Multiple Intelligences: Seven Ways to Approach Curriculum

by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.

(first published in Educational Leadership, November, 1994)

(c) Thomas Armstrong, 1994

I don’t remember how I learned to tell time.  So, when I was asked by a Wisconsin school district to develop a multiple intelligences way of teaching time to a group of lst graders, I was initially stymied.  My thoughts went back to my own teaching experience as a learning disability specialist.  My students’ workbooks on telling time had them drawing in the large and small hands on pictures of clocks.  Bo-ring!  If we wanted to get a little more experiential, the special education office furnished cardboard clock faces.   Students were supposed to get “handson” experience by pushing the little hands around these faux clocks.  Not very inspiring.

Fortunately, I had a new model of leaming–the theory of multiple intelligences–to help me in my quest.  Developed a little over 10 years ago by Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, the theory of multiple intelligences consistently amazes me with its ability to serve as a template in constructing strategies for student success.

The intelligences, briefly described, are:

Linguistic: the intelligence of words.

Logical-mathematical: the intelligence of numbers and reasoning.

Spatial: the intelligence of pictures and images.

Musical: the intelligence of tone, rhythm, and timbre.

Bodily-Kinesthetic: the intelligence of the whole body and the hands.

Interpersonal:  the intelligence of social interactions

Intrapersonal:  the intelligence of self-knowledge

At times, I almost think of Gardner as an archeologist who has discovered the Rosetta stone of leaming.  One can use this model to teach virtually anything, from the “schwa” sound to the rain forest and back.  The master code of this leaming style model is simple: for whatever you wish to teach, link your instructional objective to words, numbers or logic, pictures, music, the body, social interaction, and/or personal experience.  If you can create activities that combine these intelligences in unique ways, so much the better!

A Story of Time

When I marched into that classroom in Wisconsin to teach “time,” I had no worksheets or tiny cardboard clock faces in my briefcase.  Instead, I began by telling them a story about a Land of No Time and how confusing it was for people there (they were always missing appointments).  The King and Queen sent a group of adventurers in quest of time because it was rumored that a Land of Time existed beyond the horizon.  After many exciting adventures, the group finally arrived.  They knew they’d arrived because there were clocks and watches everywhere!  They met with the King and Queen of Time and were told to contact a family who lived up on a hill on the outskirts of Times City; an Irish family named (appropriately enough) the O’Clocks!  They had 12 children.  The youngest was named One, the next in age Two, and so on down the line.  And twice a day, each child would climb up onto the highest point in the land and shout a little rhyme.  This is what One O’Clock’s
rhyme sounded like:

My name’s One O’Clock
I tell time
Listen while I sing
My timely little chime!


Well, the adventurers were excited when they heard and saw this.  They convinced the O’Clock family to come to the Land of No Time and set their home up on the highest point in the kingdom.  Now everyone in the land had a reference point, for all they had to do was look up and hear one of the kids sing a timely little chime.”

After hearing this story, students got up one at a time and stood in front of a huge handless plywood clock face five feet high and acted out the role of one of the O’Clocks.  At this point I mentioned that each of the O’Clock children had one huge hand and one tiny hand.  So with my assistance, each child made a different time with his or back to the clock and “hands” pointing to the appropriate numbers while they sang their special rhyme.   After we all gathered around a circle, I told them that the Land of Time (as it was now called) celebrated the O’Clocks’ arrival by having special “clock dance” every year. Twelve students sat in an inner circle, each one holding up a number from 1 to 12, while students got inside the circle and created a time of day using their hands and/or feet.  Everyone danced around the clock to the tune of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” Then students went to their desks to write stories of the tale illustrated by clock faces showing different times.  After they were finished, they returned to the circle and shared their pictures and words.

All of this took about an hour and a half.  During this time, students used their whole bodies, their musical voices, their logical (number counting) minds, their artistic selves, their cooperative spirit, and their own linguistic and personal intelligences to create images of telling time.   The possibilities for extending this brief lesson into a more extensive curriculum was positively mindboggling.  Students could put on a play of the story (interpersonal/bodily-kinesthetic), invent their own special time pieces (bodily-kinesthetic/ spatial), make up their own time songs or raps (musical/linguistic), keep a personal journal of special times in their day (intrapersonal/linguistic), and explore other ways of telling time historically or cross culturally.  This kind of approach to the curriculum begins to make worksheets with clock faces sound like educational malpractice!

A Blueprint for the Future

Of course, some educators may think that this learning philosophy works fine with younger kids but that when students reach middle or high school age, they need to put these frills aside and get serious about learning.  Unfortunately, this narrow perception of learning helps contribute to the alienation of adolescents.  Children do not leave their multiple intelligences behind once they reach puberty.  If anything, the intelligence become even more intense (especially bodily-kinesthetic and the personal intelligences).

Consequently, students should be learning their algebra, ancient history, government, chemistry, literature, and more through multiple intelligences.  In algebra, students should be talking about the unknowns (the “x’s”) in their own lives.  In chemistry, they should be learning Boyle’s law by puffing some air into their mouths (gas in a chamber) and then seeing the pressure go up when they put all the air into one side, where it occupies a smaller volume (Boyle’s law: volume is inversely proportional to pressure).  They should be role-playing literature.  They should be interviewing, surveying, building, dramatizing, rapping, cooperating, computing, problem solving, sketching, and learning in a thousand other ways.  Why?  Because these are the activities that go on in the real world.  If we could travel the world and look at the many ways in which different cultures show their capabilities, we’d probably observe thousands of different intelligences.  The theory of multiple intelligences makes things a little simpler for us.  By chunking the broad range of human abilities into seven basic intelligences, we now have a map for making sense out of the many ways in which children learn, and a blueprint for ensuring their success in school and in life.
When Planning a Lesson, Ask the Right Questions!

Certain questions help me look at the possibilities for involving as many intelligences as possible:

Linguistic: How can I use the spoken or written word?

Logical-Mathematical: How can I bring in numbers, calculations, logic, classifications, or critical thinking?

Spatial:  How can I use visual aids, visualization, color, art, metaphor, or visual organizers?

Musical: How can I bring in music or environmental sounds, or set key points in a rhythm or melody?

Bodily-Kinesthetic: How can I involve the whole body, or hands-on experiences?

Interpersonal: How can I engage students in peer or cross-age sharing, cooperative learning or large-group simulation?

Intrapersonal:  How can I evoke personal feelings or memories, or give students choices?

You won’t always find ways of including every intelligence in your curriculum plans.  But if this model helps you reach into one or two intelligences that you might not otherwise have tapped, then it has served
its purpose very well indeed!

For further information on multiple intelligences, get my books:

For general overview and self-help strategies (high school, college, and adult learners):   7 (Seven) Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences. New York: Plume, 1999.

For K-12 educatorsMultiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 4th Edition Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2018.

For K-12 educators (focus on literacy):  The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive  Alexandria, VA:  Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003.

For parentsIn Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences, New York: Tarcher/Perigee, 2000.

For kids (grades four through eight)You’re Smarter Than You Think: A Kid’s Guide to Multiple Intelligences.  Minneapolis, MN:  Free Spirit, 2014.

For kids (kindergarten through third grade):  Smarts! Everybody’s Got Them.  Minneapolis, MN:  Free Spirit, 2019.

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