mathematical intelligence must be applied in planning and constructing a table, for instance, to attain correct measurements and angles. Perry D. Klein accuses MI of linguistic redundancy on the basis that each intelligence is defined “as an ability in a corresponding set of domains,” and an ability in each domain is explained “with reference to the intelligence” (Klein, 1997, p. 103).

Gardner (1998) believes that Klein has confused these concepts, as each domain involves several intelligences, not just one by which it is defined. For example, a student who possesses high spatial intelligence might not necessarily produce an effective poster design without also incorporating a degree of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, cultural support, practice and good instruction. Gardner strongly disagrees with a third critique that MI theory “so broadens the notion of intelligence that it includes all psychological constructs and thus vitiates the usefulness, as well as the usual connotation, of the term,” (Gardner, 1995a, p. 03). His argument stems from allegations that the traditional definition of intelligence provides a thin and incomplete observation of its nature, touching on only psychometric capacity and disregarding other cognitive aspects. MI deals only with matters of the intellect and Gardner believes that a more useful comprehension of cognition can be gained by considering multiple semi-independent intelligences than what is offered by the hypothesis of a single “bell curve” model of intelligence. Conversely, some critics show concern that MI regiments the variety of human intelligences due to the restriction of categories.

The formation of categories and intelligences they include is, in the opinion of John White, based “on Gardner’s own value preferences” (White in Williams, 2000, P. 107). Williams (2000), however, asserts that White may have misjudged the way in which MI can allow for the diverse combinations of intelligences in the classroom. MI encourages that key concepts or disciplines be approached in a multiple ways to enhance a students experience of ideas and implications in a way that is familiar to them.

In art and design, topics can be taught using a range of approaches, from narration of an artists or designers experience (interpersonal), class discussion (verbal-linguistic) and individual reflection (interpersonal and intrapersonal) to practical experimentation or stimulation (logical-mathematical, spatial and bodily-kinesthetic). By approaching content from different perspectives, teachers can increase their access to the intelligences of more students and allow students to see that they are capable of representing content and their knowledge in different ways (Gardner, 1995a)

A fourth concern takes the form of what Gardner (1995a, p. 203) deems a myth: “MI theory is incompatible with g (general intelligence), with hereditarian accounts, or with environmental accounts of the nature and causes of intelligence. ” His response is that MI theory is primarily concerned with exploring the intelligences and intellectual procedures that g does not take into account. MI examines the scope of g, not it’s actual existence. Similarly, MI theory focuses on exploring the interaction between genetic and environmental elements, impartial on the issue of whether particular intelligences are heritable.

MI’s exploration of the unique intelligences of individuals allows them to understand that they have potential to be “intelligent” in multiple ways and are no longer restricted to the “smart” or dumb” categories that are often ascribed to g (Moran, Kornhaber, & Gardner, 2007). Considering the above arguments, MI practice should not be considered in separation of MI theory and teachers should be aware of the discourse surrounding MI theory in order to make a more educated integration of its principles into their classrooms.

The almost immediate attempt to integrate MI theory into educational contexts has generated positive results in its development. However, Burke (2007) also notes that many teachers have acquired information about MI that is in contradiction to what the theory actually suggests. Written in the context of psychology, Frames of Mind relates only six paragraphs to MI practice in education (Burke, 2007). Gardner denies that MI attempts to instruct pedagogy and sees it as the educator’s role to decide how MI will best serve students (Gardner, 1995a).

Considering MI theory is not the result of standardized tests, any testing that claims to be MI based, should use an “intelligent-fair” method, as opposed to linguistic or logical methods of pen and paper testing, so that each individual intelligence is directly examined. For instance, if a student is to be assessed in aspects of spatial intelligence, it should be done based on their practical interaction with and application of visual arrangements and materials, rather than written assessment.

Gardner points out that the assessment of MI’s is not always a main concern in education, but if it is appropriate for testing to occur, it should exist within an environment where the student feels comfortable and is provided with familiar materials (Gardner, 1995a). Misguided notions of MI have led to the concern that teachers need “to plan eight or nine different entry points or approaches for each lesson” (Moran, Kornhaber, & Gardner, 2007, p. 26).

Burke (2007) reports that in art classes where teachers attempted to teach to every intelligence, students began to complain about far-fetched lessons. It is not always feasible, nor appropriate to attempt to conduct lessons in this way, and Gardner (1995a) agrees that to do so would be a waste of time and effort. Klein points out that the complication of growing class sizes combined with the “supposed existence of eight intelligences” and their various levels of operation, would result in an “explosion in the workload of the teachers who would have to plan and deliver these programs” (1997, p. 38). Whilst the identification of “strong” areas of intelligence in individuals can be beneficial, Klein (1997) predicts that this could also mean that students will avoid areas where their intelligence is deemed “weak. ” Within an art program, for example, a student with strong verbal linguistic intelligence and weak spatial intelligence might focus their efforts more heavily in developing a written report on an artist case study and avoid tasks that require them to create or interpret compositions or work with 3D modeling.

Furthermore, if a student ascribes their strong logical-mathematical intelligence to an ability such as the careful planning of measurements for a project, and the calculations prove to be more difficult then they expected, Klein suggests that they often quit as they “interpret failure as a lack of this ability” (1997, p. 389). MI has also been applied to classrooms in trivial ways. This includes the practices that exercise aspects of particular intelligence without cultivating the mind (Gardner, 1995a).

An example of this would be to have students thrash their limbs about to make random marks on a surface without informing them of what energized mark-making is about and how it is relevant to art. In order to achieve deep learning, applications of MI should be student-focused, considering the intellectual attributes of each individual in order to plan educational programs that are relevant, appropriate, fair and engaging (Gardner, 1995b). Understanding the dynamics of intelligences within a classroom can assist teachers in their provision of rich learning experiences.

This means understanding which intelligences, both on an individual and class level, will create interference, compensation or enhancement (Moran, Kornhaber, & Gardner, 2007). Having students work collaboratively on projects can allow for intelligences to operate “across students… to build shared strengths” (Moran, Kornhaber, & Gardner, 2007, p. 28). In concluding, Gardner (1998) maintains the position that MI theory can provide a rich, flexible and useful set of tools and ideas for teaching that allow educators to meet the needs of increasingly diverse classrooms by utilizing knowledge of and tapping into the specific intelligences and ubskills of individual students. MI can be useful in explaining the behavior of individuals and identifying obstacles in their learning with the aim of making teaching and learning relevant for more students in order to achieve deeper learning. However, to avoid misconception and subsequent misapplication of MI theory, educators must be aware of the debate that surrounds it and its progress as a continually developing empirical theory.

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Multiple Intelligence Theory and Its Application to Education. (2018, Sep 01). Retrieved from

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