The Theory of Multiple Intelligences: Its Strength and Weaknesses Essay

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The Theory of Multiple Intelligences: Its Strength and Weaknesses

Most learning institutions generally focus education on the linguistic and mathematical intelligence. Children in pre-school are first taught to know their ABCs and to count from one to ten. Those who can recite the alphabet well are considered bright students. Learners who can do addition at an early age are placed on the honors list. It had been the norm that intelligence is measured using IQ tests. The higher the IQ is the smarter the person is. But the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, proposed by Howard Gardner in the year 1983, states otherwise. The theory basically implies that other than linguistic and mathematical competence, there are other or multiple aspects of the learning that should be considered as intelligence also.

Likewise, the theory points out that standardized IQ tests is not a sufficient measurement of smartness or dumbness of a person. Gardner’s theory stirred the psychological and educational communities. It received varied reactions. Some were impressed and readily accepted the theory as it explains the differences of each students. Yet, some raised their eyebrows and issues sprouted as questions of validity and empirical evidences of the theory may not sustain the claims of the theory.

There have been a lot of debates pertaining to multiple intelligences. Several writers have also expressed their varied opinions regarding the topic. Indeed the theory proves to be an interesting milestone in the study of human learning and cognitive sciences. It also gives a lot of insight on how education in the future would affect the different abilities of each person. This paper hopes to discuss in detail the strength and weaknesses of the theory. For the purpose of this research, several papers and opinions on the topic will be cited. The theory, which is more than 20 years old, is already accepted and even integrated in some school but at the same time still in the middle of scrutiny.

About Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner was born in 1943 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His parents were originally from Nürnberg, Germany. They went to the US in 1938 with their three-year old son Eric. Before Gardner was born, Eric died in a sleighing accident. These were not known to Howard during his childhood but have a fairly significant impact upon his thinking and development. He was discouraged from trying risky physical activities and was rather encouraged to develop his creative and intellectual abilities. As he began to find out his family history, he realized that he was different from his parents and friend. (Smith, 2002)

For his education, he went to a preparatory school in Kingston, Pennsylvania against his parents wish to send him to Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. After that, Gardner attended Harvard University and took up a course in history in preparation for a career in law. In Harvard he was able to study under scholars like Eric Erickson, sociologists David Riesman and cognitive psychologist Jerome Burner. The experience helped him set the course on investigating human nature and how humans think. His interest in psychology and social sciences grew. He graduated summa cum laude in 1965.

A year after he took up a doctoral program in Harvard and subsequently became part of the Project Zero research team on arts education which up to the present he is still part of. In Project Zero, he worked with children as he studies their cognitive development. At the Boston University he also studied stroke victims suffering from aphasia, a result of brain damage where in the patient cease to understand or produce words. (Gilman, 2001) He finished his doctorate in 1971. He is currently a Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and also a professor of neurology at the Boston University School of Medicine. His involvement in the Project Zero research team gave way to his book Frames of Mind (1983) where his Theory of Multiple Intelligence was first stated in full length. (Smith, 2002)

Multiple Intelligence Theory

Before the advent of this theory, it was generally believed that human beings are born with no innate mental content or in epistemological term, a tabula rasa. Humans are to learn everything from scratch and that anything can be learned as long as there is an opportunity and experience gradually builds up a person’s knowledge. Intelligence was initially believed to be a single entity or what psychometricians call general intelligence or g. General intelligence is measured by standardized IQ tests, or other “purer” method like reaction to flashing light or presence of certain brainwaves (Gardner, 1998).

With his exposure to studying the development of children in Project Zero and his study on aphasic stroke victims, he started to be interested in exploring human intelligence in a more diverse aspect which included various field of studies such as psychology, biology, neurology, sociology, anthropology, and the arts and humanities (Gilman, 2001). He saw that the individuals he is studying has certain strengths and weaknesses and that a certain strength or disability can co-exist with different profiles of competence and inability. With that he arrived at a firm intuition and quoting Gardner (1998):

“Human beings are better thought of as possessing a number of relatively independent faculties, rather than as having a certain amount of intellectual horsepower that can be simply channeled in one or another direction.” This contributed a lot in his formulation of the Theory of Multiple Intelligence. He also gave a new definition to intelligence:

“Intelligence is a psychobiological potential to process information so as to solve problems or to fashion products that are valued in at least one cultural context.” With that he proposes eight different kinds of intelligence. He also came up with a set of criteria that is required to be called intelligence.

The theory has two strong claims. First, “all human beings possess all of these intelligences” and second “no two individuals have exactly the same amalgam of intelligences, foregrounding the same strengths and weaknesses.” This can be attributed to the fact that individuals have different experience through out their lives.

