Home All Multiple Intelligences and Mindsets: Positive Approaches to Education

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.

Frames of Mind


In 1993, then relatively unknown Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner published a book, Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences. This book and its 2000 sequel, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century  changed the way the world of education looks at intelligence.

Intelligence reframed


Gardner wasn’t alone in his professional world in deciding that IQ was not a single, relatively fixed entity but comprised of a set of abilities. However, his Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) resonated with all sorts of people who now saw themselves as having areas of relative intellectual strength rather than being some point on a bell-shaped curve where only a few people could be called “very superior.” While not necessarily a “positive psychologist” per se, Gardner is surely a “strengths psychologist.”

Multiple Intelligences: Identifying and Developing Your House Blend
All those different ways of being smart have unique combinations in each person, and it is the “house blend” or “personal brand” for each of us that results in the right or perhaps not-so-right fit for any particular challenge. Gardner did not develop his theory with the expectation that it would change the way people teach or learn. He said, “No direct educational implications follow from this psychological theory; but if individuals differ in their intellectual profiles, it makes sense to take this fact into account in devising an educational system.”

For nearly 20 years however, curriculum designers and educational pundits alike have lauded the benefits of MI classrooms.Unfortunately, the current climate of high-stakes testing in US public education has put a tight focus on only two of these intelligences. What are schools telling kids we value about the ways they should be smart?
Here’s a brief primer of the Gardner theory.  I have combined some categories to give the flavor of how they can be used together.

Spatial and Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligences
Spatial intelligence refers to the brain’s ability to manipulate objects in space. It can be both an abstract skill (think: architects and engineers) or a more concrete one (think: interior designers and artists of all kinds). Surgeons use this when deciding where to place the scalpel. Even blind persons use spatial intelligence to mentally place themselves in familiar surroundings. Are you terrific at packing the trunk or tailgate when everything on the driveway must fit? That takes spatial intelligence. We use spatial intelligence to know how close or far away to stand from a person we are talking to, and whether we will hit that car in the next space in the parking lot, or whether we should back up and try again. Spatial intelligence works closely with bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Athletes use both when sizing up both the distance to the goal and the force with which a ball must be hit, thrown, or kicked. Dancers, skaters, or gymnasts use both when spinning, jumping, or tumbling. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence guides the fingers of a typist and the hands of a physical therapist.

Musical Intelligence
Musical intelligence is fairly straightforward, you’d think. There’s pitch discrimination, rhythm, pitch reproduction, singing, ability to play an instrument, memory associated with these things, reading music, composing it… The list is actually quite extensive. It may be at work with other intelligences, too. Many people who aren’t involved in music in their careers use this intelligence in their work, every day. And just because someone doesn’t produce music doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it. Are you particularly sensitive to the tone of someone’s voice? As a public speaker your voice inflection, a musical intelligence competency, is important. Do you regularly drum on your desk or tap your feet? That’s musical and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Do you hum or need the radio on while you do homework? Your musical intelligence is at work with you.

Interpersonal and Intrapersonal Intelligences
Both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence involve the emotions. (Gardner is considering an update to his theory which might be a blend of these: Emotional Intelligence). Those with highly developed interpersonal intelligence are often involved in providing services to others. Depending on whether a person is more introverted or extraverted they might be a priest, politician, salesperson, or mediator. The hallmark of this intelligence is that one finds it easy to get along with others, and does it as naturally as inhaling and exhaling. Intrapersonal intelligence uses the sensitivity of self-awareness. Psychologists and coaches may use this when working with clients so that they don’t allow themselves to become too involved in the emotions of the person they are helping. Similarly, a teacher or principal uses intrapersonal intelligence through self-awareness and control of emotions when dealing with situations requiring restraint, resilience, and perspective.

