How Multiple Intelligences Shape Learning

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You may have heard the term "learning style" used to describe how a child learns (as in, one child learns best visually while another learns best through movement). The problem with such characterizations is that all kids learn through various methods—sight, touch, etc.

While a child may absorb information better through one approach at one point in time, that same child may learn something else better through another approach. Labeling children as having just one learning style is inaccurate and limiting. A much better way to understand the individuality of how kids learn is to apply the concept of "multiple intelligences."

In 1983, Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, disputed the idea that people are born with a single intelligence that can be measured—such as with IQ tests—and cannot be changed. According to Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (MIs), there are at least eight different human intelligences, and all human beings are born with varying degrees of each.

Gardner also asserts that people have unique and distinct intelligence profiles that are shaped by biological and environmental factors. For example, one child may have stronger musical intelligence and mathematical intelligence while another may have a stronger linguistic or interpersonal intelligence. These distinct MI profiles are different because of individual experiences and genetic variations.

What Are the Multiple Intelligences?

Gardner defines the eight types of MI as the following. Everyone has all of them, but they exist on a spectrum of weak to strong ability in a combination that is unique to each person.

  1. Spatial: Visualizing, creating, and manipulating something in a space, such as what an airplane pilot, architect, or chess player may do.
  2. Bodily/Kinesthetic: Using one's gross motor skills or fine motor skills to express oneself or to create, learn, or solve problems; involves coordination and dexterity and the use of one's whole body or parts of the body, such as the hands.
  3. Musical: Expressing oneself and understanding and creating through music⁠—by singing, playing musical instruments, composing, conducting, etc. Involves musical abilities such as sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, tone, and timbre.
  4. Linguistic: Being attuned to the meaning of words and the sound, rhythms, inflections, and meter of words, the way a poet might. May involve reading, writing, speaking, an affinity for foreign languages.
  5. Mathematical/Logical: Understanding and recognizing the patterns and relationships between numbers and actions or symbols; possessing computing skills; having the ability to solve various problems through logic.
  6. Interpersonal: Being attuned to other people's feelings, emotions, and temperament. Individuals with high interpersonal intelligence are often associated with leadership and tend to be good at communicating with and understanding other people and are good at working with others. Sometimes referred to as social intelligence.
  7. Intrapersonal: Awareness of one's own feelings, thoughts, anxieties, and traits, and the ability to use that understanding of oneself to control one's own impulses and behavior and make plans and decisions.
  8. Naturalist: Understanding nature⁠—plants, animals, the environment, etc.⁠—and identifying, observing, categorizing, and understanding distinguishing features. This intelligence helps us use elements and patterns in the natural world to create products or solve problems.

How Parents Can Use Multiple Intelligences

Parents know that kids have unique abilities, interests, likes, and dislikes. One child may devour books and love to dance, another may love animals, and a third may love music and math. That's the beauty of human beings⁠—we are such interesting and different creatures, and any parent who's seen a child develop a keen interest and obsession with something knows that kids are very much individuals.

But it's important not to label a child as being one thing or another. "We have a tendency to try to label kids, such as with IQ tests, and when you do that, you tend to pay less attention to their fluidity," says Mindy L. Kornhaber, associate professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

For example, when you say a child learns best by working with their hands, you are ignoring the fact that all kids learn through all kinds of different methods, and that how they learn best or what they are good at can change over time.

To nurture and support MI in your children at home:

  • Spend time with kids and see what they like. Spend time doing ordinary things like having dinner or playing games. As a bonus: regular family dinners have been shown to improve kids' health and nutrition, build strong emotional and mental skills, and lead to good behavior. Having fun and playing with kids is associated with increased empathy and happiness and less anxiety.
  • Value strengths instead of what kids can’t do. "We tend to see what is lacking when we label kids," says Kornhaber. Instead of thinking, My child isn't good at learning to read, build your child's sense of pride in things that they are good at. "MI helps parents, teachers, and children understand children's strengths and how these may be used to help them learn and solve problems," Kornhaber says.
  • Engage your child in different ways. If your child is having trouble writing a paper, boost confidence by drawing out other skills while you help with writing skills. For instance, ask what they've learned; they may be able to describe it aloud, suggests Kornhaber. Or ask them to draw a picture of what they learned.
  • Consider the expectations we have today. Young children are expected to read and have basic math skills at younger and younger ages. With added pressures come increased expectations, but that doesn't mean all first- and second-graders should be soaring through chapter books. Unless you spot signs of learning problems, relax and let your child grow at their own pace.
  • Know that intelligence is a snapshot. Unlike general intelligence, which is measured by an IQ score, a child’s multiple intelligence profile is not static and may shift over time. Expose your child to all kinds of different activities and experiences and allow them to learn and grow in their own unique way.
  • Look at the value of all the intelligences. In preschool, we value and praise everything that kids discover and share. But by third grade, kids are expected to be good at math and reading or they can be labeled as not being good learners. "Only valuing linguistic and math and not other intelligences does a disservice to kids," Kornhaber says.

How Schools Can Apply Multiple Intelligences

Since each individual has their own unique multiple intelligence profile, teachers should present information—and allow kids to show what they have learned—in various ways. For instance, a teacher can teach children about the water cycle by not only talking about it, but also by playing a film about it. They could also have kids create models or do a performance to demonstrate what they've learned.

“Teachers can think about the access points for the different learners,” says Kornhaber. “If a child is not up to speed in reading, think about what they're interested in. If they like machines, you can have the child draw machines and label the parts and talk about how it’s used or how it operates. They can perhaps read about the machine.”

Kornhaber referenced an example of an elementary school in which a science teacher and a social studies teacher developed a real archaeological dig. "They created maps of the site, researched the history of the area, learned how to conduct a dig from a local archaeologist (including how to take care of the objects they uncovered), did the research to identify the objects, and developed an actual museum exhibit," says Kornhaber.

"There are many ways that teachers can use a variety of strengths through thoughtful curriculum design and instructional practice," she says. Presenting a subject in various ways gives students more opportunities to understand the material. It also helps them understand the material more fully because they think about it in several different ways.

Understanding multiple intelligences can help teachers and parents give kids a richer learning experience. And it helps makes learning more fun and rewarding for everyone involved.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Katherine Lee
Katherine Lee is a parenting writer and a former editor at Parenting and Working Mother magazines.