The 30-second briefing: what are multiple intelligences?

A teacher educator crams everything you need to know about multiple intelligences into one 30-second read

Sarah Wright

retrieval practice pedagogy focus

What are multiple intelligences?

Howard Gardner put forward his theory of multiple intelligences in the early 1980s.  He suggested that instead of approaching intelligence as a single general characteristic that can be measured by an IQ test, we should think of intelligence as being made up of eight different “abilities”, such as interpersonal, existential, kinesthetic or musical–rhythmic. Although everyone possesses all eight of these abilities, a person may be stronger in some over others.

That’s the same thing as learning styles, isn’t it?

No. A great deal of people in education seem to think that the two things are synonymous, but Gardner is very clear that his theory is not something we should be using to label learners. Unfortunately, the two concepts seem to have been lumped together and that has stuck.

How does it apply to the classroom, then?

Gardner wants us to take a broader look at how pupils approach tasks. He asks us to first gather as much knowledge as we can about our learners, what they respond to and where their strengths lie. Secondly, he wants us to consider how we present information to children and to use a broad range of strategies so that as many learners as possible can access that information.

Does this mean I need to plan for all eight intelligences?

No, and for several reasons. For one, that’s a ridiculous use of time. Go ahead and try and make your maths existential, if you like, but you won’t see any benefit. We can’t accommodate all of these things, all of the time ─ unless you want to turn your classroom into a circus.

More importantly, in fact critically, there is very little real evidence to suggest that this theory works.

If it doesn’t work, why did I have to write an essay on it when I was training?

If education theories were bandwagons, this would be a juggernaut. It still appears in textbooks and consultants pedal it as the answer to your classroom prayers, but we have to look at the research. Gardner has been challenged on the validity of the work and has himself recognised that it can’t be measured and should be viewed more as a “utility tool” for practitioners.

So, should I be ignoring it?

Not entirely. Some teachers have managed to take multiple intelligences under their wing and morph it into something that is useful for them. And there is certainly some validity in providing multiple ways to access content and formulating a range of teaching approaches rather than sticking to the same old routine.

Should I at least avoid mentioning it on Twitter?

Yes. The sharks circle whenever multiple intelligences are mentioned. The theory is so contentious because some teachers have adopted it, use it and feel it has an impact on their practice.

But others, like myself, believe that we are duty-bound to question the validity and value of the approaches we use in the classroom. And while there is real value in ensuring a broad and rich approach to your teaching, I would much prefer that this was based on something that was underpinned with real research. 

Sarah Wright is a senior lecturer at Edge Hill University. She tweets as @Sarah__wright1

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