Multiple Intelligences Theory


There are plenty of obstacles students face throughout their schooling. Some may struggle to dissect Shakespeare’s works, while others find that adding letters into math turns their world upside down. However, whether a student struggles learning a second language, like mandarin, or understanding string theory, they still have a unique intelligence that perhaps can’t always be measured by standardized testing. In fact, many researchers today accept that there are nine types of intelligence. In order to rethink the way we measure and understand intelligence, it’s important for both parents, teachers, and students to learn more about these nine different forms of intelligence.

What Is the Multiple Intelligences Theory?

Historically, IQ (or intelligence quotient) has been the standard measure of intelligence. However, limitations to IQ in terms of both accuracy and comprehensiveness have become increasingly apparent, and alternative theories posit there is not only more than one way to measure intelligence, but that there is also more than one way to define it in the first place.

Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory

Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist and Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education at Harvard University created the theory that humans have several different ways of processing information. In his book Frames of Mind, Gardner breaks down nine types of intelligence.

What Are the 9 Types of Intelligence?

Consider how we measure size: “biggest” could mean tallest, widest, or heaviest, depending on context. “Big” isn’t a very helpful description without considering the different ways to measure and appreciate size. So it is with measuring and understanding “smart” when it comes to people.

According to Gardner, intelligence isn’t something binary, where you either have it or you don’t. Nor is there such a thing as a single, “smartest” person. The idea of intelligence theoretically belongs on a spectrum rather than a standard bar that people either hit or miss. This means that everyone has some level of intelligence in each type, and individuals have different strengths and weaknesses in different areas. The nine types are defined as follows:


Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence comprises the physical skills of an individual. It might seem surprising that physical strength is included in MI, but physical intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean you can run quickly or excel in karate. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence involves skills like manipulation of objects, timing, and the connection a person has between their mind and body.

Take dancers and surgeons for example. Neither of them, during a surgery or a performance, move mindlessly; in fact, they move with amazing precision. A surgeon relies on her knowledge of the human body to operate and a dancer must recall his timing and choreography and his body must respond accordingly to what his mind is telling it. Without this important union between the mind and body surgeons can lose patients and dancers can stumble through performances.

Existential or Spiritual

Gardner explains that Existential Intelligence “has been valued in every known human culture. Cultures devise religious, mystical, or metaphysical systems for dealing with existential issues; and in modern times or in secular settings, aesthetic, philosophical, and scientific works and systems also speak to this ensemble of human needs.”

Existential Intelligence is a strength for deeper thinking and consideration, particularly about abstract and otherwise unknown concepts such as what happens after death or alternative states of existence. These kind of concepts are certainly difficult to grapple with as humans. As such, it is a kind of intelligence that isn’t often taught or measured within the classroom or on standardized tests, but as Gardner says, still has value within society.

Intrapersonal (Self-Awareness)

Intrapersonal intelligence, or being self smart, revolves around feelings, specifically of the self. Like physical intelligence it can be surprising to imagine our own emotions as a sign of intelligence. However, our thoughts and feelings, and our ability to understand them, is an important element (and perhaps overlooked) of intelligence.

Not only does intrapersonal intelligence help individuals be self-motivated, it also entails the important ability to reflect, communicate, and generally work well with others. Psychologists and philosophers are great examples of how emotions hold an essential spot in academia and throughout life in general.

Interpersonal (Social Intelligence)

Interpersonal intelligence, not to be confused with intrapersonal, is an individual's social abilities. Social interaction is an important factor of intelligence as it helps us understand other people: their moods, emotions, motives, etc. As Gardner himself explains “Interpersonal intelligence builds on a core capacity to notice distinctions among others — in particular, contrasts in their moods, temperaments, motivations, and intuitions."

Furthermore, interpersonal intelligence is great for fostering important group collaborations and work. Whether it’s working as a tutor or being adept at problem-solving with others, interpersonal intelligence is beneficial in various facets of life.


Linguistic intelligence, also known as verbal intelligence, is the sensitivity to and understanding of both verbal and written words. Linguistic intelligence also comprises a deeper understanding of words, beyond face value or basic literacy, such as recognizing the rhythm and sounds that words can create in various combinations and order.

With that in mind, it’s probably no surprise that writers can exhibit higher linguistic intelligence. What might be surprising is that linguistic intelligence can also help individuals excel with standardized tests, thanks to the amount of reading and writing that occurs on these tests.


