Letters from Miss Jill: Multiple Intelligences

By Jill Carstens

Have you ever noticed how some people in your family or friend group might be the go-to for technical type problems while others might be the person you talk to for advice about interpersonal conflicts? In general, we often label these skills by referring to a person being “right-brained” or “left-brained.”

jill carstens

I stumbled upon the term “multiple intelligences” (MI) when I was a young teacher and embraced it as I strived to create curricula that were inclusive to all types of learners in my classroom. Howard Gardner, who developed this theory in the late 1970s and ’80s, took the “right brain/left brain” idea to a much more substantial level that helps to validate learners for whom auditory learning just doesn’t cut it.

As of 1999, Gardner established a list of eight types of learning modes, or “intelligences.” They are: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence. Lecture-type teaching, i.e., auditory learning, remains the norm in most of our classrooms, but what if you are a kinesthetic learner? This would mean that you need to manipulate concrete materials in order to understand ideas.

Most preschoolers are kinesthetic by nature as they move through their early years in motion. Understanding how children, if not adults, learn best can help us support them and provide environments that encourage learning in different ways. Additionally, understanding an individual’s different intelligences can also help keep home life running smoothly.

According to a 2017 Harvard paper by Katie Davis, “conceiving of intelligence as multiple rather than unitary in nature, the theory of multiple intelligences, or MI theory, represents a departure from traditional conceptions of intelligence first formulated in the early 20th century, measured today by IQ tests, and studied in great detail by cognitively oriented psychologists.”

One of the reasons I have enjoyed learning about MI, and as the Harvard paper asserts, is that rather than continuing to look at intelligence as a have or have-not status progressing from birth, MI opens the door to us all having the potential to develop skills that are innate to us that can be nurtured as we make our way into the world; “a combination of heritable potentials and skills that can be developed in diverse ways through relevant experiences,” continues Davis. I have saved all the journals from my teaching career and found the ones where MI was influencing my methods. Finding ways to reach all the children often came in the form of finding out their hobbies and interests.

Capitalizing on that, I developed a curriculum based on those interests, and the children began to adopt some of each other’s interests as they interacted each day. This effect helped many children to take on the skills of new intelligences as they were exposed to different activities and ideas. As we honored all the different ways of learning in our classroom, all of the intelligences, students had the opportunity to appropriate new knowledge through a personal context, through their best intelligences.

This bleeds into the idea of constructivist theory where we “allow” children to be part of building their own smarts. One way or the other, if we strive to present information and the acquisition of knowledge in a wide variety of formats, not just auditorily, we give children the opportunity to develop a much richer intelligence as well as offer them the chance to develop numerous ways of learning rather than just one.

Additionally, we don’t want to pigeonhole our kids. Just because they may be brilliant at math or tennis does not mean that we inundate them with math workbooks or insist they play tennis every available moment. With the awareness of MI, we can honor that dominant intelligence, yet nurture others to help a child become well-rounded in their knowledge. I had a preschool student who was literally obsessed with insects. His very well-intentioned mom immersed him with toys, books and videos that supported this obsession.

However, at school, this was the only thing the child wanted to do or talk about. So I went about adding provocations to this child’s preschool routine. How about we construct a “bug house” in the blocks or learn about other animals and plants that have relationships with bugs.

I wanted to help this child use the bug obsession, perhaps an early proclivity to a naturalist intelligence, to broaden his learning. And it worked! He began engaging in a greater variety of activities at school as well as interacting more with his peers.

Discovering a particular person’s dominant intelligence can be incredibly gratifying and validating, especially in a world where the traditional definitions of intelligence still dominate. Using the theory of MI we can embrace our particular, individualized skills and talents in order to find our own unique places in the world and hopefully choose vocations where they can be used to their advantage. MI allows us all to have a valid skill and focuses on individual strengths that we can in turn share. E

mbracing all of the diverse ways that people present themselves in their best intelligences are, I believe, great ways to include everyone, harness multiple ways of approaching problems and keep our perspectives fresh.

Jill Carstens taught for 30 years and now enjoys writing for this publication! You can view more of her writing on Instagram @lettersfrommissjill. Email her with comments or story ideas at jill@denvernorthstar.com.


1 Comment

  1. I have always known MI as “Motivational interviewing” what a super power it would be… Combining my MI & your MI
    = MI²
    Go Jill!

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