The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

By Mindy L. Kornhaber, Ed.D.

The theory of multiple intelligences (MI) was developed by Dr. Howard Gardner in 1983 at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Gardner was then investigating children’s development in varied domains, including language, mathematics, music, and art. He was also investigating cognitive skills of adults’ who had suffered brain injury.

Gardner’s research made him question the standard theory of intelligence. According to that theory, problem solving in every domain relies on “general intelligence” (“g”). (Intelligence test scores are often thought to measure ‘g’.) However, if ‘g’ was correct, then children who developed strong math skills should be equally strong in language, drawing, music, and social skills. (And adults who lost language skills due to a stroke, should also lose mathematical, social, and other abilities.) However, as most parents and teachers recognize, individual children usually show both strengths and areas that need more support. Even highly gifted children tend to have strengths in some – music, or chess, or math – but not in every area. Some children may even be gifted in one domain and have deficits in another.

Drawing on his own and others’ research, Gardner argued that instead of one ‘general intelligence,’ all normal human beings have eight “intelligences”: mathematical and linguistic – the two that are the focus of formal schooling – as well as spatial, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, and naturalist. The latter fosters our understanding of, and problem solving entailing, features of the natural world.
Gardner did not foresee MI would have a large influence on educators, but MI was soon adopted by schools across the U.S. and internationally. Teachers have used MI in a variety of ways to help meet the needs of many children and their families. My own research shows that the theory helps educators to reflect more systematically about the curriculum units, activities, and materials that they draw on. In doing so, they see new ways to enrich their curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of particular learners. Another useful aspect of the theory is that it helps educators to communicate with each other and with parents in a more multifaceted way about individual children’s strengths and needs.

Mindy L. Kornhaber, Ed.D. is an associate professor in Penn State’s College of Education. She was a visiting scholar at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2015-2016, where she formerly served as a principal investigator at Harvard Project Zero. She is co-author with Howard Gardner of a textbook on intelligence and has co-authored with Edward Fierros and Shirley Veenema, Multiple Intelligences: Best Ideas from Research and Practice.