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Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences breaks away from the idea that there is only one way to measure and exhibit human intellect. Discover how this theory can support children’s unique strengths and learning styles.

Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences

How would you describe intelligence? While there are dozens of definitions floating around, intelligence can be defined as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Keeping the definition in mind, who would you describe as intelligent? Would it be Albert Einstein, whose last name has become synonymous with intelligence? What about Isaac Newton, who is known for discovering gravity? While these men are known for their high logical and mathematical intelligence, what if you were told that this concept of intelligence spans further?

While they might not be intelligent in the same way, you could say that William Shakespeare, Serena Williams, and Mozart are equally as intelligent as Einstein and Newton. How? The answer is in the theory of multiple intelligences. The physicists may be exceptional in logical-mathematical intelligence, but you could also say that Shakespeare, Williams, and Mozart are geniuses in their craft. For example, on a tennis court where 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams excels, Albert Einstein would likely fail.

Intelligence has its place in more than one setting, and psychologist Howard Gardner mapped this out with his theory of multiple intelligences. In this article, we discuss multiple intelligences—what they are and how you can accommodate them in the classroom.

What are multiple intelligences?

Howard Gardner is a developmental psychologist with research roots at Harvard University. Although he has published dozens of articles and books, he is best known for the ideas in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Disputing the idea that people are born with one intelligence, Gardner proposes that there are at least eight intelligences:

  • Linguistic-verbal intelligence
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence
  • Visual-spatial intelligence
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
  • Musical intelligence
  • Interpersonal intelligence
  • Intrapersonal intelligence
  • Naturalistic intelligence

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences also asserts that every person is born with a varying degree of each. The degree to which someone expresses weak or strong ability in a particular intelligence is due to certain biological or environmental factors unique to the individual.

Critics argue that Gardner’s theory lacks empirical research and that the eight intelligences are merely a list of talents, traits, and abilities; however, the concept has been used in many developmental and educational settings for nearly 30 years.

A graphic showing gardner's theory of multiple intelligences - spatial, linguistic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic


Linguistic-verbal intelligence

Linguistic-verbal intelligence describes the capacity and ability to use and understand words, which may involve reading, writing, and speaking. People with linguistic-verbal intelligence often can manipulate syntax, phonetics, and the semantics of a language while having a great handle on the production of language—poetry, metaphors, grammar, and literature.

With the strengths present as proficiency with words, language, and writing, common characteristics you might witness in people with this intelligence include the ability to remember written and spoken information, the enjoyment of reading and writing, the ability to explain things well, and an affinity for learning new languages. Although linguistic-verbal intelligence is not synonymous with being bilingual, it can make it easier to learn a new language. To further develop their skills, linguistic-verbal learners might increase their vocabulary through reading and strengthen their ability to identify words with word games. 

People with linguistic-verbal intelligence might join a book club, participate on a debate team, or keep a journal or diary. They might enjoy presenting ideas with podcasts or entertaining and educating people through storytelling. Good career choices for those with this intelligence include a teacher, writer, journalist, or lawyer.

Logical-mathematical intelligence

Logical-mathematical intelligence is the ability to understand and identify logical or numerical patterns. It translates to individuals who think conceptually about numbers, relationships, and patterns—making them proficient in reasoning and analyzing problems. The processes associated with this intelligence include categorization, inference, calculation, and hypothesis testing. It’s also one of the most-studied intelligences as it’s measured in IQ tests.   

People with logical-mathematical intelligence often:

  • Think abstractly
  • Have excellent problem-solving skills
  • Enjoy conducting scientific experiments
  • Possess computing skills
  • Use critical thinking
  • Enjoy analogies

Although this intelligence is rooted in numbers, it’s important to note that it also includes non-numerical logical relationships. Mathematical reasoning, in addition to critical thinking and logic, is needed to develop this intelligence. That’s why you’ll find that some common materials used to develop logical-mathematical intelligence include puzzles, scientific experiments, and even Legos. Puzzles and Legos can strengthen logic, organization, and grouping skills, while scientific experiments reinforce critical thinking. 

Activities to further develop logical-mathematical intelligence include practicing mental math, visiting science museums or centers, or subscribing to scientific journals like TIME for Kids. Career choices for those with this intelligence include scientist, engineer, accountant, mathematician, or computer programmer.

