Multiple Intelligences

by Janet Laughlin

from Inquiry, Volume 4, Number 2, Fall 1999, 4-18

© Copyright 1999 Virginia Community College System

Return to Volume 4, Number 2

Janet Laughlin's research details the characteristics of Howard Gardner's seven multiple intelligences and the implications for instruction.


Howard Gardner defines intelligence as "the ability to solve problems, or to fashion products, that are valued in one or more cultural or community settings" (1996:7). He illustrates his point by examining the way sailors in the South Seas direct their ships by looking at constellations of stars in the sky, feeling the way a boat passes over the water, and noticing a few scattered landmarks. "Intelligence" in these sailors’ society would probably refer to navigational ability. Surgeons and engineers, hunters and fisherman, dancers and choreographers, athletes and athletic coaches, tribal chiefs and sorcerers may all have different building blocks of the intelligences that give them their ability to "solve problems or fashion products" (Gardner, 1996:7). In our culture, we tend to ascribe to the surgeon greater intelligence than that of the dancer, and to the physics professor greater intelligence than the mechanic who repairs his/her car. But Gardner forces us to ask whether the intelligence possessed by one group is greater/superior or simply different from the intelligence possessed by others. Our answer has significant implications for the classroom.

Gardner has synthesized his massive data into a list of seven intelligences: linguistic logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic (sometimes referred to as physical-kinesthetic), spatial (sometimes referred to as visual-spatial), musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (1993:8-9).

Linguistic Intelligence

Linguistic intelligence is the ability to put words together to form grammatical sentences. The ability to think in words is what allows human beings to remember, analyze, problem-solve, plan ahead and create, and it is our linguistic intelligence that sets us apart from other animals. Carl Sandburg decided as soon as he learned the alphabet at age six that he would be a "man of letters." His heightened sensitivity to the sound, rhythm, and meaning of words set him apart—as it does all poets—from the pedestrian student. Even in his eighties, after winning acclaim throughout the world for his writing, he commented, "I should like to think that as I go on writing there will be sentences truly alive with verbs quivering, with nouns giving color and echoes" and lamented that if he lived only to age 89, his parting farewell would be that if he only had five more years, he might be a writer (Campbell, Campbell, & Dickinson,1996:1). Another poignant example of linguistic intelligence follows:

At the age of ten, T. S. Eliot created a magazine called "Fireside" to which he was the sole contributor. In a three-day period during his winter vacation, he created eight complete issues. Each one included poems, adventure stories, a gossip column, and humor. Some of this material survives and it displays the talent of the poet (Gardner, 1993:21).

Research indicates that verbal-linguistic intelligence starts developing while a fetus is still in the womb and that babies who have been read to, sung to, and talked to before birth have a head start in this area (Campbell et al., 1996:2). This intelligence continues to develop in children as they listen to others and are included in discussion. Perhaps even more important to this

development is their interaction with others as they formulate sentences to express their opinions

and feelings and make choices and decisions. Thus developing verbal-linguistic intelligence is not a passive activity but demands involved, active participation and curiosity about the world in which we live.

Characteristics of Linguistic Intelligence

Campbell, Campbell, and Dickinson, in their book Teaching & Learning Through Multiple Intelligences, have identified twelve characteristics that a person with well-developed verbal-linguistic intelligence usually exhibits (1996:4):

    1. Listens and responds to the sound, rhythm, color, and variety of the spoken word.
    2. Imitates sounds, language, reading, and writing of others.
    3. Learns through listening, reading, writing, and discussing.
    4. Listens effectively, comprehends, paraphrases, interprets, and remembers what has been said.
    5. Reads effectively, comprehends, summarizes, interprets or explains, and remembers what has been read.
    6. Speaks effectively to a variety of audiences for a variety of purposes, and knows how to speak simply, eloquently, persuasively, or passionately at appropriate times.
    7. Writes effectively; understands and applies rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and uses an effective vocabulary.
    8. Exhibits ability to learn other languages.
    9. Uses listening, speaking, writing, and reading to remember, communicate, discuss, explain, persuade, create knowledge, construct meaning, and reflect upon language itself.
    10. Strives to enhance his or her own language usage.
    11. Demonstrates interest in journalism, poetry, storytelling, debate, speaking, writing, or editing.
    12. Creates new linguistic forms or original works of writing or oral communication

Every classroom needs to be language rich, i.e. to have students speaking, debating, expressing opinions, and asking questions, instead of passively listening to a teacher.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence

Logical-mathematical intelligence encompasses mathematical calculations, logical thinking, problem-solving, deductive and inductive reasoning, and the discernment of patterns and relationships (Campbell et al., 1996:35). Gardner believes that Piaget, even though he thought he was studying all intelligences, was really just studying logical-mathematical intelligence. An example of keen logical-mathematical intelligence is McClintock’s interest in pollen sterility in corn.

