Virginia Commonwealth University
September 21, 2010
Bookmark and Share

Laura C. Peters, M.A.

In the 1985 movie “The Breakfast Club,” five very different students spend a day in Saturday detention. These students — “a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal” — find out that they all have different talents and strengths and that each of them has something valuable to contribute to the group (Hughes, 1985). All of us have had students who show different strengths, like the characters in this movie, and good teachers have found ways to let each of these students shine, based on their natural abilities. This is the hallmark of using the multiple intelligences theory in the classroom.

Elementary school children

Students bring varied talents into the classroom and teachers can build tasks into each lesson that allow students to interact with content in ways that fit their learning styles and strengths.

What is the MI theory?

Howard Gardner first published his MI theory in 1983, suggesting that intelligence is not a single, static IQ number, but rather a dynamic collection of skills and talents that are manifested differently in different people (Gardner, 1983). The nine main types of intelligences are indicated in Figure 1. When teachers recognize that students bring varied talents into the classroom, they can help students find success by allowing them to use their natural intelligences. Teachers can find ways to build tasks into each lesson that allow students to interact with the content in ways that fit their learning styles and strengths.

Figure 1: Types of intelligences

Verbal-linguistic intelligence – Well-developed verbal skills and sensitivity to the sounds, meanings and rhythms of words

Mathematical-logical intelligence – Ability to think conceptually and abstractly and capacity to discern logical or numerical patterns

Musical intelligence – Ability to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch and timbre

Visual-spatial intelligence – Capacity to think in images and pictures and to visualize accurately and abstractly

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence – Ability to control one’s body movements and to handle objects skillfully

Interpersonal intelligence – Capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations and desires of others

Intrapersonal intelligence – Capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes

Naturalist intelligence – Ability to recognize and categorize plants, animals and other objects in nature

Existential intelligence – Sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence, such as the meaning of life, why do we die and how did we get here

Source: Concept to Classroom (2004).

How can MI be used to support students?

Supporting students both behaviorally and academically begins with meeting their needs. By developing lessons that draw on a variety of different intelligences, teachers can hope to better meet the needs of many more students than through one method alone. Think of this: If you were asked to do a task that was interesting and that you had confidence you could complete successfully, how might you approach it? What kind of attitude do you expect you’d have toward the task? You would probably feel pretty good about getting started and you most likely would be able to work until completion without incident. Now, think of being asked to do a task that you had little hope of completing, given your skills and talents. Would you approach it with the same enthusiasm? Would you be able to stick with the task without distraction? Most people would answer these questions, “probably not.” Think about how many students are faced with the second scenario on a daily basis. It must be very frustrating and is likely the cause of many of the behavior problems we see in schools.

We can illustrate the successful use of MI in the classroom by going back to “The Breakfast Club” characters. In the movie, the characters were asked to write an essay explaining who they think they are (Hughes, 1985). This task uses the strengths of verbal-linguistic intelligence and is something that Brian, “the brain,” is comfortable tackling. However, the other four students are not remotely interested in completing this assignment and the group spends the day off task, vandalizing school property and participating in several questionable behaviors. What if each student was to complete the assignment in a different way? Claire, “the princess,” would likely enjoy the essay if she could do a video essay of interviews with her fellow classmates. This activity would use her interpersonal intelligence, which has also allowed her to be successful in social clubs and popular with her peers. Andy, “the athlete,” might be able to express his sense of self by giving a demonstration of how he is able to defeat an opponent in wrestling. He could explain how he uses strategy and specific moves that he can perfect due to his bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to be the champion he is. Allison, “the basket case,” demonstrates visual-spatial intelligence, so she might feel more motivated to show who she thinks she is by producing a work of art. Finally, Bender, “the criminal,” also demonstrates verbal-linguistic intelligence and interpersonal intelligence, but he is a student who might need a bit more motivation to complete the task. His teacher might ask him to give a speech on who he thinks he is not, allowing him to use his verbal strength and also maintain his need to be different. These examples would likely spark greater interest in the students and might have kept them focused on the given task.

Of course, it is unrealistic to think that every teacher can individualize every lesson for every student. In a typical class, there will be several students who demonstrate strengths in each of the areas of intelligence, so allowing students to work in cooperative learning groups, either mixing different intelligence types or clustering them, depending on the assignments, may be a successful strategy for teachers. Another option might be to offer two to five choices of activities students can do to demonstrate their mastery of the content. This would allow teachers less time for preparation and grading assignments, but would still allow students to tackle their work using their natural skills. Finally, teachers can develop lessons that incorporate several different strategies, allowing students to gain some comfort with the work at different stages of the class activity. Most people have strengths in several different areas of intelligence, so they will be able to feel successful using a variety of strategies. While thinking about differentiating lessons in these ways may feel like additional work for teachers, the alternative may cause more work over time. By allowing students to successfully show what they know, teachers can avoid classroom disruption and minimize reteaching, creating a more productive classroom environment for all.

What resources are available to help with using MI in the classroom?

Because MI theory has gained so much support in the field of education (Almeida, et al., 2010; Koong & Wu, 2010; McCoog, 2010; Shearer, 2009; Shearer & Luzzo, 2009; Small Roseboro, 2010), there are many print and online resources designed to help teachers use MI in the classroom, such as the following:

This is just a small sampling of sites. For teachers who are interested in using MI in their classrooms, spending some time searching for lesson plans, MI inventories or quizzes, and other reading may be a good place to start. At the very least, finding ways to encourage students to use their natural intelligences will make lessons more productive, students more successful and the classroom a more positive environment for everyone.


Almeida, L.S., Prieto, M.D., Ferreira, A.I., Bermejo, M.R., Ferrando, M., and Ferrandiz, C. (2010). Intelligence assessment: Gardner multiple intelligence theory as an alternative. Learning and Individual Differences, 20(3), 225-230. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2009.12.010.

Concept to Classroom Workshop: Tapping into multiple intelligences. Retrieved July 2, 2010, from

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.

Hughes, J. & Tanen, N. (1985). The Breakfast Club [Motion picture]. Universal City, CA: MCA Universal Pictures.

Koong, C., and Wu, C. (2010). An interactive item sharing website for creating and conducting on-line testing. Computers & Education, 55(1), 135-144. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2009.12.010.

McCoog, I.U. (2010). The existential learner. Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 83(4), 126-128. doi: 10.1080/00098651003774828.

Shearer, Branton (Ed.). (2009). MI at 25: Assessing the impact and future of multiple intelligences for teaching and learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

Shearer, C.B., and Luzzo, D.A. (2009). Exploring the application of multiple intelligences theory to career counseling. Career Development Quarterly, 58(1), 3-13.

Small Roseboro, A.J. (2010). Teaching middle school language arts: Incorporating twenty-first century literacies. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Rowman & Littlefield Education.



booksT/TAC Library