Gardner’s Criteria for the Multiple Intelligences

Before a certain human capability is considered a kind of intelligence, Gardner proposes a set of criteria. These criteria were derived from his experience and interest with brain-damaged patients, prodigies, savants, geniuses, developmental psychology, cross-cultural comparisons and neurobiology (Morris, 2006)

Potential of isolation by brain damage

Before a kind of intelligence is considered there must be a certain part of the brain that corresponds to that intelligence and is dissociated with the other intelligences. Meaning a lesion on that part of the brain would only affect that intelligence. This is manifested in stroke victims who lose the ability for speech and body-kinesthetic because they are paralyzed but are still able to recognized musical patterns and relate to other people in some ways. This suggests that since a kind of brain damage tends to affect a certain kind of intelligence while sparing others then the two intelligences are independent from each other.

Existence of savants, prodigies, and other exceptional individuals

The existence of these individuals allows researchers such as Gardner to observe the human abilities in extreme cases. There are autistics that are much more adept in dealing with numbers, dates or sometimes music. But at the same time are not so much as social persons. There are also child prodigies that an early stage have mastered playing a certain kind of instrument, suggesting that that intelligence is more developed in that child than others. Again this suggests the independence of each intelligences.

An identifiable core operation or set of operations

According to Gardner, a core operation is the basic knowledge in the brain that takes a particular kind of input or information and processes it. The eight intelligences all have a set of core operations that shows how a person can manifest that intelligence (Veenema, Hetland, Chalfen, 1997). Linguistic intelligence has the core operations such as syntax, phonology, semantic and pragmatics or in other words, recognition and production of speech. Musical intelligence has the ability to recognize pitch, rhythm, timbre and other components of music. Logical-Mathematical intellect uses numbers, categorization and relation as its set of core operation.

Spatial intelligence has core operations of accurate mental visualization and mental transformation of images. Bodily-kinesthetic is able to control one’s own body to its advantage. Interpersonal intelligence has awareness of other’s feelings, emotions, goals and motivation as its core operation. Same goes for intrapersonal intelligence only that it pertains to one’s own feelings and emotions. Naturalist intelligence is the recognition and classification of objects in the environment.

Support from experimental psychological tasks

Each of the intelligences has been observed by cognitive psychologists to have tasks that indicate which skills are related to one another and are not. Individuals are asked to carry out two kinds of activities at same time to determine if those activities rely on the same type of capabilities or not. A person reading a magazine is less likely to converse with someone at the same time. Both activities rely on linguistic intelligence. But a person would be able to walk and talk at the same time since it involves bodily-kinesthetic and linguistic intelligence.

Support from psychometric findings

Even though Gardner opposes the use of standardized test to measure one’s intelligence, he still includes this for reliability and validity. According to him “batteries of tests reveal which tasks reflect the same underlying factor and which do not.”

A distinct developmental progression with an expert “end-state” performances

According to Gardner, each of the intelligence should have a history of clear development in how humans were able to learn these capabilities. Thus, there is a level of mastery of the intelligences where there is an “end-state” or the level where the intelligence is performed at its highest level.

Evolutionary plausibility

The intelligences should have a place in the evolutionary development of human beings. This is manifested in presence of archeological artifacts, cave drawings, spatial ability of early humans as they survive in their surroundings and other abilities that can be traced to see how these intelligences evolved with the human species through out the years.

Susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system

This means that the intelligences can be made into a symbol system. Examples would be maps, language, logical expression and arithmetic, paintings, musical scores.

These symbols are the manifestation or the outcome of the intelligences that are developed to convey information that can be understood in different cultures.

The intelligences must posses all these criteria in order to be considered as one. From these eight criteria, Gardner came up with multiple intelligences.

Multiple Intelligences

In the year 1983, Gardner concluded seven kinds of intelligence. But still open to new possibilities and plausible intelligence, Gardner continued to explore different human capabilities that may be a candidate for intelligence. He considered three other kinds of intelligence, Naturalist, Spiritual and Existential intelligence. The latter two were a bit problematic. Spiritual intelligence concerns with religion and the spirituality of the individuals.

This includes the truth value and cultural implications that may vary with each individual. Existential intelligence pertains to “ultimate issues”. This candidate for intelligence lacks empirical data and is a very subjective capability that it would be hard to measure in terms of psychometric tests. Thus in 1995, Gardner added Naturalist to the list of multiple intelligence as it manifest all of the criteria.