Visual-spatial intelligence

Visual-spatial intelligence is the ability to perceive, analyze, and understand visual information and store and recall them in the mind. It’s important to note that this intelligence isn’t only subject to visual ability, as blind people can also exhibit excellent spatial skills. Spatial ability includes the ability to recognize an object (even when viewed from different angles), the skill to imagine the internal movement between the parts of a configuration, and the ability to think about spatial relationships.

Common characteristics of people with visual-spatial intelligence include reading and writing for enjoyment, easily recognizing patterns, proficiency in interpreting pictures, graphs, and charts, and an affinity for drawing, painting, and the visual arts. They’re also great at interpreting maps. Visual-spatial learners have vivid imaginations and tend to look at the “big idea” versus initially acknowledging any details.

Someone with a developed visual-spatial intelligence might take visual arts courses, use three-dimensional instruments like Legos, puzzles, and blocks to discover and create structures, or use art to express their feelings and emotions. Activities for these learners could be playing Pictionary, solving a Rubik’s cube, or creating a sculpture.

Visual-spatial intelligence allows you to visualize, create, and manipulate yourself and other items in space, create three-dimensional models, and express yourself artistically. Popular career paths for this type of intelligence include architects, artists, and engineers.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is the ability to use gross or fine motor skills to express emotions or create, learn, or solve problems. This intelligence often comes with strength, flexibility, balance, and dexterity, as well as the knowledge of movement, expression, and body language. People with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence use movement—from themselves and others—as a memory aid. It’s also common for them to touch and manipulate objects to facilitate learning. In the classroom, young children with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence can be stimulated through activities like hands-on games, acting, and dancing.

People who display bodily-kinesthetic intelligence not only enjoy using their bodies, but they’re also able to generate ideas and creations through this affinity. Characteristics of people with this developed intelligence include developing ideas while exercising, enjoying body-contact activities such as yoga and exercising, and role-playing. They’re known to use craft materials such as clay, paint, and wood to create, play musical instruments, or take acting classes. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence can also be developed through various activities, including playing sports, learning martial arts, taking dance classes, or learning sign language. 

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence involves coordination, dexterity, and the use of one’s whole body or parts of the body, such as the hands. Careers suitable for a person strong in this intelligence include physical therapist, carpenter, mechanic, actor, dancer, or surgeon.

Musical intelligence

Musical intelligence is the ability to produce, discern, and transform sounds, rhythm, pitch, and melody. It enables you to express yourself with music—by composing, singing, or playing musical instruments. Musical intelligence can develop very early in young children, especially with early exposure. When compared to the other seven intelligences, the theory of musical intelligence has received additional criticism because many view it as a talent instead of intelligence.

In people, musical intelligence might look like being drawn to sound, enjoying singing and dancing, using patterns for memorization, being skilled at playing several instruments, and having the ability to remember songs easily. Further characteristics of this include having a rich understanding of musical structure, rhythm, and notes and a deep appreciation for music.

You’ll find that people with musical intelligence are often members of musical organizations like choirs, bands, or orchestras. They might also create songs to help them learn or remember concepts while using background music to study, work, or relax. Rather than acting as a distraction, consuming music can help strengthen their concentration and direct their focus.

Some activities you might participate in to develop your musical intelligence include learning to play an instrument, attending concerts and musical events, or exploring different styles of music. Potential career choices for those who exhibit strong musical intelligence are singers, musicians, composers, or music teachers.

Interpersonal intelligence

Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to sense and interpret people’s feelings, emotions, intentions, and temperament. Sometimes called social intelligence, it enables you to understand the needs and motivations of the people around you. 

People with high interpersonal intelligence are often characterized by proficiency in:

  • Leadership
  • Verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Conflict resolution
  • Teamwork and collaboration

If you display this intelligence, you gravitate toward cooperative learning, debates, or simulations. Cooperative learning allows for collaboration which helps with task completion and problem-solving. People with interpersonal intelligence also enjoy debating as it helps them communicate and discuss their ideas. Simulation or “role play” is also common among this intelligence type as it allows you to put yourself in the place of others, a strong strategy to learn and understand others. To improve interpersonal intelligence, you can practice empathy and strengthen your active listening skills.

Interpersonal intelligence career choices include politician, salesperson, psychologist, and counselor.