Barbara McClintock, who won a Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work in microbiology, studied pollen sterility in corn as a researcher at Cornell in the 1920s. Theory predicted 50 percent pollen sterility, but tests in the cornfield showed only 25 to 30 percent sterility. What was the difference? Sitting in her office thinking, she suddenly had the answer. She rushed back to the cornfield where her assistants were working and with a paper bag and pencil went through the detailed steps for them, coming to the same conclusion she had reached in her mind at the office (Gardner, 1993:19-20).

In our society, linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence are deemed superior to other intelligences. This is supported by the weight SAT scores are given for college admission. (Carl Sandburg failed his entrance exams in math and grammar for admission to West Point and went instead to Lombard College.) Gardner posits that the intelligences "have equal claim to priority" (1993:8). SAT scores may get one into a prestigious college, but Gardner believes that success after one leaves depends on one’s ability to use the other intelligences (1993).

Characteristics of Logical-Mathematical Intelligence

Following are the qualities of logical-mathematical intelligence as suggested by Campbell, et al. (1996:35):

Math and science should still be taught as discrete subject areas, and math and science educators are calling for the development of higher-order thinking skills and the teaching of problem-solving and decision-making skills. Campbell, et al. propose, however, that logical-mathematical intelligences be incorporated into other subject areas to help students develop these higher-order thinking skills. Graphing, analogies, probability theory, and questioning strategies are some of the techniques which could be used to integrate logical-mathematical intelligence into other subject areas (Campbell et al., 1996:36).

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence

Many people need to experience the world physically through touching and manipulating objects. They learn by "doing," involving all of their senses, and prefer concrete, real-life experiences over abstract concepts. This intelligence personifies harmony between mind and body, and examples of this harmony can be seen in the work of athletes, dancers, sculptors, and actors who possess the marvelous ability to transform the intentions of the mind into action. Others of us are great golfers and dancers only in our mind. "Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is the foundation of human knowing, since it is through our sensory-motor experiences that we experience life" (Campbell et al., 1996:67).

Gardner cites the story of Babe Ruth, who at fifteen, never having pitched before, was called to the pitching mound by his coach because Ruth had been loudly criticizing the pitcher. Ruth later said "that at the very moment he took the pitcher’s mound, he KNEW he was supposed to be a pitcher and that it was ‘natural’ for him to strike people out (Gardner, 1993:18).

Characteristics of Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence

An individual with a highly-developed bodily-kinesthetic intelligence may exhibit the following attributes (Campbell et al., 1996:68):

Students typically have fewer opportunities as they progress to higher grade levels to "physically" engage in the educational process because it becomes more internalized and abstract. Yet students of all ages say that the most enjoyable and memorable educational experiences are the ones in which they are active participants instead of passive observers. Field trips, team work, building models, interviewing people, working on projects, and role-play are just a few of the ways students can be actively engaged in subject matter.

Spatial Intelligence

Gardner defines spatial intelligence as the "ability to form a mental model of a spatial world and the ability to operate using that model" (1993:9). Engineers, surgeons, sculptors, painters, and those sailors in the South Seas who navigate without instruments demonstrate highly developed spatial intelligence. Before there was language, cave dwellers drew pictures of animals and representations of their experience on their walls, indicating that vision developed well before speech (Campbell, et al., 1996:96). We look at paintings that "speak volumes" because the artist visualizes and reconstructs what he or she could not put into words. The photographer captured the tragedy of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building more eloquently than any writer in that much-publicized photograph of the rescue workers carrying a child from the rubble. And the pictures we see of fly-infested refugee camps—home to wide-eyed children with distended, starving bellies—speak to us more poignantly than the reporter’s accompanying story. My son who dumps the pieces of the carpet shampooer (or a hose reel) from the box and puts it together without instructions "sees" in his mind how it’s all supposed to fit while I’m looking in exasperation at the instructions thinking none of the parts really even look like Figure A, B, or C.

