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MI Theory: An Understanding Beyond Intelligence

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    MI Theory: An Understanding Beyond Intelligence

    If Michael Phelps lived in the 1700s, he would probably not be as famous as he is now. If Michael Jordan did discover and develop his basketball skills, he could possibly be stuck at an office job not really knowing that he’s great at something.  Similarly, if the only basis for intelligence is how skilled you are at kicking a football, then Sigmund Freud and Bill Gates might be considered as underachievers. But all these people have thrived in very different fields, and they have gained recognition for their work. One is not considered to be greater than the other, because they excel in totally different areas. Have these individuals lived a hundred or two hundred years ago, they might not be as well-respected as they are now. But they are, because we live in a world that celebrates different kinds of talents, different kinds of intelligences.

    I.                   The Theory of Multiple Intelligence

    The theory of Multiple Intelligence (MI) was first coined in 1983. It presented the idea that intelligence is not limited to its traditional definition, but rather covers a broader scope of human intelligence. This theory argues that intelligence, as it is traditionally defined, does not cover the wide variety of abilities that humans display (Kumbar, 2006). For instance, a person who might be excellent in  Science should not necessarily be considered superior to a person who does poorly in the subject. The latter could perhaps be a better sportsman compared to the former, meaning his skills or expertise relies more on another area. The idea is that each individual has a unique cognitive profile, and the dominance of each intelligence varies among people.

    Rather than the traditional definition, the MI theory states that “intelligence” is best defined using a set of abilities, talents or mental skills called intelligences. The eight established intelligences are as follows:

    a)      Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence

    b)      Logico-Mathematical Intelligence

    c)      Musical Intelligence

    d)     Visual/Spatial Intelligence

    e)      Body/Kinesthetic Intelligence

    f)       Interpersonal Intelligence

    g)      Intrapersonal Intelligence

    h)      Naturalistic Intelligence

    Everyone has each of these skills to some extent, but every person differs in terms of degree or combination of these intelligences. Some individuals may be more skilled in linguistics, while others may enjoy a more spatial gift. The Naturalistic Intelligence was an extended theory, it was only added to the list in 1999.

    II.                The Proponent of the Theory

    Howard Gardner, the proponent if the MI Theory is an established psychologist and researcher. Growing up in Pennsylvania, his protective parents did not allow him to play outside, encouraging him to enjoy more indoor activities instead. This could have helped in making him a very talented pianist even at a young age. When he was already studying in Harvard, he was surprised that his field of study did not touch the arts at all. It seemed as if that his musical ability and his interest in the Social Sciences were mutually exclusive. Coming from an artistic and musical background, he wanted to continue this even as he is studying another field. This must have led him to start Project Zero, a still ongoing program that studies ways on how to improve creative and scientific abilities in students.

    The road towards his study/discovery of the MI theory began when he was reviewing a neurosurgery research paper done by another expert. That research showed that gifted individuals who experience strokes or some other forms of brain damage often come out of it with an altered ability. For instance, after brain surgery, a patient may lose his ability to write, but could still maintain his ability to read, count, and do significant numerical computations.   This gave Gardner the idea that different parts of the brain may be responsible for different cognitive functions. The accidents must have affected some of these areas. He published two books focusing on these ideas called Shattered Minds.

    In 1979, the Bernard Van Leer foundation gave a group of Harvard researchers a grant. Gardner was part of this group. Their mission was to do an elaborate research seeking to maximize the potential of the human mind. Gardner’s task for this research was to write a book compiling knowledge about human cognitive skills. He was greatly inspired by the research paper he had read about the changes in the abilities of gifted individuals that he used this as a premise for his book. He studied several cases of gifted people who have experienced some sort of brain damage. He broke down each case into what area of the brain was affected by the pathology and what change it has caused in that person’s skills. It was through this tedious effort that he and his younger colleagues were able to compartmentalize and map out the skills found in the human brain.

    In his paper, Gardner writes about the turning points in the process of writing his book:

    “I don’t remember when it happened but at a certain moment, I decided to call these faculties “multiple intelligences” rather than abilities or gifts. This seemingly minor lexical substitution proved very important; I am quite confident that if I had written a book called “Seven Talents” it would not have received the attention that Frames of Mind received. As my colleague David Feldman has pointed out, the selection of this word placed me in direct confrontation with the psychological establishment that cherishes IQ tests.

