How Multiple Intelligences Shape Learning

boys dig fossil
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If you've heard the term "learning style," you may have also seen it 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 best through another approach in another situation. Labeling children as having one learning "style" or another is inaccurate and limiting.

A much better way to understand the individuality of how kids learn is to apply what's been defined as "multiple intelligences."

Defined by Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at
Harvard Graduate School of Education, multiple intelligences (MI) disputes the idea that there is a single intelligence that we are born with that can be measured, such as with IQ tests, and that this intelligence cannot be changed. According to Gardner, there are at least eight different human intelligences, and all human beings are born with all of these MIs.

Gardner’s theory of MI also asserts that people have unique and distinct intelligence profiles that are shaped by different 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, and these distinct MI profiles are so different because of individual experiences and genetic variations.

What Are the Multiple Intelligences?

Here are the types of MI as defined by Dr. Gardner:

  1. Spatial: The ability to visualize, create, and manipulate something in a space, such as what an airplane pilot or architect or chess player may do.
  2. Bodily/Kinesthetic: This type of intelligence has to do with 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: The ability to express oneself and understand and create through music⁠—by singing, playing musical instruments, composing, conducting, etc. Involves musical abilities such as sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, tone, timbre.
  4. Linguistic: Having the ability to be 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: The ability to understand and recognize the patterns and relationships between numbers and actions or symbols, possessing computing skills, having the ability to solve various problems through logic.
  6. Interpersonal: Sometimes referred to as social intelligence, interpersonal intelligence refers to the ability to be attuned to other people's feelings, emotions, and temperament. Individuals with high interpersonal intelligence tend to be good at communicating with and understanding other people and are good at working with others.
  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. Naturalistic: The ability to understand nature⁠—plants, animals, the environment, etc.⁠—and identify, observe, categorize, and understand them and their distinguishing features. This intelligence helps us use elements and patterns in the natural world to create products or solve problems.

How Parents Can Think About MI to Help Kids Learn

Parents know that kids have unique abilities and interests and that even siblings can have very different natural skills and likes and dislikes. One child may devour books and love to dance, another may love animals, and another child 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 as much as we may see natural interests and talents develop in a child, it's important to remember 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 at the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University.

For example, when you say a child learns best by working with his 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.

Some ways parents can nurture and support MI in kids:

  • Spend time with kids and see what they like. The only way you'll be able to keep up with her interests is by spending time with your child doing ordinary things like having dinner or playing games. Bonus: Research has shown that these ordinary activities benefit kids: Regular family dinners have been shown to improve kids' health and nutrition, build strong emotional and mental skills, and lead to good behavior; and having fun and playing with kids has been linked to kids growing up to be more empathetic, less anxious, and happier.
  • Value a child’s strengths instead of looking at what she can’t do. Another problem with labeling kids is that when we do this, we tend to see things in terms of what is lacking, says Kornhaber. Instead of thinking, "My child isn't good at learning to read or write," build your child's sense of pride in things that she is good at and likes. "MI helps parents, teachers, and children themselves understand children's strengths and how these may be used to help them learn and solve problems," says Kornhaber.
  • Engage your child in different ways. If your child is having trouble writing an essay about a topic for homework, boost his confidence by engaging him in other ways while you help him work on those writing skills. For instance, if he has to write about the life cycle of frogs, you can ask him what he's learned (maybe he's watched a video and can describe how a frog egg hatches and turns into a tadpole, for instance), says Kornhaber. Ask him to draw a picture of what that might look like, or tell you about the different designs or colors of frogs.
  • Consider the expectations we have today. While young children today are expected to read and have basic math skills at younger and younger ages with even kindergartners being expected to do homework and perform well on tests, the fact is that young children weren't expected to do these things even a generation ago. With added pressures come increased expectations, but that doesn't mean all young children under grade 3 should be soaring through chapter books. Unless you spot signs of learning problems, try to relax and let your child grow at her own pace.
  • Be mindful that it’s a snapshot. A child’s intelligence profile is what it is at that time—it is not what it will always be. Expose your child to all kinds of activities and experiences and allow him to learn and grow in his own way.
  • Look at the value of other intelligences. In preschool, we value and praise everything that kids discover and share with us; but by third grade, kids are expected to be good at math and reading or they're labeled as not being good learners, says Kornhaber. Then when kids graduate and enter the world, things open up again and different ways of getting and sharing information and having other skills and talents are appreciated again, and the natural MI kids had at the beginning is expected to all come back. "Only valuing linguistic and math and not other intelligences does a disservice to kids," says Kornhaber.

How Schools Can Apply MI to Help Kids Learn

Since each individual has his or her own unique 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, say, the water cycle, by not only talking about it in front of the class but also by playing a film about it or by having kids create models or acting it out to show what they learned.

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

She also cites an example of an elementary school in which a science teacher and a social studies teacher actually worked to develop a real archaeological dig at a local site. "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 from all this 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."

Presenting the subject in various ways accomplishes two important things. It gives students more opportunities to understand the material (some kids may learn better by reading about it, others by acting out a story, others by making something related to the topic with their hands). At the same time, it helps all the students understand the material more fully and deeply because they can now think about it in several different ways, giving them a richer learning experience, and helping them master the subject.

Understanding MI can help teachers and parents not only give kids a richer learning experience, but help makes learning more fun and rewarding for them.

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