The theory of multiple intelligences, or MI theory, developed by Howard Gardner in the early 1980s, posits that individuals possess eight or more relatively autonomous intelligences that they use to solve problems and create products relevant to the societies in which they live. The eight intelligences identified by MI theory are linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalistic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. In conceiving of intelligence as multiple rather than unitary, the theory of multiple intelligences offers a very different perspective on human capabilities and potential than traditional conceptions of intelligence as measured by IQ tests.


The traditional conception of intelligence often referred to as IQ first came about in France in the early 1900s when psychologist Alfred Binet developed a 30-item intelligence test for identifying French school children in need of special education. Binet's work was popularized in the United States by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman who published a revision of Binet's test in 1916 that came to be known as the Stanford-Binet scale.

Around the same time that Binet was developing his scale, English psychologist Charles Spearman (1904) published a paper on general intelligence in which he asserted that all forms of intellectual activity stem from a unitary or general ability for problem-solving. While Binet had developed his scale with the goal of predicting children's school performance and not as a measure of intelligence across all endeavors, the results of his and Terman's work were taken as support of Spearman's theory. Spearman's conception of general intelligence became the prevailing view of intelligence over the course of the 20th century, though it did have its critics. Both Thorndike (1927) and Thurstone (1938) were prominent researchers who argued that an individual's intellectual abilities could not be measured by a single construct. Nonetheless, the conception of intelligence as a unitary ability gained hegemony among both psychologists and lay-people.

A challenge to this view of intelligence came in 1983 when Gardner laid out his theory of multiple intelligences in a work titled Frames of Mind. Gardner's theory emerged from his consideration of several simple but powerful questions:

Are the brilliant chess player, violinist and athlete “intelligent” in their respective disciplines? If they are, then why do our tests of “intelligence” fail to identify them? In general, why does the traditional construct of intelligence fail to take into account such large areas of human endeavor? (Gardner, 2006, p. 6)

In these words, Gardner voices his concerns with the intelligence test designed by Binet and its underlying acceptance of intelligence as a single, unitary construct. In Frames of Mind, Gardner (1983) lays out his own conception of intelligence which differs from Binet's in several fundamental ways. First, proponents of Binet's conception of intelligence typically define intelligence as the trait or quality measured by an intelligence test. As psychologist E.G. Boring (1923) famously declared, “Intelligence is what the tests test” (p. 35). Gardner (2006), in contrast, defines intelligence as “an information-processing potential to solve problems or create products that are valued in at least one culture” (p. 235). Second, the traditional conception of intelligence conceives of a high IQ score as indicative of an individual's ability to be high achieving across a wide range of endeavors. In contrast, MI theory argues that individuals who demonstrate a particular aptitude in one intelligence will not necessarily demonstrate a similar aptitude in another intelligence. For example, an individual who demonstrates an impressive level of musical intelligence may be far less skilled when it comes to bodily-kinesthetic or spatial intelligence, or vice-versa. Finally, while most proponents of general intelligence regard intelligence as an innate trait which one can do little to change, multiple intelligences theory conceives of intelligence as a combination of heritable potentials and of skills that can be acquired and enhanced by appropriate experiences. In other words, while one individual may be born with a strong potential for musical intelligence, another individual can strengthen his or her musical intelligence through study and practice.

A common misunderstanding regarding MI theory is that people possess some intelligences and not others. According to MI theory, with the exception of individuals suffering from severe brain damage, all individuals possess the full range of intelligences. Thus, an individual's profile of intelligence may include a relatively low aptitude for musical intelligence, but that individual is misunderstanding MI theory if he or she claims to have no musical intelligence. Another misunderstanding is that every individual is superior in at least one of the intelligences. Individuals do differ in their levels of strength and weakness for each of the intelligences; however, there is no guarantee that every individual will demonstrate superior aptitude in at least one intelligence (Gardner, 1983).


Multiple intelligences theory has proved controversial in the psychology world. Perhaps the main source of this controversy is the evidence upon which the theory is based. Many other theories of intelligence are based entirely upon empirical data collected from psychometric instruments or experimental studies. These studies typically involve presenting subjects with a number of test items that are believed to measure intellectual capabilities. MI theory came about differently. Rather than conducting a series of experiments, Gardner (1983) developed his theory of multiple intelligences by synthesizing research from fields as diverse as evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, psychometrics as well as psychological studies of prodigies and savants. By drawing upon findings from these many diverse sources, Gardner developed the following set of criteria for identifying an intelligence:

It should be seen in relative isolation in prodigies, autistic savants, stroke victims or other exceptional populations.

