Early Childhood Education

Multiple Intelligences, Theory of


Multiple intelligences theory (hereafter referred to as MI theory) was named and developed by Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at Harvard University. Introduced in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind, Gardner’s theory challenges the views of intelligence as measured by intelligence quotient (IQ) and as described in Jean Piaget‘s universal stages of cognitive development. Arguing that human intelligence is neither a single entity nor a unified set of processes, Gardner (2004) maintains that there are several distinct, relatively autonomous intelligences. Individual intellectual profiles reflect varied configurations of these intellectual capacities.

Gardner (1999) defines intelligence as “a bio psychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture.” Describing it as a potential, Gardner emphasizes the emergent and responsive nature of intelligence, further differentiating his theory from conceptions of intelligence as fixed and innate. Whether a potential will be activated depends in large part on the values of the culture in which an individual grows up and on the opportunities available in that culture. Development of the intelligences is influenced simultaneously by species and individual biological dispositions, environmental factors, education, and personal effort. These activating forces contribute to the expression of a range of intelligences across cultures and among individuals.

Gardner began rethinking the nature of intelligence by examining the range of adult end-states valued in diverse cultures around the world. To identify abilities that support these end-states, he examined research from numerous disciplines, including biology, neurology, psychology, and anthropology. He then formulated eight criteria for identifying an intelligence, including neurological evidence, traceable evolutionary history, and the use of an encoded symbol system. Gardner (1999) argues that, because intelligences are used to solve real-life problems, the measurement of intelligences must also be based on the functioning of abilities in diverse real-life situations. For Gardner, the criteria developed to identify intelligences are one of the most important contributions of his theory.

To date, Gardner has identified eight intelligences: Linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalistic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (see Gardner [2004] for a full description). Although linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences have been emphasized in psychometric testing and school settings, no intelligence in the MI framework is inherently more important than the others. Gardner does not claim that this roster is exhaustive or that the particular delineations among the intelligences are definitive. Rather, his aim is to establish support for a pluralistic view of intelligence. With the identification of intelligences based on eight empirically oriented criteria, the roster will be reviewed as new findings are reported.


Intelligence and Related Constructs

Intelligence in the MI framework relates to, as well as differs from, the psychological constructs of process, domain, style, and content (Gardner, in press). In terms of process, the intelligence itself is not a process; rather it is a capacity to process certain kinds of information in certain ways. Each intelligence operates with processes carried out by dedicated neural networks, and each has its attendant psychological processes, such as logical-mathematical or interpersonal processing.

Although related, the concepts of intelligence and domain are readily distinguishable. Intelligence refers to biological and psychological potentials within an individual. Domains are bodies of knowledge valued and applied within a culture.

An intelligence may be deployed in many domains. For example, spatial intelligence may operate in the domains of visual arts, navigation, and engineering. Similarly, performance in a domain may require the use of more than one intelligence. For example, an effective teacher relies on at least linguistic and personal intelligences.

Style and intelligence are fundamentally different psychological constructs. Style refers to an individual’s characteristic and consistent approach to organizing and processing information; for example, a person can have an impulsive or playful style. MI theory is not a stylistic theory; rather, a person’s intellectual profile reflects his or her computational capacities to process various kinds of content—for example, spatial, musical, and person-related—in the environment. While the psychological literature regards styles as relatively stable attributes of the individual and evident across a wide range of situations, MI theory suggests the possibility that style is a domain-specific construct as well.

According to MI theory, an intelligence is sensitive to specific contents, but is not itself a content. For example, logical-mathematical intelligence is activated when individuals operate on quantities, written numbers, and scientific formulas. These intellectual operations, however, entail more than content of numbers and formulas. MI theory contends that different intelligences are geared to different contents and there are no general capacities such as memory, perception, or speed of processing that necessarily cut across content areas. This conceptualization distinguishes MI theory from other pluralistic views of intelligence that claim mental faculties function similarly in all content areas and operate according to general laws.


Validation of the Theory

Since the introduction of MI theory in 1983, much research has been done in the fields of cognition, education, and neuroscience, either explicitly investigating MI theory or conducting studies related to its claims. Recent neurological research provides convincing data that linguistic, mathematical, and musical processing are cognitively and neurologically distinct; indeed, as Gardner speculated earlier, each of these faculties itself consists of dissociable components (Gardner, in press). In educational studies, researchers are finding that, when a wide range of abilities are assessed, children are more likely to show uneven profiles of strength and weakness than a uniform level of general ability (Chen and Gardner, 2005; Chen and McNamee, 2005).

MI theory can be validated further by evaluating its application in educational settings. Numerous reports indicate that MI theory has given teachers and parents more accurate perceptions of children’s intellectual potentials as well as more specific methods for supporting and developing these potentials. Recently, Kornhaber, Veenema, and Fierros (2003) studied forty-one elementary schools across the United States that had applied MI theory to school-based practices for a minimum of three years. All these schools reported improvements in standardized test scores, student discipline, parent participation, or the performance of students with learning differences. The majority linked the improvements to MI-based interventions.


MI Theory and Early Education

MI theory can serve as a conceptual framework for implementing developmentally appropriate practice in early education. MI theory defines intelligence as a potential; the driving force of developmentally appropriate practice is to inspire all children to achieve their highest potentials. Three requirements for implementing developmentally appropriate practice are knowledge about children and their development, subject matter and curriculum goals, and teaching and assessment. In each of these knowledge areas, MI theory can be used to help teachers achieve the goals of developmentally appropriate education.