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
The logical-mathematical intelligence is well developed in scientists, mathematicians, accountants, and computer diagnosticians. In the extreme, you might think Dr. Spock from Star Trek. Doctors, building contractors, designers, and other natural problem solvers have this as well, though they use it with other intelligences. If you barely make it through Algebra (all those symbols) but love Geometry (Oooh! Pictures!), you may be using spatial intelligence alongside the mathematical.

Linguistic Intelligence
Linguistic intelligence seems simple. It’s about language. Humans have the only spoken language among the higher animals, and people who do not have well developed linguistic intelligence are often at the bottom of the educational ladder. It’s all about communication. People who have this intelligence are usually identified as “intelligent.” These are people for whom words come easily—poets, essayists, columnists, novelists, travel writers, talk show hosts. These same people are often voracious readers of other people’s words. Put this intelligence with interpersonal intelligence, and you may have a smooth talker or a sensitive listener. Likewise, there are fast talkers and slow listeners. It’s all in how the human brain, which is designed to process language, does its job.

Naturalistic Intelligence
The last intelligence, naturalistic (an addition to the original seven), is used to describe a person with an unusual sensitivity and ability to appreciate or connect with nature and the natural environment.

What We Value We Use
Except in the case of disease or injury, everyone has all of the intelligences to some extent, even if they have trouble understanding the op-ed page, creating profitability solutions or landing the triple Lutz. How well they are developed in an individual is a combination of inheritance, experience, practice, and values. Gardner is quick to point out that what we value, we use.
Enter NCLB: No Child Left Behind. Whether you are a student, parent, employee or boss, this public school accountability issue affects you. It hyperfocuses curriculum on logico-mathematical and linguistic intelligences, and reduces instructional time in other subjects. It also sends the message to kids that mathematical and language skills matter, but the other intelligences are not important enough for more than occasional attention. To make more time for the subjects tested for NCLB, school districts have reduced content area classes such as science and social studies, and “extras” such as the arts. (For a related article on this site, see Christine Duvivier’s column.) To be fair, differentiated instruction is the hottest topic in teacher professional development conferences this year, but its approach to meeting learning needs is in the context of standards-based curricula rather than the creative synergy of strengths.

What’s Your Mindset?
Carol Dweck has found that everyone has one of two basic mindsets, the fixed mindset, where you believe that your talents and abilities are either something you have or don’t, and the growth mindset, which is characterized by knowing that you have strengths and talents that can be developed, and that abilities can thus develop over time. It’s not just about performing tasks and being done with your education; it’s about learning to learn and knowing that you can get smarter when you do.
Having a growth mindset can be tough in a high stakes standards-based environment. The standards are often being set by people two generations away from the current students who have not taught in a classroom for years and who set goals and standards for teachers who are then expected to use strengths they may not even have to deliver in the classroom. Teachers become stuck in the standards box and may feel a growth mindset is beyond them, too.  There is also no doubt that without literacy skills in language and mathematics students are at an incredible disadvantage in life.  The trouble with the focus on standards is that skills acquisition becomes the goal, not the means, of preparing students for their future.
When what is valued is tightly focused on being mathematically, logically or linguistically smart (or only smart in a limited number of other ways), kids (and teachers) learn to perform and get it over with.  A student of mine who attends an affluent suburban high school told me last week, “I got a high fail on my Algebra test. But it doesn’t matter because there is another test next week and the teacher said we won’t be doing any more parabolas this year.”  But it does matter, because the student has missed the opportunity to learn that he can learn! He is disengaged from the process and is instead relieved by the teacher’s promise that the misery is over. He has learned to accept a fixed mindset.

