Multiple intelligences

Intelligence is a rather over-used and misunderstood word in some circles. It tends to imply excellence at certain academic subjects (particularly sciences, maths and English), or perhaps the kind of person who can do well in IQ tests.

Yet we probably all know of highly intelligent people who are terrible at any kind of number-work, or who might do very badly on an IQ test that required pattern-spotting and the ability to imagine objects in 3d space. Equally we probably know of very academic people, perhaps brilliant at maths or sciences, who seem to lack any common sense or ability to communicate with other people. It seems self-evident that there are many kinds of intelligence, and that nearly everyone excels at something.

What are multiple intelligences?

Experts have isolated seven main strands of intelligence: inter-personal, intra-personal, kinaesthetic, musical, logical/mathematical, verbal/linguistic, and visual/spatial. The last three of these tend to be measured on IQ tests, but the first four are equally important.

A site which outlines what these mean, with some questionnaires in various formats is businessballs: multiple intelligences. Another useful page, with helpful explanations  is Multiple Intelligences. Here the seven intelligences have slightly different names: social, solitary, physical, aural, logical, verbal and visual, but in essence they are the same. It’s an interesting exercise to take these questionnaires and determine your own preferences, before looking at your children’s skills.

Seven main intelligences

In a nutshell, a person with high social/inter-personal intelligence tends to require discussion and group learning. He or she may well be an Extravert, needing other people around to feel energised. Or they may simply need other people for bouncing ideas. Someone with high solitary/intra-personal intelligence contrasts with this, and is more likely to be an Introvert. These people need time to themselves to reflect, and may learn best away from other people.

Someone with high physical/kinaesthetic intelligence tends to need constant action, perhaps wanting to take part in sports or other physical activities such as gardening or juggling. Someone with high aural/musical intelligence probably has a good sense of rhythm and pitch, and will benefit more than most from learning a musical instrument or dancing, particularly if they also have high kinaesthetic intelligence.

Someone with high logical/mathematical intelligence is naturally good with reasoning, likely to grasp new concepts easily, and think clearly. Someone with high verbal/linguistic intelligence will probably be confident with both spoken and written language, and enjoy communicating and playing with words. Someone with high visual/spatial intelligence will be likely to have a good sense of direction, and be happiest with artwork, images, diagrams or other visual media.

Implications for home education

Most people will have reasonable skill in more than one of these intelligences, and can develop ability in most of the others if encouraged. Unlike the learning styles, which describe how we best learn, multiple intelligences deal with actual skills, and even those which do not come naturally can often be learned.

It is vitally important to respect our children’s needs. If you have a child who clearly likes music from a young age – perhaps needing CDs to go to sleep easily, or moving around rhythmically to music on the radio, he will probably want to bang saucepans as a toddler and then learn to sing or play an instrument as he grows older. This is easy in UK schools, where all children have the opportunity to sing in assemblies, play recorders, and try out band or string instruments. But if parents are unmusical it can be more difficult for home educators. In some cases you may need to find someone who can teach your child, at least to start with.

If you have a child with little or no musical intelligence, he may have no desire at all to learn to play an instrument and no wish to sing – but you can still encourage a certain amount of musical intelligence by playing CDs, or singing yourself.

A child with kinaesthetic intelligence will need some kind of outlet, which will partly depend on his other intelligences. If he also has musical intelligence, he might like to take up some kind of dancing, or learn to play the drums. If he also has high inter-personal intelligence, he might be happiest playing in team sports at a leisure centre, whereas a child high in solitary intelligence might prefer gardening or swimming.

Multiple intelligences in education

Traditional education – including some American homeschooling curricula – usually encourages verbal and mathematical skills, and a child high in these may benefit from some kind of curriculum. If you prefer not to use a curriculum, you will need to provide plenty of relevant books and computer games.

Many people still feel that education is synonymous with formal academics, and that a child who finds maths or English difficult must either be rebellious or stupid. However if you take account of both his learning style and his intelligence, you will help him gain confidence in areas in which he can excel, and may find that he will then learn academic skills as a sideline.

Obviously it’s important in today’s world to be able to read and communicate, to have familiarity with arithmetic and some logical thinking skills. But if these are not your child’s primary intelligences, it’s vital that he is not made to feel inferior to more academically inclined children. If his main intelligence is visual, encourage art, photography, or computer graphics.

One of my sons has high visual intelligence; one day, when he was around 13 and working on some computer graphics, he came across sines and cosines in a computer arts magazine. He asked me what they were, and I was able to teach him in about half an hour what would have taken at least a term in school. A few weeks later he was using them confidently and at a level far beyond what I had explained, because he was motivated to do so.

He never did learn the algebraic theories that go alongside trigonometry, but was able to work out easily those which he needed. Mathematics and logic were a sideline to visuals, and learned when he was motivated by his visual intelligence.

Balance of intelligences

The theory of autonomous education (similar to American ‘unschooling’) is that children learn all they need to learn, when they’re ready to do so, in their own way. Those who follow this principle may suggest activities, or offer books or CD-Roms, but most of the time the child will follow his or her own interests, whether mathematical workbooks or painting murals on walls, or kicking a ball around the yard. Their choices are likely to reflect their main intelligences, and as they practise so they develop in skill.

But many parents tend to think that their children need balance, and a variety of skills. We may worry that they will lack skills they need as adults if we leave them to their own choices all the time. We read about prodigies like Mozart, whose musical skills were at genius level, but who had little chance to develop any others, and ended up depressed and neurotic, dying young.

Naturally we want our children to be well-rounded as people. But does this mean we should attempt to teach them to use all the intelligences, or even to study all the subjects covered in schools? Of course not. Nobody would force a tone-deaf child to take singing lessons, or expect a blind child to study art.

Those are extreme examples, but all children have strengths and weaknesses, and there are some topics and intelligences which may be totally inappropriate for them. A very quiet child with high solitary intelligence may never develop strong social intelligence. Trying to make him do so may have the reverse effect, pushing him more into his solitary state and becoming phobic about other people.

On the other hand, if you treat your child gently and give him respect, he may – sooner or later – decide to work with other people in order to gain skill in other intelligences. A solitary musical child, for instance, may want to join a band or a choir. A solitary logical child may want to find someone to play chess with, or delight in helping people solve computer problems.

Home education can be enriching and rewarding for both parents and children, and a positive learning experience for all. But don’t try to make your children fit into your own preconceived ideas of what they ‘should’ learn, or follow your own intelligences if theirs are different. Listen to them, learn with them, and encourage each other to explore and develop skills as and when they are appropriate.

Further reading on this site:

Learning styles
Temperament theory
Introvert or Extravert?
Personality types
Gifted children and home education
Parenting theories
How is your child motivated?
Are all teenagers horrible?

Further reading on other sites:

Learning Styles online
VARK learning styles
Keirsey’s site
Temperament theory