Another concrete example comes from Gardner in this sailing vignette:

The positions of the stars, as viewed from various islands, the weather patterns, and water color are the only sign posts. Each journey is broken into a series of segments; and the navigator learns the position of the stars within each of these segments. During the actual trip, the navigator must envision mentally a reference island as it passes under a particular star and from that he computes the number of segments completed, the proportion of the trip remaining, and any corrections in heading that are required. The navigator cannot see the islands as he sails along; instead he maps their locations in his mental ‘picture’ of the journey. (1993:21)

Characteristics of Spatial Intelligence

The likely attributes of a person with well-developed visual-spatial intelligence are (Campbell, et al., 1996:97)

Campbell, et al. emphasize that spacial intelligence underlies all human activity and cannot truly be limited to these twelve characteristics (1996:97).

Charts, outlines, mindmapping, highlighting with color, and visuals to accompany lectures are ways to engage a visual learner. Visual learners are also very responsive to their physical environment; therefore, the appearance of classrooms is important. Attractive bulletin boards, a floor or desk lamp, circular seating, cut flowers or a green plant, and adding color with fabric or rugs are just a few ways the classroom can be made more aesthetically pleasing and a powerful learning tool (1996:98).

Musical Intelligence

We are born with a musical capacity, having listened to the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat while still in the womb and then living with rhythm of our own heartbeat, respiration, metabolic rhythm and brain waves (Campbell, et al., 1996:133). Most of us, however, do not develop that capacity as great composers, vocalists, or instrumentalists do. Gardner’s research provides empirical evidence that certain parts of the brain play an important role in musical ability, and it is legitimate to consider this ability as a specific form of intelligence. Child prodigies and studies of autistic children who cannot speak but who can play a musical instrument beautifully underscore the independence of musical intelligence (Gardner, 1993:17).

When he was three years old, Yehudi Menuhin was smuggled into the San Francisco Orchestra concerts by his parents. The sound of Louis Persinger’s violin so entranced the youngster that he insisted on a violin for his birthday and Louis Persinger as his teacher. He got both. By the time he was ten years old, Menuhin was an international performer. (1993:17)

Characteristics of Musical Intelligence

A person with a well-developed musical intelligence most likely (Campbell et al.,1996:135)

Because of its tie to emotions, music played in the classroom can help create a positive emotional environment for learning, as well as a welcoming atmosphere. It can heighten the suspense, frivolity, or tragedy of a piece of literature being read. However, when it’s time to cut the budget, music is usually one of the first programs to go in order to give more time in the school day to reading, writing, and math. Studies have shown, however, that students taking music courses scored

. . . 20 to 40 points higher on both verbal and math portions of the Scholastic Achievement Tests than students who did not take such courses . . . and students taking four or more years of music and the other arts scored 34 points better on verbal SAT scores and 18 points better on math SAT scores than students who took music for only one year. (Campbell et al, 1996:134)

Interpersonal Intelligence

Group members, political and religious leaders, politicians, teachers, counselors, and skilled parents typically have highly developed interpersonal intelligence, for it is this intelligence that allows us to form relationships, helps us get along with others, discern moods, temperaments, motivations, and skills. Of teacher Anne Sullivan’s relationship with student Helen Keller, Gardner says, "The key to the miracle of language was Anne Sullivan’s insight into the person of Helen Keller" (Gardner, 1993:23). This story indicates that interpersonal intelligence is not dependent upon language.

One might argue with British psychologist N. K. Humphrey who claims that "social intelligence is the most important feature of the human intellect" (Campbell et al., 1996:160), but many of us know people who have advanced in their careers with "people skills" being the major impetus for their rise. On the other hand, we have seen people with superior "technical" knowledge in their fields but who have been stymied in their progression up the career ladder due to their lack of interpersonal skills. Almost no one would argue that "people skills" are not a major ingredient of successful personal and professional life.