Intrapersonal intelligence

Contrary to interpersonal intelligence, intrapersonal intelligence is the ability to sense and interpret your own feelings, emotions, intentions, and temperament. This understanding allows you to control your behavior and impulses to make decisions and plans. 

Intrapersonal intelligence can also be described as a capacity for self-reflection where you have a handle on your self-knowledge, self-esteem, and self-motivation. With self-reflection and introspection as common strengths among this intelligence, you’ll find that many people with high intrapersonal intelligence understand the basis for their motivations and feelings, enjoy analyzing theories and ideas, have excellent self-awareness, and can analyze their strengths and weaknesses.

Periods of mindfulness are highly effective in developing intrapersonal intelligence. You’ll find that activities such as yoga and meditation are ideal for creating opportunities for reflection where you can connect with yourself, make plans, and set goals. Potential careers for people with good intrapersonal intelligence include philosopher, writer, theologian, psychologist, and entrepreneur.

Naturalistic intelligence

Naturalistic intelligence is the ability to identify, observe, categorize, understand, and manipulate elements of nature such as plants, animals, and the environment. Individuals with this type of intelligence are interested in nurturing, exploring the environment, and learning about other species. They are also said to be sensitive to even the most subtle environmental changes. The most recent addition to the theory of multiple intelligences, Gardner updated the list with naturalistic intelligence in 1997.

The biggest strength of naturalistic intelligence is the ability to find patterns and relationships with nature. In Multiple Intelligences, Gardner lists Charles Darwin, the evolutionary scientist, as an example of someone who possessed high naturalistic intelligence. The traits often associated with this type of intelligence include:

  • Interest in nature-related topics such as biology, botany, and zoology
  • Volunteering for ecological organizations
  • The ability to categorize and catalog information easily
  • The enjoyment of outdoor activities

Among people with high intelligence in nature, you’d find that many gear their education towards nature courses and observe and study animal habitats and behaviors. To further develop your naturalistic intelligence, you can familiarize yourself with and strengthen your knowledge of nature by taking care of plants or pets, joining a preservation group, or visiting museums on natural history. Ideally, those with this intelligence might gravitate towards careers such as gardener, conservationist, or farmer.

Existential intelligence

While Gardner’s original theory of multiple intelligences didn’t include existential intelligence, it’s an important concept to note, as he did suggest it as an addition to his theory. Existential intelligence describes a person’s ability to question, understand, and think about deeper questions related to life and existence. People with this intelligence tend to question the meaning of life and death, which is why careers in philosophy or theology are ideal.

Howard Gardner initially proposed the multiple intelligences theory in 1983; however, since then, there continue to be new ideas that arise surrounding intelligence, how people learn, and how these tools can be used for development and growth.

child playing outdoors with wood


Learning styles and multiple intelligences

Learning styles are the patterns and preferences you use to collect, interpret, understand, and store information in your mind. At the core of this concept lies the VARK model of learning styles. It suggests that there are four main types of learners: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic.

  • Visual: Visual learners often learn best through visuals, i.e., pictures, graphs, diagrams, maps, and charts
  • Auditory: Auditory learners often learn and understand best by listening to information and speaking
  • Reading/writing: Reading/writing learners process and retain information best through written text like books and articles
  • Kinesthetic: Kinesthetic learners usually learn best through hands-on experience

If your lesson plans catered to visual learners, it wouldn’t be surprising that auditory or kinesthetic learners would have difficulty grasping the information. For example, imagine prompting your children to build a block tower. For visual learners, a picture of the block tower would be enough information to guide them in the task. Auditory learners, however, might need to hear you talk through the steps one by one. For kinesthetic learners, the visual and audio cues might not be enough to get them to the finish line. They might need to physically maneuver the blocks to understand and reach the goal.

Learning styles aren’t fixed. From birth, they develop as we develop. While many people might have a preferred learning style, you’d find that most practice a mixture of the styles in different settings.

When comparing and contrasting multiple intelligences and learning styles, there is a common misconception that they are the same. Multiple intelligences represent different intellectual abilities, whereas learning styles describe how you approach a task. While everyone has all eight types of intelligence—to a certain degree—their learning style doesn’t necessarily relate to their most proficient intelligence.

For example, consider someone with high bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. If you look at learning styles and multiple intelligences as the same, you might assume that their learning style is kinesthetic. This could easily be wrong. While people with this intelligence type use movement to express themselves and as a memory aid, they can still benefit from using rhymes (auditory) or books (reading/writing) to learn and remember information.

