Multiple Intelligences: The Theory behind the Myths

I wrote this article in July 2001, and it was published by “The Buenos Aires Herald”, a non academic paper. The topic is still relevant, and, as a matter of fact, it isn’t nearly as exploited as it should be for the benefit of all.

During most of the twentieth century, psychologists’ ideas about intelligence derived from statistical analysis of short-answer tests, which considered intelligence as being only one: “g” or general intelligence. Using these instruments and analysis, psychologists considered a person intelligent or not on the basis of his or her ability to solve logical-mathematical, linguistic and some spatial problems. In “Frames of Mind” (1983) and in “Multiple Intelligences, the Theory in Practice” (1993), Howard Gardner argues that using these instruments and methods does not adequately capture human problem-solving capabilities. Instead, he defines intelligence as the ability to solve problems in real-life contexts, or to create something of value for the community. He then coins the term Multiple Intelligences (MI), which draws from psychology, neurology, biology, sociology, anthropology, the arts and humanities, to identify eight intelligences (originally seven as the naturalist intelligence was added a few years later). To the three skills originally occupying the rank of “intelligence”, Gardner adds musical, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal and naturalist.

It may be helpful to clear up some common misconceptions with regard to MI: the first one is the confusion between an intelligence and a domain of knowledge or discipline. In Gardner’s perspective, an intelligence is a biological and psychological potential: a capacity that resides in each person. A domain or discipline is an arena or body of knowledge that gives people the opportunity to use their intelligence in different ways and in which varying degrees of expertise can be developed. Examples of disciplines or domains in our culture are mathematics, medicine, gardening, engineering, sports. Carrying out work in a domain requires a person to use several different intelligences. For instance, gardening requires naturalist, bodily-kinesthetic and spatial intelligences. Similarly, each intelligence can be used in a variety of domains. Just as an example, linguistic ability can be used in writing, reading, acting, teaching, journalism and public speaking among other areas or domains.

Another source of misunderstanding is the equation of multiple intelligences with learning styles. Learning styles refer to the different approaches that individuals take when trying to make sense of diverse kinds of content. Typically, a learning style is thought to cut across all content areas. So, if a person is a kinesthetic or tactile learner, she will learn best when learning new material –whether history or cooking- by using her hands or sense of touch. In contrast, the intelligences represent potentials or capacities that are linked to neurological functions and structures and that respond to particular content in the world. One thing is to demonstrate a good memory or ability to remember what one has heard or listened to (auditory learner) and quite another thing is to have the ability to appreciate, play or compose music (musical intelligence).

Moreover, traditional conceptions of intelligence hold that intelligence remains the same in all situations. That is to say, one’s intelligence does not change, whether one is solving a math problem, learning how to ski, or finding one’s way around a new city. Modern conceptions point out that the thinking and learning required outside of school are often situated and contextualized. Most intellectual work does not occur in isolation: when people work in different kinds of settings, their abilities to solve problems differ. Apart from traditional test settings, problem solving is usually tied to certain goals and tasks and often aided by other people and an assortment of tools and resources.

At first glance, MI appears to be just a repetition of many other educational philosophies and approaches such as educating the “whole child”, “project-based learning”, an “interdisciplinary curriculum”, and so on. But this leads to the question of whether adopting the theory simply becomes a new label to describe existing practices and beliefs. Although MI may sometimes serve this purpose, it can also provide a theoretical foundation and validation for teachers’ beliefs and practices, deepening and extending them to new domains. The theory can become a framework for thinking about the students we teach and how to teach them, helping teachers become more reflective and explicit about the pedagogical choices they make. As with any other theory, people may initially use MI in superficial ways, and some may continue to do so for years. But if educational goals and criteria for reaching those goals can be articulated, then MI can become an ally to rigorous learning. In all cases, it is useful to bear in mind that MI does not prescribe any particular approach or activities. It is not a technique; it is certainly not about labeling students. It is much deeper and safer than that. It is a “mind set” ensured both by the sound knowledge of the theory and a caring attitude towards learning.

In the view of many educators, authors and researchers, the Multiple Intelligences Theory enriches education in so far as it incorporates aspects of real life that are not always included. Thus, an MI-oriented educational environment strives to allow each and every student thrive and express himself or herself in a plethora of ways for the benefit of the entire society.


Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: BasicBooks.