Learn more about Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences as it applies to education. This article explores an important part of implementing Gardner’s theory in the classroom: assessing students’ “intelligences profiles.”

“If a child is not learning the way you are teaching, then you must teach in the way the child learns.” – Rita Dunn, (from Anne Bruetsch’s Multiple Intelligences Lesson Plan Book)

The Eight Intelligences
Over the last decade, Howard Gardner’s influential theory of multiple intelligences has almost revolutionized the way many psychologists and educators think of intelligence. For almost a century psychometricians, or intelligence testers, had seen it as a fixed trait—IQ tests demonstrated that you were either “smart,” “normal,” or “deficient.” Gardner, on the other hand, has argued that intelligence is multifaceted and dynamic—expanding far beyond the linguistic and logical capacities that are traditionally tested and valued in schools.

In his latest book, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century, Gardner is careful to emphasize the cultural—as opposed to the purely genetic—factors that shape an individual’s intellectual development:

I now conceptualize an intelligence as a biopsychological 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…intelligences are not things that can be seen or counted. Instead, they are potentials—presumably, neural ones—that will or will not be activated, depending upon the value of a particular culture, the opportunities available in that culture, and the personal decisions made by individuals and/or their families, school-teachers, and others. (Gardner 1999)

Gardner currently identifies eight intelligences, all of which he considers “part of our birthright.” However, he adds that “no two people have exactly the same intelligences in the same combination.” The eight intelligences are linguistic, logical, musical, spatial, bodily kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic. The extent to which the various intelligences develop depends, to a significant extent, on the individual’s education and culture.

Teaching in the Way the Child Learns
The theory of multiple intelligences urges a rethinking of how teachers should approach subjects and topics. If children do not learn in any one way, then the teacher truly must teach “in the way the child learns.” Guided by the very diverse intellectual profiles of students in a classroom, teaching must become less of a single approach aimed at all students and more of a crafted effort to engage the multiple intelligences, or potentials, represented in the room.

In Intelligence Reframed, Gardner identifies “the ready availability of new and flexible technologies” as the “one fact [that] will make individually configured education a reality in [his] lifetime”:

Once parents learn that there are indeed several ways to teach most topics and most subjects, affluent families will acquire the materials for home use. And pressures will mount for schools and teachers to have available, say, the “Eight Roads to Pythagorus” or the “Eight Paths to Plato.” No more will teachers say, “I taught it well, and she could not learn it.” Rather, all involved in education will be motivated to find the ways that will work for this student learning this topic, and the results will be widely available in planning for future work.

Although Gardner describes individually configured education as a future reality, many educators are applying the theory of multiple intelligences in the classroom today.

The theory of multiple intelligences does not point to a single, approved educational approach. Gardner, in fact, is wary of making recommendations. He claims that educators are the ones who are “in the best position to determine whether and to what extent MI theory should guide their practice.” The concept of multiple intelligences originated as a psychological theory that focused on “individual differences in strengths and modes of representation.” As Gardner states, “there is no direct tie between a scientific theory and a set of educational moves.” In any case, when a teacher decides to implement the theory of multiple intelligences in everyday classroom life, he must begin by trying to determine the “intelligences” with which different children learn.

From Standard Intelligence Testing to “Intelligences Profiles”
According to Gardner, many who first hear about multiple intelligences instinctively ask how such intangible intelligences as “bodily kinesthetic” and “interpersonal” can be measured. But “measuring” is not the appropriate verb to describe how educators determine a student’s multiple intelligences profile. Most intellectual capacities do not lend themselves to one-shot assessments—the traditional way in which educators have assessed intelligence. After all, how does one measure how a person learns a new tune or how effectively a person expresses himself in a group? Since standardized tests that aim to give large-scale measurements and comparisons of students are not applicable to many of the intelligences, a more expansive and multi-faceted means of assessment is needed. “The means of assessment we favor,” Gardner states, “should ultimately search for genuine problem-solving or product-fashioning skills in individuals across a range of materials.”

The kinds of assessment Gardner calls for, then, are context-dependent. Just as teaching should take into account the various ways children learn, so should assessments be carried out in a way that focuses on individual variation: “Rather than bringing the children to the assessment, as psychometricians have done (often, to be sure, for understandable reasons), we took the assessments to the children.”

Gardner and his colleagues brought the assessments to the children by creating a “rich environment,” called a Spectrum classroom. Here children could naturally engage any number of intelligences and display to the observer, according to what Gardner terms “the richness and sophistication of their interactions,” their individual “array[s] of intelligences.” Some of the materials included “specimens of nature, board games, artistic and musical materials, and areas of exercise, dance, and building.” When a child avoided certain activities or materials, Gardner and his colleagues introduced “bridging activities.” “If,” for example, “a child didn’t want to tell stories about a picture,” Gardner explains, “we gave her props and encouraged her to build a diorama. Using the diorama as a bridge, we then asked her to tell us what had happened to the people or animals in the diorama.”