The eight multiple intelligences will be defined as follows (Veenema, Hetland, Chalfen, 1997):

Linguistic Intelligence

This involves individuals who communicate and make use of words to express themselves and also to understand their environment. Poets, writers and individuals who know their way with words are example of those who exhibit this intelligence.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence

This includes individuals who use and appreciate abstract relations. They are good with numbers, detecting patterns, analyzing problems and giving logical explanations. Scientists, mathematicians and philosophers exhibit this intelligence.

Musical Intelligence

These are individuals who are attuned with the sounds of their surroundings. Musically inclined people excel in recognizing at ease different pitches, tones and rhythm. Aside form musicians and composers, people who exhibit this intelligence are those who consciously or unconsciously make sounds like tapping the table or their feet.

Spatial Intelligence

Visually stimulated individuals are examples of those who manifest this intelligence. They are able to identify spatial information and transform or remember such information and recreate those images. Architects, engineers, sculptors depend greatly on this intelligence. Individuals who appreciate lectures with visual aids because they understand more from seeing graphs and charts can be included in this group.

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence

This intelligence utilizes a part or the whole body to create an output or solve a certain problem. Individuals who rely greatly on the coordination of their body parts manifest this intelligence. This includes athletes, dancers, surgeons, dentists and crafts people. Students who appreciate school projects and gym classes rather than the classroom setting are also examples.

Intrapersonal Intelligence

These are individuals who are in tuned with their inner selves. This is manifested in the way a person realizes his own feelings, emotions, strengths, weaknesses and dreams and utilizes this information in making decisions about their lives. Although it is hard to pinpoint exact examples of individuals who exhibit this intelligence, there are researches that there are individuals who know their selves better than other. They know how to capitalize on their strengths, recognize their weakness and are more careful on the decisions they make.

Interpersonal Intelligence

This intelligence allows individuals to relate well with other peoples’ feelings and emotions. They are usually called “people persons”. They know how to talk and relay their intentions in a way that would make the other person relate to what they are saying. Good speakers such as politicians, teachers, salespeople, psychologists and some parents manifest this kind of intelligence.

Naturalists Intelligence

This intelligence is manifested in farmers, botanists, biologists, geologists and any other profession that has something to do with the environment around them. They can distinguish and use the different features of nature to their advantage. They are also very keen on the details of their surroundings.

Strengths, advantages and benefits of the theory

Gardner’s theory opposed the generally accepted fact that there is but one kind of intelligence and that this can be measured by scholastic standardized IQ tests. The time before his theory, people were ranked on the basis of their smartness with these tests. His theory opened up a whole new area for exploring the human process of learning. It can be said that his theory proves to have certain strengths and benefits to the education community.

Neurobiological basis

In Morris’ article on the theoretical basis of Gardner’s theory, in the 1960’s Roger Sperry of Caltech University proposed the left-brain/right-brain model of thinking. It states that the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain is responsible for the verbal, logical or analytical processes of the brain. While the right cerebral hemisphere deals with the artistic and sensible side of the human nature. In recent studies it was discovered that the brain, aside from the dichotomy of the left and right hemisphere, have other parts that corresponds to other capabilities of human beings. This became a basis for Gardner’s theory that the brain can accommodate and develop multiple intelligences and not just the linguistic and logical part that have been always emphasized.

Recognition from educators

The multiple intelligence theory was readily accepted by most of the educators around the world. The theory affirms the fact that students are smart in different ways. Students think and learn differently from one another. And those parents of students with low aptitude in language or other subjects need not to worry because those students may excel in a different kind of intelligence. The theory also helps in boosting the self-esteem of students who seems slow in the traditional classroom setting. Educators were able to re-conceptualize their way of teaching, the curriculum and assessment of the learner’s development.

Resulted to new ways of teaching and assessment

Standard tests usually include just the language and mathematical assessment of the students. They are tested on how well they can read, memorize dates in history, spell, count and add up numbers. The advent of this theory brought forth the development of new curriculum, approaches and manner of assessment that might better cater to the needs of different students. School projects were considered for those who are more adept in building models, posters and dioramas. Educational field trips encouraged teachers to let the students experience the lessons in real life rather than just reading these from textbooks.

As for the assessment of how well the learners are progressing, Gardner gives a few suggestions. According to him, “the purpose of assessment should be to obtain information about the skills and potentials of individuals, and provide useful feedback to the individuals and the community at large”. Assessment should determine the capability of an individual in actual performance rather than substitute kind in the form of tests which eliminated the contextual experience of the situation.

For example, rather than naming the parts of a drawn microscope, students could benefit more in having an actual microscope in front of them as they label their parts. Teachers could also ask students to deconstruct the microscope and build it up again. This kind of assessment veers away from traditionally just memorizing the parts and purpose rather than knowing how to really operate a microscope. Gardner also states that assessment and intervention should be sensitive to the differences of each individual and their own developmental levels.