Building Children Instead of Repairing Adults
Admittedly, our public schools have a huge amount of responsibility heaped upon them when it comes to readying students with varying strengths for a future which includes jobs that do not even exist today. In The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman reminds us that the great challenge to our institutions is developing the leadership, flexibility and creativity to adapt to the extreme pace of change in the world.  The pace of innovation has never needed to be faster to stay ahead of—or even run with—the pack.
What is the emotional effect of limiting the ways in which a student can be successful at school? Students learn that they are only responsible for and limited to the expectations of their teacher/ boss.  They are being taught to value extrinsic control and to dampen expectations of themselves.  Are we actually encouraging disengagement by limiting the types of intelligence that kids are consciously using and valuing at school? Are we sending the message that being smart is something you “are”, rather than a strength that can be developed? Are we reducing the joy and meaning in both teaching and learning? When schools incorporate strengths-based approaches for both faculty and pupils, whether of learning, character or talent, they build the personal and learning resilience which is required for their—and our—future.


Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.

Friedman, T. (2007). The World Is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century.

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences. 10th Edition. Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2000). Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. Basic Books.

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Senia 5 April 2007 - 8:52 am

Great article, Sherri! So thorough!

Elona 5 April 2007 - 4:06 pm

Building children instead of repairing adults. What a wonderful line, Sherri. That’s exactly what we need to do. We need to build children starting in pre-school so that I don’t have to try and repair them in grade nine.

I use Gardner’s theories of multiple intelligences in my special education classes as well as my math class. We talk about the multiple intelligence theory, identify our strenghts and discuss how to use them to be sucessful in life and how to improve our weaker intelligences. I just finished marking the project my class did of this. The kids get it.

I believe by teaching my students about multiple intelligences theory I am helping the kids build themselves. They now know that school values certain intelligences but that life values those and others. I tell my students to plan their future goals around their strengths. We spend time exploring careers that use their strengths. I tell them if they choose careers that value their particular strengths, they will be happier and more successful. I’ve gotten wonderful positive feed back from former students about this unit. Great article.

Sherri Fisher 7 April 2007 - 10:28 am

Hi, Elona–

Howard Gardner now has a new (just out April 3!) book–Five Minds for the Future. I’ll be reading it soon. Also, if you have not read any of the MI books by Thomas Armstrong, he has several which apply the theory to curriculum, learning issues and teaching approaches. While there may be newer books, or ones using the “differentiated instruction” moniker,Armstrong has several great reads, including In Their Own Way, a classic. Find it here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b/102-1224396-4694510?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Thomas+Armstrong&Go.x=12&Go.y=8
Thanks for reading!!
🙂 Sherri

Kathryn Britton 7 April 2007 - 1:50 pm


Your discussion of multiple intelligences is clear and insightful. It reminds me of work by Elizabeth Cohen on how to design school projects so that children with different strengths all have a chance to learn. There is a brief description at http://my.simmons.edu/services/technology/ptrc/pdf/designing_groupwork.pdf and more information in her book, Designing Groupwork: Strategies for the Heterogeneous Classroom (http://www.amazon.com/Designing-Group-Work-Elizabeth-Cohen/dp/0807728160). She describes the equal exchange model of students working together on projects, “To create equal exchange, you will need a true group task where no one person could easily do the task alone. Members will find it necessary to exchange ideas freely in order to achieve the goals set by the teacher (p. 64).

I’ve heard a lot of kids say that they did most of the work in group projects. Elizabeth Cohen’s work gave me a new perspective: Perhaps they were doing most of the work because the tasks were geared directly to their particular intelligences. Where was the need for musical, kinesthetic, intrapersonal intelligences? What if their feeling indicates that they were actually shutting others out of the learning experience by taking on so much?

You also make me think of two children I know who are labeled “Learning Disabled” because they have narrow linguistic output channels but are astonishingly observant of the world around them. I’ve seen it suggested that LD should become “Learning Differently.”

Elona 8 April 2007 - 4:52 pm

Thanks for the bring Elizabeth Cohen’s work to my attention. You have given me some insight into why some kids do not participate in group work. It makes perfect sense now that i red it. I’m going to share this insight with the Instructional Intelligence Committee at our school so that we can pass this insight along to all teachers and perhaps do some PD around this. Thanks so much.

