Early cognitive development work by Galton, Spearman, and Thurston suggested that at any one time, a child’s knowledge is bound as a single structured whole. Intelligence in this context is a single, inherited entity, easily measured by IQ tests and other psychometric tests.

An alternative view, expressed by Howard Gardner (1983), proposes that intelligence is actually constructed from a range of complementary intelligences, or ‘frames of mind’. These intelligences, according to Gardner, rarely operate independently, but rather operate at the same time, complementing each other as people attempt to solve problems.
Gardner originally formulated seven intelligences, with an eighth added later on:

  1. Linguistic Intelligence: a sensitivity to written/spoken language. Typically writers, poets, lawyers and public speakers would be towards the top end of the linguistic intelligence scale, skilled in the use of language to both remember information and for expressing themselves.
  2. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence: associated with scientific/mathematical thinking. People with high logical-mathematical intelligence are able to detect patterns, reason deductively, and analyse problems logically.
  3. Musical Intelligence: indicated by skill in performing, composing, and appreciating musical patterns. This intelligence is structurally very similar to linguistic intelligence.
  4. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence: Skill in using mental abilities to co-ordinate bodily movements and using the body and movement to help solve problems.
  5. Spatial Intelligence: The potential to recognise and utilise patterns of wide space and confined space in problem solving situations.
  6. Interpersonal Intelligence: Sensitivity towards the intentions, motivations, and desires of other people which allows successful collaboration with others to solve problems.
  7. Intrapersonal Intelligence: The capacity for developing an understanding of one’s own feelings, fears, and motivations and incorporating these into a working model of oneself. People with a high intrapersonal intelligence tend to prefer working alone on problem-solving.
  8. Naturalist Intelligence: Ability, when problem solving, to categorise and then draw upon features of the environment.

A common interpretation of multiple intelligences is that a person is, for example, logical-mathematical or musical or spatial, in terms of their intelligence. However, the correct interpretation should be that everyone posses each intelligence to a greater or lesser degree. It is easiest to imagine a separate scale for each intelligence, and that each individual is placed somewhere on that scale. It may be that any individual could be towards the top end of three, four, or five of the intelligences, or it may be that one intelligence is dominant in that individual.
Therefore, when somebody is described as ‘a bodily-kinesthetic learner’, that does not mean that the other intelligences are not applicable to them. It simply means that their preferred mechanism for solving problems, and learning, is through a bodily-kinesthetic approach.

The theory is intuitively very appealing, and although it has received much academic criticism, it has been embraced by a range of educationalists and applied in school settings, particularly in the US. In the UK there is also a growing trend for schools to develop classrooms designed around multiple intelligences, providing multi-sensory approaches to teaching, both in mainstream and special school settings, particularly where pupils present with significant autism, challenging, or unusual behaviour.

A consideration of this theory may prove very powerful in educational settings. Some very simple changes to classrooms and lessons can yield dramatic improvements in behaviour, attention, engagement, and learning in the classroom.