Like the Spectrum classroom, children’s museums also serve as rich contexts in which children can interact with various materials that engage different intelligences. By observing children in such a setting, Gardner claims, one can gather a “rough-and-ready picture of their intelligences at a given moment in their lives.” Gardner applies the same reasoning to assessing adult intelligences profiles: “A good measurement of intelligences at any age is provided when someone is parachuted into a new territory. If you were to drop me into three areas of Australia—the outback, the Great Barrier Reef, and a coastal city—and observe me for a day or two in each region, you would learn a great deal about my intelligences—as well as my multiple stupidities.”

Assessing Intelligences in the Classroom
According to Gardner, teachers can assess students’ intelligences profiles in the classroom; a Spectrum room or children’s museum, though perhaps ideal, is not necessary:

it should be possible to gain a reasonably accurate picture of an individual’s intellectual profile—be he three or thirteen—in the course of a month or so, while that individual is involved in regular classroom activities. The total time spent might be five to ten hours of observing—a long time given current standards of intelligence testing, but a very short time in terms of the life of that student.

Among the many educators who have written books on how to apply Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory to teaching practices is David Lazear. In his 1990 book, Seven Ways of Knowing: Teaching for Multiple Intelligences, Lazear describes the “intellectual profile” as indicating students’ strengths and weaknesses and therefore instrumental in guiding teachers. “A profile would show…ways to develop the fullest intelligence capacities possible within the individual. In the early years of schooling the profile could help discern ways of developing each student’s full spectrum of intelligences as completely as possible.”

Anne Bruetsch, author of the 1995 Multiple Intelligences Lesson Plan Book, cautions against trying to assess intelligences with anything approaching pinpoint accuracy. Instead, she encourages teachers to be aware of strengths and weaknesses in each student. “I do not find it of great importance to know specifically how strong or weak a person is in each intelligence. To me as a teacher, the important thing is to be aware of the extremes. I can then use this information to plan activities that are based on the strengths of my class as a whole and to assign partners or members of a cooperative group.” Bruetsch goes on to explain how an awareness of her students’ strengths and weaknesses can help in developing individuals’ abilities: “There may be times when I would want to combine students with very different strengths and weaknesses, in order to help develop the ability of the student who is weak in a particular intelligence. Remember, these intelligences are not fixed.”

How is a student’s current intellectual profile assessed in the classroom? Or, as Bruetsch suggests, how can teachers become more aware of individual students’ strengths and weaknesses? Lazear stresses the importance of intelligence-specific materials, that is, assessments presented in the symbol system or language of the particular intelligence being tested. For instance, Lazear explains that no verbal description of a physical activity, no matter how detailed, could accurately test for bodily kinesthetic intelligence. “The ‘language’ or symbol system of body/kinesthetic intelligence,” he writes, “is physical movement itself and thus the test itself must be presented in these terms [e.g., with dance].” Lazear suggests that teachers use games and puzzles (for example, a jigsaw puzzle, a Rubik’s cube, riddles, or physical games like “Twister”), presented in the language particular to each intelligence, as possible means for assessing an individual’s cognitive profile.

“A Shifting Profile of Intelligences”
Any article on multiple intelligences and assessment would not be complete without explicitly mentioning the “perils,” as Gardner calls them, of labeling, a potential downfall of any assessment process. Gardner warns against “batteries of short tests that claim to measure the intelligences.” In such tests, he argues, interests are often mistaken for skills. Gardner also points out both a potential benefit and a drawback of identifying one’s current “intelligences profile”: although knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses can be helpful and “provide a way for people to engage in personal reflection, which can be productive,” it can also lend people permission to set limits on themselves and others—both consciously and unconsciously.

In regard to multiple intelligences, the labeling process is doubly deceptive in that it implies that one’s intelligences profile is permanent and static, and that, as Gardner puts it, “We know exactly how to assess intelligences.” But intelligences are impermanent. They respond to experience, and shift as we change. They are complex enough that no easy and quick pencil-and-paper battery will fully detect them, and a single profile, like a photograph, is not sufficiently representative of an individual over a lifetime. Gardner emphasizes the importance of observing someone in multiple or multi-faceted settings (i.e., the Spectrum classroom, the children’s museum). “If I were asked to assess someone’s intelligences, I would not be satisfied until I had observed him solving problems and fashioning products in a number of settings. …even then, I would have no guarantee that the intelligences profile would remain the same a year or two later.” Attempting to label the intelligences also falsely presumes that we know, without doubt, which intelligences are actually engaged. But as of yet, we don’t: “Until it becomes possible to designate neural circuitry as representing one or another intelligence in action,” Gardner explains, “we cannot know for sure which intelligence or intelligences are being involved on a specific occasion.” The important issue for educators, despite these qualifications of the multiple intelligences theory, is whether or not the theory can be “mobilized for concrete educational consequences.” An awareness of one’s students’ cognitive strengths and weaknesses, along with an understanding of the multiple ways in which one can represent the world based on Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, is a crucial beginning.