Open to Interpretation: Multiple Intelligences Theory in Adult Literacy Education

by Silja Kallenbach & Julie Viens - 2004

This paper discusses how adult literacy educators chose to apply multiple intelligences (MI) theory. The findings fall into two categories of teachersí interpretation, MI-inspired instruction, and MI reflections. The resulting findings were that these MI-inspired teaching approaches helped to reduce teacher directedness and increase student control and initiative; to increase the authenticity of the learning experiences; and to make learning meaningful or relevant to students. Having MI-based learning choices made adult learners more confident about taking greater control of their own learning, and it pushed teachers to allow that to happen. Choice-based activities were instrumental in increasing the relevance and meaning of lessons and in reducing teacher directedness. Understanding the link between studentsí perceptions of their abilities and their actual academic performance, AMI teachers set out to create oppor-tunities for students to reflect about their strengths, weaknesses, and interests connec-ting them to the MI framework. Our data suggest that this, and other forms of MI reflections, prompted adult learners to see themselves as learners in a morepositive light after identifying and reflecting on their own abilities. This was particularly the case when they were able to apply their abilities to successful learning strategies in the classroom.

Introduced by Dr. Howard Gardner in 1983, multiple intelligences (MI) theory represents a radical departure from more traditional views on intelligence, namely the IQ test. Conventional wisdom holds that intelligence is testable, genetic, and unitary. Gardner (1999) observed something different, not explained by the psychometric view of intelligence. He noted the following:

The daily opportunity to work with children and with brain-damaged adults impressed me with one brute fact of human nature: People have a wide range of capacities. A persons strength in one area of performance simply does not predict any comparable strength in other areas. (p. 31)

Based on his research, Gardner defined intelligence as the bio-psychological potential to solve problems or to create products that are valued within one or more cultural settings. He posited that intelligence is pluralistic, encompassing at least eight intelligences (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, naturalist, interpersonal, and intrapersonal); intelligences operate in combination; and every individual has a unique profile of intelligences that is manifested as different areas of strength. As such, MI theory is a definition and conceptualization of human intelligence. It is not and does not prescribe a particular approach or set of activities. However, elements of MI theory have implications for classroom practices.

Since approximately 1988, MI theory has inspired hundreds of MI- informed programs, schools, and classrooms. These research and practice efforts have been undertaken primarily at the elementary school level (Baum et al., in press; Campbell & Campbell, 1999; Chen et al., 1998; Kornhaber & Fierros, 2000; Kornhaber & Krechevsky, 1995). This research suggests that MI-based initiatives can have a range of positive effects on students, parents, teachers, and schools, such as more self-directed, confident students (Chen et al., 1998); fewer disciplinary problems; higher achievement; more parent involvement (Campbell & Campbell, 1999; Kornhaber & Fierros, 2000); and positive affective changes in students and organizational restructuring (Kornhaber & Krechevsky, 1995).

The Adult Multiple Intelligences (AMI) study was conceived in response to the lack of MI research, practices, and resources in adult literacy and in light of the positive experiences with MI theory at the pre-K12 level. It was the first systematic effort to investigate the following question: How can multiple intelligences (MI) theory support instruction and assessment in adult basic education (ABE), adult secondary education (ASE), and English for speakers of other languages (ESOL)? It was conducted under the auspices of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy from 1996 to 2001.


The AMI study aimed to engage adult literacy educators to consider MI theory and develop MI-based practices for their own contexts, with active support and guidance from the two codirectors of the study. The study design incorporated two interwoven, naturalistic, qualitative research projects focused on applying MI theory in practice. The first involved 10 studies that teachers conducted and the AMI codirectors facilitated. The second was a study across those 10 contexts, conducted by the codirectors. This article focuses on the latter of the two studies. It is thus based on empirical research.

The purpose of the cross-site study was to understand how MI theory could be used to good effect in adult literacy education. The codirectors, who served as the principal researchers, addressed this question by analyzing the combined experiences of the AMI teachers, how they interpreted and applied MI theory, and factors that influenced their decisions. The cross-site study tapped into data from the teachers research studies and included additional data collection methods, mainly on-site audio and video observations, semistructured interviews, and analysis of e-mail and other communication. These methods generated rich descriptive data about teaching and learning and about the complex nature of classroom realities.


