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Steven R. Van Hook

Learning Theory in a Nutshell
A few intelligence theories worth pondering.
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 by Steven R. Van Hook, PhD

Steven R. Van Hook, PhDHoward Gardner’s germinal work Frames of Mind (1983) identified seven fundamental intelligences, or ways that students may approach new learning: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and the two personal intelligences (internal and intrapersonal). 

Gardner proposed these intelligences are the keys to presenting new information to students in a resonant learning process. "One might go so far as to define a human intelligence as a neural mechanism or computational system which is genetically programmed to be activated or ‘triggered’ by certain kinds of internally or externally present information" (p. 64).

Of Gardner’s proposed seven realms of human intelligence, he noted the first two, linguistic and logical-mathematical—"are the ones that have been typically valued in school" (Gardner, 1999, pp. 41). Gardner’s realms of intelligence may be further examined:

Linguistic intelligence involves sensitivity to spoken and written language, the ability to learn languages, and the capacity to use language to accomplish certain goals. Lawyers, speakers, writers, poets are among the people with high linguistic intelligence.

Logical-mathematical intelligence involves the capacity to analyze problems logically, carry out mathematical operations, and investigate issues scientifically. Mathematicians, logicians, and scientists exploit logical mathematical intelligence. Musical intelligence entails skill in the performance, composition, and appreciation of musical patterns. 

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence entails the potential of using one’s whole body or parts of the body (like the hand or the mouth) to solve problems or fashion products. Obviously, dancers, actors, and athletes foreground bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. However, this form of intelligence is also important for craftspersons, surgeons, bench-top scientists, mechanics, and other technically oriented professionals.

Spatial intelligence features the potential to recognize and manipulate the patterns of wide space (those used, for example, by navigators and pilots) as well as the patterns for more confined areas (such as those of importance to sculptors, surgeons, chess players, graphic artists, or architects). 

Interpersonal intelligence denotes a person’s capacity to understand the intentions, motivations, and desires of other people, and consequently, to work effectively with others. Salespeople, teachers, clinicians, religions leaders, political leaders, and actors all need acute interpersonal intelligence. … Intrapersonal intelligence involves the capacity to understand oneself, to have an effective working model of oneself—including one’s own desires, fears, and capacities—and to use such information effectively in regulating one’s one life. (Gardner, 1999, pp. 41-43)

Gardner later considered the evidence for new "candidate intelligences" including a naturalist intelligence, a spiritual intelligence, and an existential intelligence (Gardner, 1999). He stretched the consideration of various intelligences to the point of posing the question, is there a moral intelligence? 

Finally, Gardner concluded, the definition of intelligence could only be applied to limited explanations of human understanding and behavior, and ultimately morality "is fundamentally a statement about the kind of person that one is, or, more properly, about the kind of person that one has developed to be. It is not, in itself, an intelligence" (p. 77).

By addressing the intellectual strengths of various students, Gardner proposed the process of education might be better tailored to meet the diverse needs and learning styles of students in a course. This indeed is the central tenet of Gardner’s work.

One could take the position that everyone should study the same thing in the same way and be assessed in the same way. The standard view of intelligence leads readily, perhaps ineluctably, to that educational course. Yet, if there is validity to the idea of multiple intelligences—if individuals indeed have different kinds of minds, with varied strengths, interests, and strategies—then it is worth considering whether pivotal curricular materials could be taught and assessed in variety of ways. (Gardner, 1999, p. 167)

Aspiring practitioners may find one of the problems in addressing and teaching to multiple intelligences is in assessment, especially given the infinite array of mixtures along the continua of the seven circumscribed intelligences. Gardner (1999) agreed the assessments are problematic and often impractical, given the intensive observation necessary for validity, as well as the mercurial nature of intelligence as an individual develops.

"If I were asked to assess someone’s intelligences, I would not be satisfied until I had observed him solving problems and fashioning products in a number of settings. … And even then, I would have no guarantee that the intelligences profile would remain the same a year or two later." (Gardner, 1999, p. 139)

Gardner’s (1999) multiple intelligence theory stipulated neither what to teach nor how to teach it to meet the needs of diverse student intelligences. It is left up to individual instructors and curricula to determine how the theory may be applied in classroom settings, though Gardner suggested that "one could teach English literature or the theory of mechanics by using a number of different lesson plans or by giving students software the draws on their various intelligences" (p. 144). Apart from Gardner’s theory of intelligences, schools have long recognized various learning abilities and interests and have taught to them, as may be reflected in elective courses ranging from art, music, math, science, shop, theater, dance, philosophy, literature, and so on.

Given the sweeping nature of Gardner’s theory, it is based on some surprisingly simplistic assumptions. Gardner reduced them to a "ringing endorsement of three key propositions," including, we are not all the same; we do not all have the same kinds of minds that operate as distinct points on a bell curve; and education works best if these differences are addressed rather than ignored. 

This "suggests that any uniform educational approach is likely to serve only a small percentage of children optimally" (p. 91). Sincerely dedicated teachers may be tempted to respond, "Duh!" Educators likely understand that effective learning involves a variety of tools and teaching styles, yet given the limitations of larger class sizes, funding reductions, and imposed standards, a commitment to multiple intelligence practices may prove an unpractical goal. 

Gardner may have further overstated his case by expressing the dangers multiple intelligence training might pose, if we were to harness its powers for nefarious ends. "We have eliminated small pox and polio, and we stand on the verge of eliminating biological warfare and land mines. Perhaps we can also agree not to manipulate the intellectual capacities of future generations" (p. 227). Such hubris comparing the powers of multiple intelligence theory to the eradication of small pox gives one pause.

Perhaps a more constrained and applicable theory may be Daniel Goleman’s (1995) concept of multiple intelligences. Goleman proposed that even at its best, a person’s IQ contributes only some 20 percent of the factors that determine life success, leaving 80 percent of the success equation to other forces. 

Those other forces Goleman deemed as emotional intelligence, encompassing such abilities such as "being able to motivate oneself and persist in the face of frustrations; to control impulse and delay gratification; to regulate one’s moods and keep distress from swamping the ability to think; to empathize and to hope" (p. 34). Goleman provided a bullet-list of emotional skills contributing to a successful life:

• Identifying and labeling feelings
• Expressing feelings
• Assessing the intensity of feelings
• Managing feelings
• Delaying gratification
• Controlling impulses
• Reducing stress
• Knowing the difference between feelings and actions (p. 301)

By developing emotional intelligence, on may not only improve her or his own chances for success, but may influence the success of classmates and colleagues as well. Goleman (19995) considered that emotions might be contagious, "a part of a tacit exchange that happens in every encounter. We transmit and catch moods from each other in what amounts to a subterranean economy of the psyche in which some encounters are toxic, some nourishing" (p. 115). 

These emotional exchanges may occur in imperceptible ways, but nonetheless have profound impact on our outlook and attitudes. "The way a salesperson says thank you can leave us feeling ignored, resented, or genuinely welcomed and appreciated. We catch feelings from one another as though they were some kind of social virus" (p. 115).


Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

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

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Steven R. Van Hook has been an educator for colleges and 
universities in the United States and abroad for more than a 
decade, teaching in traditional, online, and hybrid classrooms, 
and developing more than a dozen different courses.  

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