I’m looking forward to reding Gardner’s new book. Thanks.

Sherri Fisher 9 April 2007 - 5:39 pm

Hi, Kathryn–

Yes, the “Learning Disabled” moniker is problematic. Some kids are “environmentally disabled” or even “teaching style” disabled. Take them out of one setting and put them in another and they flourish. But federal law requires that we identify–and label–kids if we want them to have any different approaches than what the general classroom offers. (And this can vary widely from classroom to classroom, acroos the country.)While IDEA makes it possible to get a more individualized education, this comes at the cost of assuming that there is a true normal. Is there?

Also, many classrooms are places for learning state frameworks mandated content, not how to learn many types of content. Given that so many of the things students will need to learn have not even been discovered or written about yet, we need to be teaching how to be both adding to and crtically thinking about what we know.

I like the idea of creating projects that cannot be done by one person alone. This is real life for many work environments post-school, too. Thanks for the Elizabeth Cohen suggestion.

🙂 Sherri

Jeff Dustin 9 April 2007 - 11:41 pm


Tradeoffs exist for almost everything. Labeling provides a convenient way to conceptualize student problem areas. The word used was crippled, then handicapped, disabled and now person with a disability captured the spotlight. So the progress rolls onward and upward.

Descriptive precision requires a label of some kind to ensure communicability about a problem as well as a strength. Which makes more sense to you? A fireman, a fireperson, a firefighter, a person who extinguishes fires? Multiplying labels to suit everyone’s tastes could cause great confusion. Language requires some level of consensus.

Examining the flip side shows that some labels are highly destructive, counterproductive and likely to cause a fist fight even among the civilized. One older teacher I worked with used to work in the Retard Room. I kid you not. They actually called the room Retarded. Those students must have been extremely motivated…to get out of there!

Sherri Fisher 10 April 2007 - 11:10 am

Hi, Jeff–

I agree that it can be difficult for most people to come to consensus on treatment if they do not have a common language as the basis of communication. My personal experience in schools, however, is that using the same words does not equal understanding the same concepts.

Recently I sat in a meeting of teachers, parents, team leaders and the principal to discuss how the school could use existing resources to more equitably assess what the student in question had learned, given a dx from a neuropsychologist and specific recommendations.

Everyone had a different idea about what it meant, practically speaking, to have a non-verbal learning disability. It was stated by the school leadership that as long as the student had achievement scores in the average range (between the 25th to 75th percentile–big range!!), the disability was not disabling, even if the student had very superior verbal ability and borderline perceptual motor and processing ability. Performance merely had to be “good enough.” It was the student’s job to a) learn what good enough was and b) to get over the idea that it was possible to be better than that.

Imagine being that child’s parents. Are you and the school still speaking the same language and having the same understanding as a result?

In the end, actions speak louder than words. When we continue to measure access to the curriculum by how well a student fits into a “round hole” even while using kinder words to share the conceptualization of school problems, we are not living up to the power and potential of education. We are just calling it something different.

What would it take to move from needing labels before beginning to provide “services” for children to instead offering the kind of teaching a child needs without complex legal formulas and meeting timelines?

Sound like pandemonium? We need to ask whether the current system provides for both valuable and standardized service for students. And is this medicalized model of education what we want?

Special Education is like health insurance. You get a primary care provider (teacher). If all is well you stay at that level. If you have a problem that the PCP cannot address, you go for testing and maybe are referred to a specialist. Or maybe not. Maybe you are just having a medication compliance issue, or need other lifestyle changes. Oh, well, the PCP cannot be responsible for everything. The system itself encourages lawsuits and rewards the wealthy. There are gatekeepers who determine your eligibility for services. No diagnosis? No treatment. You might feign illness to get help you believe you need but which seems impossible to get. People who can afford it get private doctors (tutors, speech-language pathologists, etc.) Others learn they are helpless.