The analysis of the AMI data yielded two broad categories of teachers interpretation, MI-inspired instruction and MI reflections. MI-inspired instruction focused on classroom practices and materials, whereas the MI reflections focused on using MI to engage students in reflecting about their own strengths, weaknesses, interests, and preferences.


We identified three different forms of MI-inspired instruction that the AMI teachers designed and implemented: entry/exit points, projects, and bridging. Based on their particular goals and understanding of MI theory, the AMI teachers implemented one or more of these forms of MI-based instruction. The resulting findings were that these MI-inspired teaching approaches helped to do the following:


Reduce teacher directedness and increase student control and initiative


Increase the authenticity of the learning experiences


Make learning meaningful or relevant to students

Entry and exit points refer to activities through which students demonstrate new knowledge or skill in a particular subject area or content. Providing a greater variety of entry points or ways to engage in a topic or

Choose 3: Angles


In 25 minutes, list as many angles as you see (inside or outside). Make a graph showing each type you found. Which angle is most common? Why?


Using your arm and elbow make five angles.

Draw those angles and write approximate measures for each.

Are there any kinds of angles that can not be made with an elbow? Explain your answer.


Discuss with someone and write:

What does someone mean when they say, Whats your angle? If you were on an icy road and did a 360, what happened to you? Why do you think the shape L is called a right angle?


Using play dough and/or paper, show the angles 180, 135, 90, and 45.


Find or make five triangles. Measure each angle and find the total number of degrees in each triangle by adding up the sums of the three angles.


Draw, make with play dough, or paint a place you know, and mark measure the angles.


Write a poem, song, chant, or rap using some of the following words about angles:

- figure formed by two lines, intersection, elbow, notch, cusp, ork, flare, obtuse, acute

- point of view, perspective, viewpoint, outlook, slant, standpoint, position

- purpose, intention, plan, aim, objective, approach, method

Figure 1. Martha Jeans GED Choice Lesson on Angles

skill area is perhaps the most common MI-informed practice, resulting from the most generative of MIs tenets that there are a plurality of intelligences. Teachers commonly use the eight intelligences as a guide for developing choices among learning and assessment activities (entry/exit points). When teachers give students choices in how they learn and demonstrate what they have learned, they effectively are giving some control to students. Lesson formats that gave students choices that correspond loosely to the eight intelligences were popular among AMI teachers and their students. A typical choice activity offered students eight intelligences-based choices for processing their understanding of a topic (see Figure 1).

Having these kinds of learning choices made students more confident about taking greater control of their own learning, and it pushed teachers to allow that to happen. Choice-based activities were instrumental in increasing the relevance and meaning of lessons and in reducing teacher directedness. AMI teacher researcher Lezlie Rockas experience was representative of the group. Lezlie writes, My class became more interactive and student-directed as I experimented with MI theory. Before this research project, I did most of the leading and dictated the order of the activities (Rocka, in Kallenbach & Viens, 2001, p. 215). AMI teacher, Jean Mantzaris states, Once I started to diversify my lesson plans, I began to look to the students for more input. As time went on, students took over decision-making for activities such as the career board game (Mantzaris, in Kallenbach & Viens, 2001, p. 142). Reviewing her lesson plans from the 2 years prior to the AMI study, Terri Coustan discovered she had doubled the number of choices in learning activities she gave to her students in the course of her AMI involvement. She found that, as students began to express preferences through choice-based activities, they also became more assertive in other ways, slightly shifting the balance of power in the classroom (Coustan, in Kallenbach & Viens, 2001, p. 74). Students who had not previously offered opinions about the class activities began to do so. They became more confident and subsequently engaged learners when they could process information through their preferred intelligences.

