Reading Kingdom: How does understanding the different types of intelligences, verbal, logical, bodily, rhythmic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, naturalist, existential and visual help teachers tap into the real potential of their students?

In answering this important question, it’s useful to start with a bit of history. The concept of intelligence is such a powerful one in our society that it may come as a surprise to realize that intelligence testing is relatively recent. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that the first test was created. Its development was stimulated by laws in France that required all children to attend school. With universal education in place, the government wanted to find a way to identify children who would need specialized assistance (operationally, this meant identifying children who were deemed to be “mentally retarded”). So they asked the psychologist Alfred Binet to construct a test that would meet this goal.

Given the focus on school achievement, it is not unexpected that the test concentrated on cognitive activities linked to academic success (e.g., naming body parts, repeating back series of digits, constructing sentences that contained specific words and defining words, etc.). The test was effective in meeting the goals for which it was designed. At the same time, its concentration on a relatively narrow range of skills meant that it gave little or no consideration to many areas of thinking and learning that a person needs for effective life functioning.

One critical area, for example, has come to be known as social intelligence. It refers to the capacity to effectively negotiate complex social relationships and environments. Some psychologists believe that social intelligence, rather than quantitative intelligence, is the key to defining humans.

The expanding view of intelligence gained considerable attention through the work of Howard Gardner. In his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences– published in 1983, he identified eight intelligences: linguistic, logic-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.

Although his theory has been challenged for lacking solid evidence, Gardner and his supporters emphasize that it fits with empirical evidence. In other words, it makes “sense.” It is not unusual, for example, to find people with strong, even extraordinary, math abilities who are far from strong in other areas such as language.

Because of this pull, schools have been under pressure to broaden their focus to go beyond traditional curricula. For example, one of the most popular TED talks is one by Sir Ken Robinson titled How Schools Kill Creativity. Its message is that we must radically revamp our school systems so that in place of a one-size-fits all curriculum, we can offer programs that cultivate creativity and foster multiple types of intelligence.

The message has wide appeal. At the same time, it is important to recognize that it is not new. Over the years, specialized schools led by unusually talented people have appeared on the scene. Summerhill founded in 1921 represents one such example. It is an independent British boarding school created by Alexander Sutherland Neill and it has been guided by the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around.

The problem is that schools such as these owe their existence to visionaries. Widespread dissemination is a very different matter. At the present time, there are no set methods by which such dissemination can take place. Instead, there are what might best be thought of as “clusters” of suggestions. One involves a teacher-centered approach, in which the instructor incorporates materials, resources, and activities into the lesson that teach to the different intelligences. Another is a student-centered approach in which students actually create a variety of different materials that demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter. The student-centered approach allows students to actively use their varied forms of intelligence.

However, solid, systematic development of any of the different intelligences requires extremely well-designed curricula that reflect an in-depth understanding of what the various skills represent and how they might best be developed. These currently do not exist. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect teachers to pull together the resources that will enable them to reach and meet the individual needs of each student. The teachers require extensive support and training for this to happen. It is also unrealistic to expect the innate abilities of students to systematically guide instruction.

The idea of a richer, more varied curriculum is an exciting one and it would be wonderful if the society made a commitment to do what is needed to meet the individual talents of all students. As we learned from the program in the Kennedy administration that placed a man on the moon, ambitious goals are not only awe inspiring; they are also attainable. Hopefully, something similar will happen in the realm of education. Until it does, the concept of multiple intelligences will do little to change the nature of instruction.