Knowledge Of children and their development. Development of what many refer to as the “whole child” is a well-established concept in U.S. early education. MI theory contributes to a more differentiated understanding of this development (Chen and Gardner, 2005). Knowledge of children in the MI framework goes beyond describing general cognitive, social, emotional, and physical growth to identify a wider range of more specific developmental potentials. Because each intelligence reflects particular problem-solving features, information-processing capacities, and developmental trajectories, knowing about one area of a child’s development does not generalize to knowledge of another area. In-depth understanding requires a careful review of each child’s intellectual profile—his or her proclivities, strengths, vulnerabilities, and interests. Although all normally developing children possess all the intelligences, from early on they exhibit different strengths and have distinctive profiles. Strength in one intelligence does not necessarily predict strength in another.

Development from MI’s perspective is domain-specific and contextual (Gardner, in press). The development of young children’s intellectual abilities is tied to specific bodies of knowledge and skills and is not based on general cognitive structures that operate across domains. Strengths and weakness exhibited in a child’s intellectual profile may change over time. Development is also contextualized. Specifically, intelligence develops among individuals when they interact with others, use cultural tools, or engage in activities. To foster young children’s intellectual abilities, MI theory suggests that early childhood educators attend to cultural values and tools, community goals, and the child’s motivations.


Knowledge of subject matter and curriculum goals. Early childhood curriculum is inclusive; activities in the areas of language, mathematics, music, visual arts, and movement are included weekly, if not daily, in most preschool classrooms. However, their significance for the development of young children’s minds is not typically deemed equal. Language and reading are the top priorities for learning. For MI theory, the development of multiple intellectual potentials in young children requires extensive exposure to a wide range of areas. Developing varied symbol systems is the foremost task during the early years. Limited exposure to some areas decreases possibilities for young children to express themselves with diverse tools and to develop their potentials to the greatest extent. It also reduces the likelihood of discovering interests and abilities that parents and teachers can nurture at a young age.

Early childhood teachers are often trained as generalists. They learn to integrate a range of content areas using themes and project-based approaches to teaching. An MI-based approach to curriculum development invites teachers to use multiple entry points to promote children’s in-depth exploration and understanding of topics and concepts essential to early learning and development. MI theory is not and should not be the goal of early childhood curriculum. Instead, this framework should be used to assist teachers in organizing curriculum around essential topics, in supporting children’s learning of key concepts and skills in relation to these topics, and in promoting the development of multiple intellectual potentials supported by multiple symbol systems (Gardner, 1999).


Knowledge of teaching and assessment. Early childhood teaching has been known for its play-based, emergent, and constructivist techniques. MI theory differentiates the pedagogy of early teaching by emphasizing building on children’s particular strengths and using them to build bridges to other areas of learning. In contrast to traditional approaches that focus primarily on children’s deficits, teachers in MI classrooms also attend to areas in which a child excels. Teachers invite children to participate in learning tasks that further develop their strengths in ways they are motivated to pursue. Teachers also give children opportunities to use their strengths as tools to express what they have learned. Teacher support for children’s strengths contributes to a positive self-image and an increased likelihood for success in other learning areas. The strategy of building on children’s strengths has also proven effective in helping children identified as at-risk for school failure (Chen, Krechevsky, and Viens, 1998).

Effective teaching requires appropriate uses of assessment. Assessment based on MI theory is consistent with the principles of developmentally appropriate assessment advocated by many early childhood educators. The primary purpose of assessment is to aid development and learning, rather than to sort, track, or label. Features of appropriate assessment include on-going observation in the classroom, documentation of children’s behavior when engaged in meaningful activities, and linking assessment results to teaching and learning processes. Of particular importance to MI-based assessment is the identification of children’s strengths. This is accomplished by sampling a wide range of abilities in the assessment process. Project Spectrum and Project Bridging are two examples of assessment systems designed to capture diverse intellectual strengths in young children (Chen, Krechevsky, and Viens, 1998; Chen and McNamee, 2005).

Since the publication of Frames of Mind in 1983, MI theory has become widely recognized in the fields of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, and education. The theoretical emphasis on concepts of diversity, equality, possibility, richness, and expansion confirms beliefs about children as individuals that many educators hold and practice. MI theory also provides educators as well as parents with language to describe children’s distinctive intellectual profiles; and supports calls for mobilizing resources to help individual children reach their highest potentials and to enrich their contributions to society. See also Curriculum, Mathematics; Curriculum, Music; Curriculum, Physical Development; Curriculum, Visual Art; Development, Language.

Further Readings: Chen, J.-Q., and H. Gardner (2005). Alternative assessment from a Multiple Intelligences theoretical perspective. In D. P. Flanagan, J. L. Genshaft, and P. L. Harrison, eds., Beyond traditional intellectual assessment: Contemporary and emerging theories, tests, and issues. 2nd ed. New York: Guilford, pp. 77-102; Chen, J.-Q., M. Krechevsky, and J. Viens (1998). Building on children’s strengths: The experience of project spectrum. New York: Teachers College Press; Chen, J-Q., and G. McNamee (2005). Bridging: Assessment for teaching and learning in early childhood classrooms. Chicago: Erikson Institute; Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st Century. New York: Basic Books; Gardner, H. (2004). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. 20th anniversary ed. New York: Basic Books; Gardner, H. (in press). Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons. New York: Basic Books; Kornhaber, M., S. Veenema, and E. Fierros (2003). Multiple Intelligences: Best ideas from research and practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Jie-Qi Chen