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Multiple Intelligences: Practical Classroom Ideas

The theory of multiple intelligences was developed in 1983 by Harvard University professor Dr. Howard Gardner. Gardner’s work suggested that the traditional concept of intelligence is too limited. Instead, he proposed eight different intelligences to incorporate a more diverse range of human abilities. These include:

  • Linguistic intelligence (“word smart”)
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence (“number/reasoning smart”)
  • Spatial intelligence (“picture smart”)
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence (“body smart”)
  • Musical intelligence (“music smart”)
  • Interpersonal intelligence (“people smart”)
  • Intrapersonal intelligence (“self smart”)
  • Naturalist intelligence (“nature smart”)

Educators are quite familiar with the multiple intelligences (MI) concept, which when applied to the classroom, means assessment of student learning strengths and differences, along with differentiated instruction that’s tailored to diverse learning styles. But how to make MI a feasible part of the everyday school experience?

In order to produce the following compilation of MI strategies and concrete examples, EducationWorld drew upon the combined wisdom of researchers and classroom teachers who have embraced a multiple-intelligences approach. Their experiences indicate that teachers need not incorporate every single form of intelligence into every lesson. Rather, there is benefit in exploring the possibilities of multimodal instruction, and choosing the methods that seem to be the most effective tools for teaching a particular lesson.

Integrating Into the Curriculum

Linda Campbell, chair of K–12 teacher certification programs at Antioch University Seattle, describes five approaches to integrating MI into the curriculum:

  • Lesson design. This might involve team teaching, using all or several of the intelligences in lessons, or asking student opinions about the best way to teach and learn certain topics.
  • Interdisciplinary units. Secondary schools often include interdisciplinary units that incorporate diverse types of learning experiences.
  • Student projects. Students learn to organize and manage complex projects.
  • Assessments. Students use diverse methods to express what they have learned. Each student might devise the way he or she will be assessed, while still meeting the teacher’s criteria for quality.
  • Apprenticeships. Apprenticeships allow students to gain skills and self-discipline. Gardner believes that apprenticeships should comprise a significant portion of a student’s school experience.

Here are examples of how these approaches look in action:

“In Eeva Reeder's math classes at Mountlake Terrace High School in Edmonds, Washington, students learn algebra kinesthetically. When studying how to graph equations, they head for the school's courtyard. There they identify X and Y coordinates in the lines of the large, square, cement blocks that form the pavement. They then plot themselves as points on the large cement axes. Reeder maintains that when her students physically pretend to be graphs, they learn more about equations in a single class session than they do in a month of textbook study.

On the Tulalip Indian reservation in Marysville, Washington, elementary school students spend their mornings rotating through learning stations. For example, to learn about photosynthesis, students might act out the process at one station, read about it at another station, and at others, sing about photosynthesis, chart its processes, discuss plant and human life cycles, and, finally, reflect on events that have transformed their lives, just as chloroplasts transform the life cycle of plants.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, middle school arts teachers organize their curriculums around major student projects that emphasize both process and product. In music, creative writing, dance, and visual arts classes, students perform tasks that actual artists, musicians, and writers undertake. In a visual arts class, for example, students may work on portraiture for several weeks, learn how to work with different media, study portraits of recognized artists, and, ultimately, create, display, and reflect upon a final work, using all the principles and skills they have acquired.”

Getting Creative

Dr. Thomas Armstrong, executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, shares the following example of MI integration when teaching about the law of supply and demand in economics:

“You might read about it (linguistic), study mathematical formulas that express it (logical-mathematical), examine a graphic chart that illustrates the principle (spatial), observe the law in the natural world (naturalist) or in the human world of commerce (interpersonal); examine the law in terms of your own body [e.g. when you supply your body with lots of food, the hunger demand goes down; when there's very little supply, your stomach's demand for food goes way up and you get hungry] (bodily-kinesthetic and intrapersonal); and/or write a song (or find an existing song) that demonstrates the law (perhaps Dylan's ‘Too Much of Nothing?’).” 

Armstrong also offers this helpful general advice:

“Tap into students’ cognitive faculties while they’re sitting there in front of those dead textbooks. Have students visualize, dramatize, verbalize, socialize and naturalize the material. Once you start to do this, you start to see their intelligences emerge (e.g., if kids have to draw their concepts as well as write about them, then those who draw well will have the opportunity to shine). Also, if teachers themselves used their teaching style as a multiple intelligences vehicle, this would help a lot. [This could involve] drawing on the board, using storytelling skills, using their body and voice tone to emphasize material, and referring to nature.”