Word meanings are not static. The ones we use today may come to mean other things (think “sick” –awesome! or “retard” –slow down…which have multiple meanings having nothing to do with one another.) Does what we call something matter if it does not help to build children, work teams and learning communities?

Jeff Dustin 10 April 2007 - 12:13 pm

I love your medical model metaphor. That really jives with what I have seen in the classroom. However, there is one point of divergence. With a great PCP, you generally will receive superior service, regardless of the jargon used and the organizational chart imposed. With a poor Primary Care Physician, no matter how great the o-chart looks on paper, no matter what complex safeguards are in place, pretty much the doc is going to screw up.

As with doctors, there should be a signatures strengths profile of what range of strengths compose a great teacher. What are the distinguishing characteristics and are they all necessary or just a fraction of the strengths, used expertly?

One gruesome story illustrates the poor doctor model. I went to a military hospital known for its quality service and generally had a very positive experience. Then my doc changed to someone new. I went in because I had a lower abdominal pain and the “doctor” shoved 3 inches of cotton swab into a place that had only room for 1/2 inch. She said that this might tingle a little bit. Yes, there was tingling, but it was more like being on fire.

Attracting and retaining quality educators, however idiosyncratically you measure that, is probably one of the toughest educational challenges out there today. That’s why I a remind myself that Sherri Fisher’s Flourishing Schools exists.

The site’s motto is:”We’re devoted to making education a better place, without 3″ cotton swabs.”

Kathryn Britton 10 April 2007 - 3:00 pm

Jeff and Sherri,

I wish there were enough Hill Centers (http://www.hillcenter.org) to go around — I have friends who have sent their children there half of every school day for years with very good results. The local school system has figured out how to work around having these kids gone part of the day. I got the moniker from their motto: “We transform students with learning differences into confident, independent learners.”

I think learning differences can be somewhat described by the following model of variation:

Input channels: differences in size, type, sensitivity

CPU: differences in speed, processing modes, tendency to stick to the facts or generalize…

Memory: differences in size, speed, modality (e.g., visual, musical, verbal)

Output channels: differences in size, modality, and maybe volume

Sensitivity to the environment.

I really dislike one-dimensional models of learning abilities — the ones where you can mentally line kids up in order from highest to lowest . Multiple intelligences covers a lot – but perhaps not the differences that come from being able to take in more easily than you express out, or think faster than you speak (or speak faster than you think)…


Sherri Fisher 10 April 2007 - 3:36 pm

Thanks, Kathryn, for sharing the information about the Hill Centers.


Ellen Weber 17 April 2007 - 5:57 pm

Sherri – thanks for sharing the unique approaches to the same high standards, in this refreshing post.

When I use MI with adults and with business leaders – I find that rubrics carefully drawn up for each performance — both enable new intelligences used and ensure the high quality expected in the outcomes.

Do you find the assessments are a core part of using MI successfully with adults?

Nice tribute to Howard Gardner and he deserves every word. I have known and respected Howard for 20 years, and find all you say to be true in this genuine pathfiner. 🙂 Thanks for the great post. Thanks, Sherri.

Sherri Fisher 19 April 2007 - 7:36 pm

Hi, Ellen:

Here is a longish answer to your question.

There are several Positive Psychology assessments that I use with clients who range from students to parents to educators. I love the VIA. There is nothing better than knowing what strengths of character you use every day to be yourself in the world. (See my January article for more on this, and here for a school connection.) Also, see the other assessments on http://www.authentichappiness.org. You can measure Pathways to Happiness and Authentic Happiness, among other things.

I am going to answer your question about assessments and outcomes as they apply to students, (imagine ages 7-20 something). As a learning specialist I have many clients/parents referred who want a “real-life” positive interpretation of their neuropsych testing. Lots of this information can be seen and better understood through the lens of strengths and MI. ADHD folks, for example, understand bodily-kinesthetic intelligence as a strength whereas CPT results may say they had difficulty with task persistence after sitting for long periods.

