• by Juanita C. García, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2010 • Juanita Garcia

Ask a class of fifth grade students if they think they are smart, and they will most likely tell you that they are. A basic premise of successful teaching is the belief that all students are smart. Being smart is manifested in multiple ways. When we operate from a stance that validates students’ cognitive and affective strengths, we create more opportunities for students to feel successful in the classroom. This article provides educators with ideas on how to build learning using a multiple intelligences approach that capitalizes on the varied learning styles represented in a classroom.

The Theory

The theory of multiple intelligences, developed by Howard Gardner in the late 1980s, challenged existing ideas of intelligence. Gardner proposed that everyone has innate talents in several distinct areas. He suggested that these must be cultivated in order to bring about positive changes in ourselves, in education and in the world. He proposed seven intelligences that consist of the following strands: linguistic, the intelligence of words; logical-mathematical, the intelligence of numbers and reasoning; spatial, the intelligence of pictures and images; musical, the intelligence of tone and rhythm; body-kinesthetic, the intelligence of the whole body and hands; interpersonal, the intelligence of social interactions; and interpersonal, the intelligence of self-knowledge. Gardner believed that everyone is capable of seven forms of processing information. Every individual differs in the specific intelligence displayed. (Gardner, 1989)

As teachers, we know students who are artistically creative but are poor in math; we know students who are brilliant in math but are poor in English; we know students who score low on tests but who demonstrate their knowledge in other ways. These experiences demonstrate the fundamental propositions that undergird Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.

The first is that intelligence is not a single unit. Second, intelligence is not fixed. And third, intelligence is not completely measured by IQ tests (Kagan & Kagan, 1998; 2009). Furthermore, in the late 1970s, researchers failed to find any external validity of IQ scores as measures of anything other than rank order of school performance, which is what IQ tests are based on in the first place (Lawler, 1979).

Additionally, brain research has helped to clarify the theory of multiple intelligences. Researchers have found that a person’s varied experiences sculpt the brain in ways that are unique to each one of us, thus demonstrating our individuality and uniqueness in learning. The brain is the only organ in the body that shapes itself with learning experiences. Studies have shown actual structural changes in various parts of the brain depending on the way in which these structures were used (Wolfe, 2006).

We know that learning is a matter of making connections between previous experiences and new, concrete and abstract knowledge. For example, we know that we learn from reading and listening, but still the strongest connections are from concrete experiences. So then, which do you think would make the most lasting changes in the brain: reading about an experiment someone conducted or performing the experiment yourself? (Wolfe, 2006).

The Shift

With this theory, Howard Gardner activated a shift in the way we conceptualize intelligence and the manner in which schools, particularly teachers, valued the assets and strengths that students brought. This in turn is transforming curriculum, instructional methods and attitudes toward strengths that are not necessarily academic (Kagan & Kagan, 1998; 2009). Multiple intelligences theory is facilitating ways in which we value students by ensuring that curriculum and instruction  validate the strengths and build on the assets that students bring.

Gardner not only provided education with his multiple intelligences theory but also nurtured new visions for educating our students. This shift is manifested in vision statements that guide actions in successful schools.

Vision drives our actions. The following is an example of a new vision statement for an elementary school that nourishes intelligences in students: “Increase the school’s effectiveness in preparing students for middle school and overall student achievement by strengthening a well aligned curriculum, creating opportunities for interactive instruction, developing students’ self concept and providing a dynamic extracurricular program for students to develop areas of interest around the seven intelligences. This will be accomplished through the involvement and collaboration of students, teachers, counselors, principal, parents and community.”

In this vision statement, the goal of increasing student success in all areas of the curriculum is reached not only by aligning the curriculum, but also by changing instructional methods that address students’ multiple intelligences. We believe that the curriculum can become more accessible through instructional strategies that match the intellectual strengths of each student. The goal is to develop multiple intelligences to their fullest potential – to make each student smarter in different ways. The vision also calls for a shift in attitudes of teachers and staff, of parents and the community toward students and for students toward each other and themselves.

Getting Started in the Classroom

Is it possible to organize instruction to address multiple intelligences in a system that has yet to value wholeheartedly the possibilities of a multiple intelligences approach? Does this approach provide a more interactive and engaging classroom?

There is an easy way to begin! Just look at what teachers do already that reflects the multiple intelligences. For example, the linguistic intelligence in language arts is part of a school’s everyday curriculum. When teachers have students use a Venn diagram to compare literature stories, they are asking students to use mathematical logic by looking at the intersections that form a new set in which only those common elements appear. When students write in their journals and reflect on what they have learned, the intrapersonal intelligence is addressed. Applying cooperative learning structures to maximize social interactions creates opportunities for students to produce academic language and their interpersonal intelligence. Using creative drama to interpret stories incorporates musical and body-kinesthetic intelligences and drawing sceneries for plays addresses the spatial intelligence.

Teachers can examine their instructional methods and how they complement students’ multiple intelligences.

Celebrate Success!

School success is accomplished when students know and accept their own uniqueness, and those are celebrated by the school. When teachers encourage their students to be independent thinkers and learners, when they provide different types of learning experiences so that students discover meaning in content, when parents, school and the community work together to develop students’ potential, we will then no longer have to ask students if they are smart but how smart they are.


Gardner, H., and T. Hatch. “Multiple Intelligences go to School: Educational Implications of The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” Educational Researcher (1989) 18, (8), 4-9.

Kagan, S. Multiple Intelligences and Differentiated Instruction (2009).

Kagan, S., and M. Kagan. Intelligences: The Complete MI Book (San Clemente, Calif.: Kagan Cooperative Learning Institute, 1998).

Lawler, J.M. “Reliability and Validity of IQ Tests,” IQ, Heritability and Racism (New York, N.Y.: International Publishers, 1979).

Wallach, C. “Getting Started in the Classroom With MI,” Celebrating Multiple Intelligences: Teaching for Success (St. Louis, Mo.: The New City School, Inc., 1995).

Wolfe, P. “Adolescent Brains,” Brain in the News (September 2006).

Juanita C. García, Ph.D., is an education associate in IDRA’s Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2010, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2010 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]