Theory of Multiple Intelligences

“Of course, I cannot claim exclusive ownership of the concept of multiple intelligences, although I assume responsibility for having developed the idea. ”

Howard Gardner 

Intelligence Reframed (p.66)


What is the Theory of MI?

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences is a critique of the standard psychological view of intellect: there is a single intelligence, adequately measured by IQ or other short answer tests. Instead, on the basis of evidence from disparate sources, the theory claims that human beings have a number of relatively discrete intellectual capacities. IQ tests assess linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, and sometimes spatial intelligence; and they are a reasonably good predictor of who will do well in a 20th (note: Not necessarily a 21st) century secular school. Humans, however, have several other significant intellectual capacities.

Intelligences can be analogized to computers. Belief in a singular intelligence implies that humans possess a single general purpose computer, which can perform well (high IQ), average (normal IQ) or poorly (low IQ). Multiple intelligences theory implies that human beings possess several relatively independent computers; strength in one computer does not predict strength (or weakness) with other computers.

Sensitivity to the meaning of words, the order among words, and the sound, rhythms, inflections, and meter of words (e.g. poet). (Sometimes called language intelligence.)


The capacity to conceptualize the logical relations among actions or symbols (e.g. mathematicians, scientists). 


The ability to conceptualize and manipulate large-scale spatial arrays (e.g. airplane pilot, sailor), or more local forms of space (e.g. architect, chess player).


Sensitivity to rhythm, pitch, meter, tone, melody and timbre. May entail the ability to sing, play musical instruments, and/or compose music (e.g. musical conductor).


The ability to use one’s whole body, or parts of the body (like the hands or the mouth), to solve problems or create products (e.g. dancer).


The ability to interact effectively with others. Sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations (a negotiator, sometimes called social intelligence.)


Sensitivity to one’s own feelings, goals, and anxieties, and the capacity to plan and act in light of one’s own traits. 


The ability to make consequential distinctions in the world of nature as, for example, between one plant and another, or one cloud formation and another (a taxonomist, sometimes called nature intelligence.)


How and when did MI Theory develop?

Howard Gardner developed MI theory in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In doing so, he drew on evidence from a wide variety of sources, disciplines, and research tradition. He presented the theory for the first time in 1983, in the book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (New edition, 2011).

Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He also holds positions as Adjunct Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero. Among numerous honors, Gardner received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship in 1981. He has received honorary degrees from twenty-nine colleges and universities, including institutions in Bulgaria, Chile, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, South Korea and Spain. In 2005 and again in 2008, he was selected by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of the 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world. Most recently, Gardner received the 2011 Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences. The author of twenty-eight books translated into thirty-two languages, and several hundred articles, Gardner is universally known as the father of Multiple Intelligences.

What are the implications of MI?

There are two principal scientific implications of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences:

1) The intelligences constitute the human intellectual toolkit. Unless grossly impaired, all human beings possess the capacity to develop the several intelligences. At any one moment, a human being will have a unique profile, because of both genetic (heritability) and experiential factors.

2) Each human being has a distinct intellectual profile. Identical twins will certainly have similar cognitive profiles. But the profiles will not be identical; even though the genetic constitution is the same. Identical twins have different experiences (even in utero!) and once born, each may be motivated to distinguish himself from his genetic clone.

There are also two chief educational implications of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences:

1) Individuation (also termed personalization) – Since each human being has her own unique configuration of intelligences, we should take that into account when teaching, mentoring or nurturing. As much as possible, we should teach individuals in ways that they can learn. And we should assess them in a way that allows them to show what they have understood and to apply their knowledge and skills in unfamiliar contexts.

2) Pluralization – Ideas, concepts, theories, skills should be taught in several different ways. Whether one is teaching the arts, sciences, history, or math, the seminal ideas should be presented in multiple ways. If you can present the art works of Michelangelo, or the laws of supply and demand, or the Pythagorean Theorem in several ways, you achieve two important goals. First of all, you reach more students, because some students learn best from reading, some from building something, some from acting out a story, etc. Second, you show what it is like to be an expert—to understand something fully, you should be able to think of it in several ways.



What qualifies a cognitive capacity as an “intelligence”?

Gardner posited that in order for a cognitive capacity to qualify as an independent “intelligence” (rather than as a subskill or a combination of other kinds of intelligence), it must meet eight specific criteria. First, it must be possible to thoroughly symbolize that capacity by using a specific notation that conveys its essential meaning. Second, neurological evidence must exist that some area of the brain is specialized to control that particular capacity. Third, case studies must exist that show that some subgroups of people (such as child prodigies) exhibit an elevated mastery of a given intelligence. Fourth, the intelligence must have some evolutionary relevance through history and across cultures. Fifth, the capacity must have a unique developmental history for each individual, reflecting each person’s different level of mastery of it. Sixth, the intelligence must be measurable in psychometric studies that are reflective of differing levels of mastery across intelligences. Seventh, the intelligence must have some definite set of core operations that are indicative of its use. Last, the proposed intelligence must be already plausible on the basis of existing means of measuring intelligence.

About Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is also an adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior director of Harvard Project Zero. Among numerous honors, Gardner received a MacArthur Prize Fellowship and a Fellowship from the John S. Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 1981 and 2000, respectively. In 1990, he was the first American to receive the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Award in Education. In recognition of his contributions to both academic theory and public policy, he has received honorary degrees from thirty-one colleges and universities, including institutions in Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, South Korea, and Spain. He has twice been selected by Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines as one of 100 most influential public intellectuals in the world. In 2011, Gardner received the Prince of Asturias Award for Social Sciences, and in 2015, he was chosen as the recipient of the Brock International Prize in Education. He has been elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Education, and the London-based Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. He serves on a number of boards, including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the American Philosophical Society.

The author of thirty books translated into thirty-two languages, and several hundred articles, Gardner is best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, a critique of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard psychometric instruments (please see Since the middle 1990s, Gardner has directed The Good Project, a group of initiatives, founded in collaboration with psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, that promotes excellence, engagement, and ethics in education, preparing students to become good workers and good citizens who contribute to the overall well-being of society. Through research-based concepts, frameworks, and resources, the Project seeks to help students reflect upon the ethical dilemmas that arise in everyday life and give them the tools to make thoughtful decisions.

His newest research undertaking is a large-scale national study documenting how different groups think about the goals of college and the value of a course of study emphasizing liberal arts and sciences. The study seeks to understand how the chief constituencies of campuses—incoming students, graduating students, faculty, senior administrators, parents, alumni/ae, trustees and job recruiters—think about these changes and how they may impact the college experience in our time. Ultimately, the study aims to provide valuable suggestions of how best to provide quality, non-professional higher education in the 21st century.