How to use multiple intelligences in the classroom 

As an educator responsible for the development of many young children, it can be challenging to accommodate each of the multiple intelligences that are present in the classroom. Children have different abilities, and it’s necessary to discover how you can cater to them. 

With a tool like brightwheel's classroom management software, you can simplify your lesson plans and add custom learning activities to cater to the diverse learning styles of your children. Plus, keep families engaged in their child's daily education by sharing milestones and classroom highlights instantly via the direct messaging feature.

baby playing xylophone


To use multiple intelligences in the classroom, you’ll first need to:

  • Discover what your children like. Early childhood can be a complex time, and young children are just beginning to learn their likes and dislikes. Through a child-led approach like play-based learning, you can also discover their strengths and support them as they learn and solve problems.
  • Engage with your children in different ways. As Gardner expresses in his theory of multiple intelligences, all people, including children, have varying degrees of each intelligence. With the eight types of intelligence in mind, use different methods to communicate with your children.

In your classroom, you’ll find that to incorporate multiple intelligences efficiently, you’ll have to go beyond traditional classroom activities. Here are some ideas for how you can account for each intelligence type.

Linguistic-verbal intelligence

For children with linguistic-verbal intelligence, you can use stories, books, and poetry in your instruction. Ask children to tell a story to demonstrate their understanding. To help develop and strengthen this intelligence, set aside an area in your classroom where children can go for reading and writing.

Logical-mathematical intelligence

Logical-mathematical intelligence focuses equally on math, logic, and the connection between them. Class activities for this intelligence type could include problem-solving questions or practicing exercises or drills. For young children with this intelligence, have them count or talk through coming to a logical solution for a problem. To allow these children to satisfy their curiosity, create a space for them to work on safe, age-appropriate projects or experiments.

Visual-spatial intelligence

Classroom activities to consider for visual-spatial intelligence could be solving puzzles, map making, or visual memory games. Because the use of symbols and colors are also common tools for children with visual-spatial intelligence, incorporate drawing, painting, or creating collages. To foster visual-spatial development, keep an open area for art projects where children can focus on creating and demonstrating their understanding of any classroom lessons.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence

Young children with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence will gravitate toward activities related to physical movement and exercise. Let these children do a dance or role play where they act out a skit. Your classroom can have space for a dramatic play area or you can clear an area whenever your lesson plan calls for it.

Musical intelligence

To accommodate your young children that exhibit musical intelligence, you can incorporate music and movement activities or have them sing songs or play musical instruments together. Because music can help them concentrate and focus their energy, you might play background music as your children work on other projects or lessons or during transition times.

Interpersonal intelligence

Interpersonal intelligence leads to young children working well with others. In the classroom, allow time for group work. Have them play games as teams or role play together. You can also set up class discussions. 

Intrapersonal intelligence

For children with intrapersonal intelligence, time to themselves is very important. Meditation can greatly affect anyone, especially people with this type of intelligence. In the classroom, set time aside for reflection and meditation or dedicate a quiet corner in the classroom for this purpose. Allow your children to keep a journal where they can write or draw how they’re feeling.

Naturalistic intelligence

Those who display naturalistic intelligence typically enjoy being outdoors. While you can’t always bring your children outside the classroom, you can bring nature inside. Consider getting a class plant or pet and allow the children to interact with them. Letting the children care for them is a great way to develop this intelligence and gauge their affinity for it. Alternatively, plan a trip to an aquarium, zoo, or botanical garden. 

With eight multiple intelligences, it can be challenging to reach all of them in one lesson. Start small. Every lesson doesn’t have to reach each intelligence type. Try to incorporate one or two at a time. It’s a good practice to cycle through them throughout the year to account for each child. A tool like brightwheel’s lesson plan feature can help you create custom lesson plans and curriculum and log observations for each child, keeping you organized and saving you time.

Everyone is intelligent

Learning is fluid. Comparably, so is intelligence. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences tells us that there are multiple ways in which one can display intelligence. While IQ tests may measure a combination of linguistic-verbal and logical-mathematical intelligences, it doesn’t account for other types of intelligence.

Initially, it may be challenging to pinpoint the different types in your children. Discovering their likes and engaging with them will clarify how you can use daily activities to cater to their intelligence and lead them on the path to success.

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