    A second crucial point was the creation of a definition of an intelligence and the

    identification of a set of criteria that define what is, and what is not, an intelligence. I can’t pretend that the criteria were all established a priori; rather, there was a constant fitting and refitting of what I was learning about human abilities with how best to delineate what ultimately became 8 criteria.” (Gardner, 2003)

     Gardner published his MI theory in the book Frames of Mind in 1983. It was not his first published work, but he felt that it generated a higher level of interest among readers. He was invited to a lot of talks and open forums. People wanted to know more about his theory.

    III.             Significance of the Multiple Intelligences Theory

    The years following the release of the book, the MI Theory has reached groundbreaking heights. The pressure to conform the traditional idea of “intelligent” was lessened and schools sought to be have a more individual-centered curriculum. Schools were adjusting their curriculum based on the theory.  A school in Indianapolis called the Key School is admittedly founded by a group of teachers seeking to practice a MI-centered curriculum.

    People were also changing the way they asses intelligence, as opposed to the traditional standardized I.Q tests. There were several assessment tests developed to determine which intelligence is more dominant in an individual. One of those attempts to create an MI assessment is called Project Spectrum, a collaboration of Gardner with David Feldman, Mara Krechevsky, Janet Stork, and others. The goal of Project Spectrum was to create measures by which one could gauge the intellectual profile of young children from pre-school to primary levels. This project resulted to fifteen separate tasks that assess the several intelligences in as natural a manner as possible. There have been more groups seeking to create standardized ways of gauging the multiple intelligences, although the gift usually just manifests itself.

    MI Theory has also led to several experiments and control groups done in actual classrooms. It has also been the subject of various experiments such as reassessing if library content of schools encourages multiple intelligences. Moreover, it has really led schools to create programs and activities geared towards improving interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic intelligences.

    Even today, studies and researches are being conducted in attempt to extend the theory. Some researchers are lobbying that there also exists spiritual Intelligence, sexual intelligence, and existential intelligence, among others. Studies are continually being done but Gardner still currently maintains his eight established intelligences (Gardner, 2003).

    IV.             Other Reactions

    As much as the MI theory has generated a lot of positive interest that led to school curriculum changes, there has also been some who have expressed disbelief in the theory. Perhaps the most popular critic would be educator and author J.R Delisle who was infamously quoted saying:

    “As a theory, MI is convenient . . . simple . . . and wrong. My biggest concern is how we serve gifted children. So many people have jumped on the bandwagon with the idea that ‘everyone is gifted at something’ that many gifted programs have been eliminated or watered down. Some people are under the illusion that the needs of gifted students can be met in a setting that allows multiple forms of expression. MI is a simplistic, wishful-thinking approach that seems like a good thing to people who are uncomfortable admitting that intellectual abilities are not equally distributed in American society.”

    Delisle was quickly labeled as an elitist in favor of gifted children because of this infamous comment. He doesn’t mind this label, as he is quick to insist that gifted children do have more complex needs, and they have to be met or risk wasting that gift.

    Although Delisle’s claims may have some truth in it, I believe the benefits of the MI theory far exceed the oversights it might have caused on some areas. As David Felman said, the greatest contribution of the theory is leading people to realize that intelligence is a “cultural decision as much as a scientific fact”. There have been several theories in the past defining intelligence as a multifaceted concept, but MI is the first to have support its arguments with a structured criteria and review of the scientific evidence (Walker, 2000).

    V.                Conclusion

    Twenty years after it has been discovered, the theory of MI still holds true for our lives. It has allowed us to have a more open view of what intelligence is, it has allowed us to celebrate unorthodox forms of greatness. This theory has allowed students to exercise various skill sets, instead of being just limited to conform to the boxed-in type of intelligence. The MI theory may have initially set out to redefine intelligence, but it has eventually led us to the increase a more tolerant and appreciative humanity.


    Gardner, Howard. “Multiple Intelligences after Twenty Years”. 2003. Retrieved on 20 November 2008, from

    Kumbar, Rashmi. “Application of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory for the Effective Use of Library Resources by K-2 Students: An Experimented Model” 2006. Retrieved on 20 November 2008, from

    Delise, James R. “In Praise of Elitism” Retrieved 20 November 2008, from

    Walker, Liz “Viewpoints on the Theory of Multiple Intelligences”. Duke Gifted Letter, 2000. Retrieved 20 November 2008 from


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