Characteristics of Interpersonal Intelligence

Campbell et al. list the following characteristics of a person with highly developed interpersonal intelligence (1996:160):

Frequently the focus of education is on the individual and competition for grades and recognition, leaving many students feeling isolated. Collaborative learning experiences comply with students’ desires for interaction with others in the classroom and may provide a more supportive, caring environment. Clubs, service programs, discussing multicultural issues, and examining topics from a global perspective in schools also give students further opportunities for expressing their interactive intelligence and need to be accepted as part of a cohesive group (Campbell et al., 1996:161). In addition, mentoring programs can provide the close personal relationship with an adult that many students lack at home.

Intrapersonal Intelligence

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us"—Oliver Wendell Homes

Thus we examine our inner resources—our motivation, determination, ethics, integrity, empathy, altruism, imagination, thoughts, and feelings—as we try to understand ourselves and other people and solve our problems. Intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence are interdependent since both are formed by heredity, environment, and experience—particularly experiences with care givers and, later, teachers.

Characteristics of Intrapersonal Intelligence

Campbell, et al. provide the following list of characteristics that may be possessed by a person with a highly developed intrapersonal intelligence (1996:196):

Intrapersonal skills are crucial to students for them to be successful learners who go on to be productive, successful adults. A basic survival skill, the ability to laugh at one’s mistakes, can be modeled by the teacher. Some learning activities that take advantage of intrapersonal intelligence are journal-writing, self-esteem activities, goal setting, feelings inventories, and self-directed learning. Deep self-knowledge requires a lifetime, so students will not change rapidly (Campbell et al, 1996:196).

Assessment and the Learner

All of us gather information in three primary ways: we hear, we see, and we experience. And we all have a preferred "best" way of taking in new information, or a preferred learning style. If we are auditory learners, we want to hear a topic discussed. If we are visual learners, we want to see the material. If we are physical learners, we want to experience it ourselves. Research indicates that 35 percent of us are visual learners who learn best through pictures and written words. While 25 percent of us are auditory learners who prize lectures and discussion to help us learn, the other 40 percent of us are physical learners who want hands-on experience or active physical involvement (Rose, 1992).

All too often, teachers teach in their preferred learning method without taking into consideration how a student learns. Based on the statistics then, if a teacher’s preferred learning style is auditory and lecturing is the only instructional method used, he/she has missed 75 percent of the students. This mismatch of the teachers’ learning/teaching style and the student’s learning style is one of the biggest reasons for academic underachievement and frustration (Tracy, 1992). With a knowledge of multiple intelligence and learning style theory, educators can integrate various learning strategies so that students bombard their minds in many different ways with new ideas and remain engaged in the educational process. Howard Gardner says that using multiple intelligences simply provides students with the experience he calls "many windows looking into one room" (Gutloff, 1996:10).

The challenge for the teacher is threefold:

    1. To help students ascertain which of their intelligences are predominant and which learning style is preferred.
    2. To incorporate a cornucopia of teaching strategies to address differing intelligences and learning styles, and
    3. To teach students how to study to capitalize on their intellectual strengths and learning style.

Ultimately, the greatest gifts any educator can give a student are the skills needed for him/her to be an independent learner. But whether or not the gift is given, every individual has the opportunity to learn and the responsibility to himself/herself to become educated. We have no control over how information is presented to us, but we can control how we adapt the information. Research indicates that we remember 20 percent of what we read, 30 percent of what we hear, 40 percent of what we see, 50 percent of what we say, 60 percent of what we do, and 90 percent of what we see, hear, say and do (Rose, 1992:5). Therefore, if I, the student, want to remember more of what I study, I need to engage more of my senses in the learning process. What is exciting about Rose’s work with learning styles and multiple intelligences are the suggestions he gives to students about how to study more effectively

Exploring the Subject Using Preferred Learning Styles

Some of Colin Rose’s suggestions on how students can study using their preferred learning style follow (Rose, 1992:13):

  1. Prepare learning maps using key words, primarily nouns,
  2. color highlight new ideas,
  3. write down what is heard, and
  4. prepare graphs and diagrams.
  1. Ask a lot of questions,
  2. read aloud dramatically— perhaps even with an accent, and use audiocassettes to record and listen to lectures or to record and listen to notes you read.
  1. Practice a skill as soon as it is learned—hands-on experience,
  2. walk around while reading,
  3. listen to tapes while exercising,
  4. take notes on post-it notes and arrange the ideas on a large surface,
  5. take notes on postcards and then arrange the topics so that they make better sense to you or make new relationships,
  6. make notes by paraphrasing the material instead of just taking notes on what the author or teacher is saying,
  7. let the information sink in while you take a walk or go do something else, and
  8. use a buddy to help you study.