It should have a distinct developmental trajectory.

It should have some basis in evolutionary biology.

It should be susceptible to capture in symbol systems.

It should be supported by evidence from psychometric tests of intelligence.

It should be distinguishable from other intelligences through experimental psychological tasks.

It should demonstrate a core, information-processing system. (Gardner, 1998).

Through application of these criteria, Gardner identified eight distinct intelligences. Linguistic intelligence allows individuals to create and understand products involving language such as poems, political speeches, and newspaper articles. Logical-mathematical intelligence allows individuals to develop equations and proofs, make calculations, and solve abstract problems. Scientists, analytic philosophers, and computer programmers typically possess profiles of intelligence high in logical-mathematical intelligence. Spatial intelligence enables individuals to use maps and other forms of graphic information in order to navigate around or through complex terrains. Musical intelligence allows individuals to create and interpret different types of sound patterns and combinations. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence involves using one's own body to create products or solve problems. Dancers, artists, and surgeons all require a profile of intelligence high in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Interpersonal intelligence captures an individual's ability to observe and understand other people's moods, desires, skills, motivations, and intentions while intrapersonal intelligence reflects an individual's ability to recognize and assess these characteristics within himself.

Gardner's original theory of multiple intelligences identified the seven intelligences described here. However, in the mid-1990s, Gardner found that naturalistic intelligence met the above criteria for identification as an intelligence as well. According to Gardner, naturalistic intelligence enables individuals to recognize and distinguish among products of the natural world such as animals, plants, rock configurations, and weather formations. Individuals with high levels of naturalistic intelligence might be drawn to careers in botany, meteorology, and veterinary science.

Yet another misconception about MI theory is that intelligences are constantly being identified and added. This misconception comes about in part because of the literally hundreds of psychologists, educators, and writers who have begun writing about various intelligences since Gardner's original publication of Frames of Mind in 1983. In truth, however, naturalistic intelligence is the only intelligence that Gardner has identified and added to the original set of intelligences originally described in Frames of Mind. Between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, researchers have suggested a number of additional intelligences, including moral intelligence, humor intelligence, cooking intelligence, and even sexual intelligence. However, as of 2007, none of these suggested intelligences has met the criteria cited above for identification as a unique intelligence.

One partial exception is the proposal of existential intelligence (Gardner, 1999). Existential intelligence has been described as the intelligence of big questions—a capacity to consider issues of life, death, love, war, and being. One might expect philosophers, poets, and theologians to demonstrate a particular aptitude for existential intelligence. Gardner (2006) has referred to existential intelligence as a half-intelligence because research to date has found existential intelligence to meet several of the criteria for identification as a unique intelligence but not all of them. Thus, it is not yet clear whether existential intelligence warrants identification as its own unique intelligence or whether the capacity to reflect upon big questions is better conceived of as a component of one or more of the existing eight intelligences. As of 2007, Gardner has held off on classifying existential intelligence as a full-fledged ninth intelligence.

Of course, it is entirely possible that early decades of the 21st century, research in fields such as genetics or neuroscience will demonstrate that existential intelligence or other intelligences do meet the criteria for inclusion as an intelligence. It is also possible—perhaps even likely— that research in these fields will reveal that hitherto identified intelligences such as logical-mathematical intelligence consist of several sub- or component intelligences. As brain imaging techniques improve and researchers' understanding of the human genome increases, there is little doubt that MI theory will adapt and change. That said, the precise number and boundary of the intelligences is less important than the overarching principle of MI theory: namely, that intelligence is better understood as multiple and specific rather than unitary and general (Chen & Gardner, 2005; Gardner, 2006b).


Multiple intelligences theory has had a substantial impact upon the world of education; however, Gardner did not develop MI theory with an intended educational agenda or audience. Rather, Gardner developed his theory of multiple intelligences with the goal of drawing upon dramatic advances in the fields of neuroscience, biology, and psychology to offer an alternative way of thinking about human cognition. Nonetheless, numerous educators embraced the idea of multiple intelligences almost from its inception. Hundreds of schools, teachers, and researchers at all different levels and in many different countries and settings have applied MI theory to the practice of education various ways. Examples include schools that use MI theory to provide teachers with a common vocabulary for discussing the learning of individual students. Other schools teach students about the concept of intrapersonal intelligence in order to encourage them to reflect upon their own strengths and weaknesses. Still other schools seek to deepen student engagement by designing curricula that draw upon different intelligences in students' investigation of a particular topic.