From Assessment to Instruction

Education researcher Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues developed a training document for the Stanford University School of Education titled Different Kinds of Smart: Multiple Intelligences.

According to these experts, putting MI theory into practice involves first determining students’ strengths and learning preferences—methods include formal assessments, gathering feedback from students and observing their behavior and performance. For example, teachers can note when kids get frustrated versus when they seem engaged, while also paying attention to the type and number of student questions and comments.

The Stanford guide makes this important point:

“A student’s preferred mode of intelligence should not become the medium for all of the student’s work in place of developing other needed abilities. A student who has well-developed ability in the spatial domain should not always be encouraged to create visual representations instead of writing. Linguistic skills need to be developed as well. Similarly, a student’s interest and proficiency in music may provide a topic for an essay or the background for writing the essay, but should not become a substitute for learning to write proficiently.

Teachers should also be careful to avoid the ‘pigeon-holing effect’—labeling students forever as ‘X’ types of learners. All individuals possess certain combinations of the various intelligences, and they can apply these differently in different contexts. We can look for specialized strengths in individuals and use them to assist learning, but attaching a permanent label can discourage future success in ‘weak’ areas.”

The document authors also advocate planning assessments in the context of units or projects—portfolios, presentations and the like allow for multimodal presentation of knowledge gain. “For instance, at the completion of a project researching water quality in the community, asking students to create a public service brochure to describe and report what they learned could involve linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, and interpersonal skills.”

In terms of instruction, here are a few additional ideas:

“[Introduce] a new concept by telling a story or narrative; introduce evolution by telling the story of a single branch on an evolutionary tree or describing the concept of democracy by telling the story of its beginning in ancient Greece.” Alternately, “students could be introduced to a unit on evolution by analyzing a map that shows the number of different species existing in different geographic areas, or they could be introduced to a unit on Mayan culture by considering population shifts over time. An aesthetic approach to introducing new material might involve watching a movie that introduces a historic event, discussing artwork of a specific period, or responding to poetry read aloud.”

“A teacher might teach algebraic graphing both spatially and kinesthetically by taking her class out to the playground and asking students to plot their bodies as points on a life-size graph. In a writing lesson, a teacher can use peer review to draw on interpersonal intelligence, and reflection on the writing process to draw on intrapersonal intelligence, in addition to linguistic intelligence used in the writing itself. To teach the process of photosynthesis in plants, teachers could develop hands-on plant growth experiments or provide access to a school garden for exploration, in addition to reading a text, drawing models of the process and discussing it—drawing on spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and interpersonal intelligences.”


Have Fun With It

The EducationWorld article Magnet School Helps Students Develop, Appreciate Different Talents illustrates how multiple intelligences are incorporated into classroom lessons at the University of Hartford magnet elementary school.

"The real difference is in how instruction is presented and how students are assessed," Principal Cheryl Kloczko said. "[For example, students] can show in different ways how they have learned something." A child who cannot identify a letter on a board may be able to form it with his or her body, she noted.

Pupils studied Thanksgiving, for example, from an interpersonal angle, exploring how the pilgrims needed support from others to survive. Science lessons are incorporated into the naturalist intelligence program. School staff also emphasize technology, but it is so deeply integrated into the curriculum that the school does not have a separate computer room.

"Here, visual-spatial learning is integrated into the classroom. Every other day, [kids] have 45 minutes of visual-spatial instruction. It's not just a frill -- it's as important as every other intelligence," art teacher Elizabeth Crowell explained. "I believe in multiple intelligences; it was very apparent in kids I taught at other schools. Some kids excelled in art but not in other areas. Here, we use multiple intelligences to get through to them."

On the day that Education World visited the school, students in a musical intelligences class formed a circle with teacher Lillie Feierabend, sang, clapped hands, jumped forward and backward, and composed lyrics for the song, utilizing music, bodily-kinesthetic, language and interpersonal skills. In a large open room called the agora (the Greek word for marketplace), another group of second-graders and kindergartners worked in groups in a rope-jumping game.


Related resources

Howard Gardner's Take on Education Policy
Bringing Out the Best in Kids

Student Learning-Strengths Inventory

The "Art" of Comprehension
Multiple Intelligences: A Theory for Everyone

Article by Celine Provini, EducationWorld Editor
Education World
Copyright © 2012 Education World