Criticism, flaws and issues regarding the theory

Just as the theory has its followers, there are also those who oppose and scrutinize the theory of multiple intelligences. Most came from psychologists and some are even educators too. Criticisms, flaws and issues were thrown at Gardner. He was able to answer back to some of them but there are still persistent critics that just wouldn’t wholly accept this theory.

Theory or just a bunch of opinion

Other psychologists believe that Gardner’s theory is more of a result of his own intuition rather than based on empirical research. His set of criteria, for example, is questioned for its relevance, application and involvement with the symbol systems. (Smith, 2002) Basically, they are questioning the lack of concrete evidences for the formulation of this theory.

Intelligences or plain talents

There are some who argues that some of the multiple intelligences can be passed of as just talents and not a specific cognitive construct. Sternberg, as cited by Morris, calls the theory “a theory of talents, not of intelligences”. He also questions why Gardner include some of the human abilities as intelligence while disregarding other human abilities. For example, musical and bodily-kinesthetic are more of human talents or skills that don’t normally need to adapt to life’s demand.

The personal intelligences, namely interpersonal and intrapersonal, can be viewed as just skills. There is no specific way to measure one’s aptitude in interpersonal and intrapersonal aspect. These two seems to be more of the functions of one’s intuition about other’s or one’s own feeling and emotions. Gilman (2001) cites Sternberg in her paper when he said that the naturalistic intelligence is a “psychometric nightmare”. Measuring performance and assessment is hard to acquire, objectivity is a bit questionable and there’s still the problem of cultural bias.

Incompatibility with the general intelligence

There were other theorists that have their own version or take on the multiple intelligences. Raymond Cattel and John Horn categorized two kinds of intelligences which they call Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence. Gardner strongly believes against the notion of general intelligence as the single measure of a person’s intellect. His theory was indeed beneficial to schools and teachers who cannot explain why there are students who simply cannot do well in the classroom. But some educators feel that the general intelligence or g should not altogether be dismissed. His rejection of the existence of the general intelligence is one of the main criticisms of the theory and brought up a lot of issues.


Gardner (1998) claims that the Multiple Intelligence theory be thought of more as a tool rather than an educational goal. The eight kinds of intelligences are not to be viewed as something to be taught simultaneously. It is just an explanation that answers why individuals have their own fortes in life. Gardner’s theory encourages people to find ways of how they can view the world and contribute to society in their own strength. Just as his theory has strengths, it can’t be avoided that it would receive just as much scrutiny. His theory also has weak points that raised questions about the theory’s validity. But there is always room for improvement and future researches would most likely answer or dispute all these issues.

Annotated Reference List:
Gardner, H. (1998). A Multiplicity of Intelligences: In tribute to Professor Luigi Vignolo. Scientific American
This paper is authored by Howard Gardner himself where he discussed how he formulated the theory. He also addressed some of the issues surrounding the theory as well as gave a few suggestions on how to utilize the theory.

Gilman, L. (2001, Fall). The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Human Intelligence. Retrieved January 19, 2007 from
This site includes biographical profiles of people who have influenced the development of intelligence theory and testing, in-depth articles exploring current controversies related to human intelligence, and resources for teachers.

Morris, C. (2002). Some Critiques of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory. Retrieved January 19, 2007 from
This article compiled and summarized most of the issues and criticisms that Gardner’s Theory received from various psychologists, educators and theorists.

Morris, C. (n.d.). Howard Gardner’s Theoretical Basis for his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Retrieved January 19, 2007 from
This article discusses the eight criteria Gardner proposes as his basis for formulating the Multiple Intelligences Theory. It has a comprehensive explanation of each of the criteria.

Shafer, B. (n.d.). Multiple Intelligence Overview. Illinois Loop. Retrieved January 19, 2007 from
This article is a brief synopsis of the theory. It explains the theory in a nutshell, including some of the concerns surrounding the theory.
Smith, M. K. (2002). Howard Gardner and the multiple intelligences. The encyclopedia of Informal Education. Retrieved January 19, 2007 from
Infed is an open, independent and non-profit site put together by a small group of educators. This article discusses in detail Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory and including its appeal as well as issues and problems of the theory.

Veenema, S., Hetland, L., & Chalfen, K. (Eds.). (1997). Multiple Intelligences: The Research Perspective, A Brief Overview of the Theory. The Project Zero Approaches to Thinking and Understanding. Harvard Graduate School of Education and Project Zero.
This paper is from Project Zero, a research team concerning multiple intelligences which Gardner is part of. It is a brief and easy to read overview of the theory.

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