The goal of accelerated learning is to become a multi-sensory learner. In its simplest version (Rose, 1992:8), if you

  1. Read and visualize the material you have seen it.
  2. Read key points out loud, make up questions and answer them you have heard it.
  3. Write out the answer to your question and circle the major point you have done it.

The student’s job is to take the subject material and do something extra that helps him/her to learn it using multiple senses. We have separate memories for what we see, what we hear, and what we do. If we activate all three memories simultaneously, our ability to remember the information and act on it goes up several hundred percentage points (Rose, 1992).

Exploring the Subject Through Multiple Intelligences

In his work on accelerated learning techniques, Rose builds on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory and suggests how students can engage all seven intelligences, using many of the techniques described above, as they explore a new subject (Rose, 1992:59-66):


When a group of students was asked how they could tell if someone was smart, they mentioned only two of the seven intelligences: science and math. Because of this prevailing concept, if a student isn’t smart in science or math, he/she feels he isn’t smart. At age six, children feel they are very smart. They are curious and actively exploring their world, and then they go to school where they are asked to sit still, be quiet, and listen.

Albert Einstein was a very poor student. He could not speak until he was four, and he could not read until he was seven. His teachers thought he had learning disabilities and could never be truly educated. One day his curiosity in what made his toy magnet attract metal so fascinated him that he began to brush up on his mathematics, and little by little he learned. Einstein’s brain has been studied by brain researchers, and only one difference has been found between his brain and that of others: it shows very rich connections between brain cells. Anytime we think a new thought or explore a topic in a new way, the more connections we make between our brain neurons and dendrites. With more connections, we have more brain capacity and therefore have more potential for intelligent thought. This is true at almost any age. Therefore, intelligence is not fixed but increases with stimulation (Tracy, 1992; Rose, 1992:22).

In education, as students advance to higher grade levels, fewer senses are involved in learning, and it isn’t nearly as much fun as in the lower grades. Fewer of our multiple intelligences are engaged in the learning process as we progress. Students experience frustration and failure; and by the time they are teenagers, only one in five has confidence in his/her ability to be successful in school.

How liberating and healing it would be for students to be convinced that "it’s not how smart you are—it’s how you are smart" that counts and that each and every one of them has special strengths and talents that others may not share (Gutloff, 1992:cover, 11, 42). Educators can emphasize to students the three critical findings from Howard Gardner’s work (Rose, 1992:58):

  1. Intelligence is not fixed.
  2. Intelligence is not IQ as much as it is abilities and skills.
  3. One must work to use, develop, and improve intelligence; it takes effort.

Educators can abandon the "single-chance theory of education"—you either get it or you don’t— and adopt Gardner’s multiple chance theory of education. Professional educators, parents, and educated lay persons can encourage learners of every age to be curious and to use their multiple intelligences and their best learning style to create their own learning paradigm.


Armstrong, T. (1994). Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Campbell, L., Campbell, B., & Dickinson, D. (1996). Teaching & learning through multiple intelligences. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Celebrating multiple intelligences: Teaching for success (5th ed.). (1994). St. Louis, MO: The New City School, Inc.

Gardner, H. (1983.) Frames of mind. New York: BasicBooks, Inc.

Gardner, H. (1993.) Multiple intelligences. New York: BasicBooks, Inc.

Gutloff, K. (Ed.). (1996.) Multiple intelligences. National Education Association of the United States.

Rose, C. (1992.) Accelerated learning action guide. Niles, IL: Nightingale-Conant Corporation.

Tracy, B. & Rose, C. (1992.) Accelerated learning techniques (tapes). Niles, IL: Nightingale-Conant Corporation.

Janet T. Laughlin is an Assistant Professor of Administrative Support Technology at Danville Community College. She earned her Bachelor's degree in Business Administration with a Business Education Specialization from Palm Beach Atlantic College, West Palm Beach, Florida, and her Master of Business Administration from Averett College.