Logical-Mathematical intelligence is, in Gardner’s words, “most often associated with what we call ‘scientific thinking’ or deductive reasoning. However, inductive thought processes are also involved ...This intelligence [also] involves the capacity to recognize patterns, to work with abstract symbols such as numbers and geometric shapes, and to discern relationships and/or see connections between separate and distinct pieces of information.”

Experimental individuals are likely to have high logical-mathematical intelligence, seeking out patterns and categories to put information into. This means beyond scientists, detectives are also likely to have higher logical-mathematical skills. This kind of intelligence is tuned into the abstract as not every puzzle may have all the pieces. In fact, logical-mathematical intelligent individuals enjoy finding that missing piece.


Musical intelligence is pretty straight forward: it’s the connection individuals have between music (pitch, rhythm, timbre, and tone) and their emotions. More specifically, the ability to reflect on music’s components and how our minds and bodies respond to it. Think about how certain kinds of music affect your mood: perhaps classical helps you focus, bluegrass improves your mood, pop makes you want to dance. Individuals who have higher musical intelligence recognize these associations, and can be more aware of certain sounds and tones that others can miss, enabling them to excel in areas such as the performing-arts.


Naturalist intelligence entails a focus on and sensitivity to living things such as plants and animals as well as an awareness to surroundings. This kind of intelligence was once especially important to survival: consider life as a caveman in pre-industrial society having to navigate nature daily. Today, instead of discerning between poisonous and edible mushrooms, we use this intelligence to decide between products: the quality, the price, and our general fondness for said products.

This is an important intelligence for young adults leaving home for the first time. Most kids rely on their parents to provide nutritional, affordable meals (as well as clothing, shelter, etc.) However, as they enter college or move out of the house, these responsibilities are on them. This kind of intelligence helps us budget and take care of ourselves which is of course vital to our overall well-being.


Spatial intelligence is, according to Gardner, one of the most overlooked or neglected intelligences of the nine. However, spatial intelligence is often the foundation for many of the other kinds of intelligence as it’s the ability to think in three-dimensions — or more simply, to use one’s imagination. If you consider how often students are scolded for daydreaming too much it’s not really surprising that this kind of intelligence is easily smothered.

It’s not uncommon for many individuals with higher spatial intelligence to feel pressured to stay grounded, despite how valuable this kind of intelligence is. Without spatial intelligence society would be without many brilliantly talented artists, engineers, and architects. Furthermore, this intelligence often suffers in the context of SATs, IQ scores, and other standardized methods of measuring intelligence that emphasis binary, black and white thinking.

Using Multiple Intelligences to Understand Learning Styles

With all nine types of intelligence in mind, it raises the question of how schools can better accommodate and strengthen each type of learning style, rather than relying on a one-size fits all curriculum. With different intelligences it makes sense that different types of instruction and activities are necessary.

While it’s unreasonable to believe teachers have the energy, time, and general ability to cater to each student’s various abilities, there is a way to introduce more diverse material, testing, and teaching styles. Rethinking intelligence, and in turn learning, can also give teachers the opportunity to understand their students better.

When teachers can distinguish a student’s learning style they can encourage their strengths and diminish their weaknesses. Not only is this important for students’ overall success, but by giving them the chance to work on their strengths and weaknesses we can provide them with the tools to enter the workforce more aware of themselves and their abilities. This of course benefits society economically and fosters innovation across all fields.

Free Multiple Intelligence Test Links and Resources

Unlike the Meyer-Briggs personality test, there is no official multiple intelligence (MI) test to take. Instead, Gardner theorizes that each individual has a little bit of each kind, with some being more prevalent than others. He explains that MI self-assessments are problematic for two reasons:

“There is no evidence to suggest that most people possess great insight into their own strengths and weaknesses.”

“Most people don’t know how to differentiate preferences (what you would like to do), interests (what appeals to you), and computational capacities.”

However, with that in mind, using some quizzes as an exercise can help you rethink your skills as a learner and appreciate your own spectrum of intelligences, while understanding that none of them should be taken literally or as absolutes.

Unfortunately, due to the limitations within standardized tests as well as traditional definitions and conventional understandings of intelligence, diverse and valuable forms of intelligence can get overlooked. By opening up a dialogue based on Gardner’s research and theories, we can begin rethinking our ideas of intelligence and help more students take advantage of their strengths and potential.