For some folks a rubric is awesome. But they are often too much of a good thing for people who do not know their strengths and in fact may present nearly insurmountable organizational challenges to those with very strong verbal but weak visual-spatial abilities. They really talk a good game, but the project is not what you would have expected.

An example would be Autism spectrum disorders such as NLD where constructional dyspraxia is a feature. These students do not readily “learn how they learn” since successes are often coded as random positive events. Successes feel affectively nice, but do not necessarily feel reproducible. In order to build self-efficacy, there needs to be mastery and a reproducible approach.

Albert Bandura says, “It is not the sheer intensity of emotional and physical reactions that is important but rather how they are perceived and interpreted. People who have a high sense of efficacy are likely to view their state of affective arousal as an energizing facilitator of performance, whereas those who are beset by self- doubts regard their arousal as a debilitator.”

So I think it is not always enough to give people opportunities to use or try strengths, or to let them know the expected outcome. Of course if the outcome is flexible and can be driven by any strengths set, that offers a great opportunity to have students and teachers really dig in to what worked for each individual!

I’m reading Howard Gardner’s latest, Five Minds for the Future. In it he presents patterns of processing that we will need in the future and why they are so essential in our changing world. Gardner continues to be a thought leader in this area.

Did I answer your question? And more, perhaps?

🙂 Sherri

Jeff Dustin 23 April 2007 - 2:33 pm

Hey Sherri,

As a novice teacher I’ve tried to apply a little of Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, a bit of Howard Gardner’s, some brain based research, a bit of Dweck’s praise research and so on.

Practically speaking, the best results I’ve obtained thus far are probably from Gardner’s model and some of the brain research. At the same time, however, the multiple intelligence model forces the traditional view of on-task learning into weird directions.

What do I mean? Some of more traditional faculty raised eyebrows and scoffed at some of the methods I tried. We used clay to model sentences in my Spanish class. My students created a play in which their characters spoke some of the limited spanish vocabulary we were learning. Our more musically inclined students were to provide the musical score to accompany the play during action scenes and interludes. (All of this can be justified on Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, by the way).

An obstacle to attempting the new techniques and philosophies of learning manifests itself as fear of criticism from the traditionalists. Some arguments they use seem valid. The nontraditional approaches sometimes do take more time and allow less coverage of materials. Hi stakes testing at times can prove noncompatible with creative learning & teaching techniques. The biggest one of all I hear is: the new ways are not empirically supported and are simply too risky politically.

Some of the most creative and useful teaching tactics probably worked for centuries or millenia without a scientific report backing them up. How did anything get accomplished before empirically supported documentation? At what exact number of reports does a practictioner decide to accept the empirical data as truth? Five? Fifty? Five hundred?

The most enjoyable aspect of this blog has been the provision of ideas for further empirical study, like Kathryn’s Self-Talk Intervention. It is a seedling waiting to sprout! You are on the cutting edge of Positive Psych! Don’t let anybody crush your creative thoughts!

Sherri Fisher 23 April 2007 - 3:04 pm

Hi, Jeff–

Thanks for writing 🙂 Yes, teaching is very complicated. I’m interested in finding out what works for individuals as well as groups. Empirical data, as you point out, does not always give a clear picture of how results should be applied. In some ways it gives us more things to research. I’m with you that lots of what works was never recorded, or went down the drain with the bathwater. It is no joke that the soap opera for education could be called “As the Pendulum Swings.”

Next month I will be looking at MI, Gardner’s vision for the future of education and vocation/avocation, high stakes accountability and its effects on creativity, and why PP is so important “done right.” I’ve set my Google Alerts to inform me of PP blogs and news. It seems chic to say you offer it. How do we differentiate ourselves from folks who think of it a merely a value-add? We are MAPP.

So once you have your SpEd degree, what do you really want to do? I’m really interested to see how you put it all together!



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