One of the first schools to draw extensively upon the principles of MI theory was the Key Learning Community in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Key Learning Community was founded by a team of teachers in 1987 with the mission of giving “equal emphasis for every student to each of the eight areas of intelligence: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, naturalistic, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal” (Key Learning Community, 2007). The Key Learning Community regards MI theory as the cornerstone of its educational program, and, according to the Key Learning Community principal, the school's schedule “allows students to study all eight intelligences during the regular school day” (Key Learning Community, 2007). Interest in the work of the Key Learning Community has been widespread. The school hosts a formal visitors' program and annual summer institute which draw educators from across the United States and world interested in seeing the “world's first multiple intelligence school” in action.

If the Key Learning Community represents one of the earliest applications of MI theory, then Danfoss Universe represents one of the most ambitious. Danfoss Universe is a 10-acre science experience park that opened in Sonderberg, Denmark, in 2005. The park is divided into three parts: the outdoor park, a museum, and the Explorama. The Explorama is a museum-sized building with more than 50 different activities designed to teach visitors about their various intelligences (Danfoss Universe, 2007). For example, an intrapersonal exhibit called Mindball challenges contestants to lower their own stress levels deliberately; if they can do so, an electrode headband converts this reduction in stress into a force that can propel a ping pong ball into the orbit of the opponent. An exhibit on musical intelligence enables participants to create their own melodies on a theremin, one of the earliest electronic musical instruments. Finally, an exhibit on linguistic intelligence gives participants the opportunity to practice a few Japanese words and then examine a visual representation of their vocalization superimposed over that of a native Japanese speaker. Through trial and error, participants can improve their tone and pronunciation. With these and many other exhibits, Danfoss Universe encourages visitors to the Explorama to reflect upon their own profiles of intelligence. Moreover, in a subsequent addition, visitors have a chance to predict their performances on the various activities. At the end of their visit, they can compare their predictions with the actual outcome— another, quite veridical measure of intrapersonal intelligence.


Since the late 1970s, numerous researchers have investigated the influence of MI theory. Here, two such studies are particularly notable, though in very different ways. Project Spectrum was a 10-year study conducted from 1984 to 1993 that sought to identify intellectual strengths in young children and then investigate the impact of an MI-based intervention program on first grade students at risk for school failure. As part of this study, both teachers and researchers observed at-risk first graders over the course of the school year as they participated in learning center activities designed to assess the absolute and relative strengths of the eight intelligences. From this study, Chen and Gardner (2005) report that “At-risk students, although they often perform poorly in traditional academic areas, are not necessarily low performers in all areas of learning” (p. 90). Chen and Gardner (2005) further report that identifying and nurturing these at-risk children's strengths led to statistically significant increases in these children's self-direction, self-confidence, positive classroom behavior, positive affect, self-monitoring, and active engagement. In short, then, it seems that using MI theory to identify children's profiles of intelligence and relative strengths can play a role in deepening these children's engagement and academic achievement.

A second study, the Project on Schools Using Multiple Intelligences Theory (SUMIT), was a three-year national study conducted from 1997 to 2000 that involved site visits, data analysis, and interviews with teachers at 41 schools that employed MI theory in some capacity. From this study, Kornhaber, Fierros and Veneema (2004) report that, after drawing upon MI theory, 78% of the schools in their study reported improved standardized test scores; 78% reported improved academic performance by students with learning difficulties; and 81% reported improvements in student discipline. More than half of these schools attributed these improvements to the implementation of curriculum and practices inspired by MI theory. Both Project Spectrum and Project SUMIT, then, seem to offer clear evidence of the promise that multiple intelligences theory holds for educators, schools, student performance, and school culture.

Part of the landscape in psychology and education since the early 1980s, MI theory has demonstrated considerable staying power. Its fate within psychology is likely to depend less on further tinkering with psychometric instruments and more on the convergence of evidence from neuroscience and genetics. These ongoing lines of research will indicate whether intellect is in fact pluralistic and, if so, whether the delineation suggested by Gardner comports with emerging data. Within education, MI theory promises to continue to appeal to teachers whose daily experience supports a view of young persons as having quite individual profiles of intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Whether the policies supported by governments will honor these individual differences or seek to ignore or reduce them through the administration of standard curricula and assessments remains to be seen.


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