Projects refer to lessons or curriculum units that emphasize authentic problems and activities tapping students intelligences as they are in life outside the classroom. Projects emphasize the real problems and products highlighted in MI theorys definition of intelligence. Among the MI- inspired instructional practices, projects resulted in the highest levels of authentic instruction. Of all the lessons the AMI teachers documented, those most favored by students and noted by teachers for high student engagement had content reflecting student interests and realities. Lessons that offered an authentic audience and an opportunity for students to apply activities to make real-life improvements were seen as best of all. AMI teacher-researcher Meg Costanzos students rated as their favorite a project that enlisted the students to devise ways to increase their learning centers enrollment. They redesigned the centers recruitment flier and sign outside the building. They wrote a public service announcement, interviewed program graduates, and calculated attendance rates. Meg wrote, I did not even have to ask the students to turn in their assignments. Three students had their work out and ready to turn in before I even brought up the subject. . . . The students are taking their work on this project seriously (Costanzo, journal, September 1997).

One of the many ways in which ESOL teacher Terri Coustan increased the authenticity of her beginning-level classes with predominantly Laotian Hmong people was through a gardening project. Knowing that most of her students had been farmers, Terri developed a learning project that built on her students naturalist abilities while developing their English skills. The students constructed an indoor greenhouse and prepared seed trays, and they also maintained outdoor garden plots.

MI theory provided the rationale and the framework for the development of these lessons. It prompted the AMI teachers to identify existing teaching techniques or tools-for example project-based learning-that helped students tap into a greater variety of their intelligences. This, in turn, led them to develop authentic learning activities. In that sense, it can be said that MI-inspired instruction increased the authenticity of learning experiences.

MI theory also made topics that were not grounded in students lives more meaningful and relevant because students could approach activities from their preferred and strongest intelligences. Using materials or real experiences from students daily lives in literacy instruction is not always possible or desirable. For example, when students are preparing to pass the GED test, the content and skills that must be mastered are dictated, not by real life but by the GED, a multiple-choice test covering such topics as social studies, history, science, and literature. In these cases, the AMI teachers sought to personalize instruction and curriculum by creating a bridge from one or more students strengths to areas in which they are having difficulty. Bridging emphasizes MI theorys tenet that every individual possesses a unique profile of intelligences and particular areas of strength.

Betsy Cornwells poignant experience with one student is an example of bridging and points to the potential benefits of making content meaningful or relevant to students. Diane had resisted completing the geography assignments required for the adult high school diploma. When Betsy began to bridge Dianes outside interests to her geography assignments, Dianes attitude changed. From Dianes self-assessment, Betsy learned that Diane had a keen interest in other people and certain celebrities known for their compassion for others, namely Princess Diana and Mother Teresa. Betsy responded by designing an assignment in which Diane would track the travels of these celebrities. When we added magazine pictures, colored stickers, glue, wallpaper, newspaper clippings, and a biography of Princess Diana, [Diane] found her own way to reach her goal, Betsy wrote (Cornwell, in Kallenbach & Viens, 2001, p. 21). Subsequently, after avoiding them for two years, Diane easily completed the required assignments for graduation and obtained her high school diploma. In Betsys case, MI theory had motivated her to know her student better, and to figure out how to use that information in instruction to facilitate learning.


MI reflections is the term we coined to refer to approaches and activities through which students learned about MI theory and that used MI theory explicitly. Our analysis yielded three forms of MI Reflections the AMI teachers adopted: learning about MI, learning about ourselves, and learning about how we learn. The corresponding findings were as follows:


Teaching about MI theory (learning about MI) helped students embrace non-traditional learning activities.


Using MI theory for self-reflection (learning about ourselves) enhanced students perceptions of their abilities and career aspirations.


MI reflections are useful for identifying learning strategies (learning about how we learn).

The AMI study affirmed the value of student reflection in building self- confidence and learning-to-learn skills. Nine of the 10 teachers implemented some form of MI reflections, such as introducing the theory, uncovering and celebrating students strengths, exploring careers, or identifying effective learning strategies with students. Six teachers ultimately positioned MI reflections as a significant part of their teaching practice.

The more traditional teaching approaches may be a good fit with some students learning preferences. For many others, however, the preference for workbooks and other passive learning methods is an unexamined assumption based on a lack of exposure to other ways of learning. Furthermore, based on their negative learning experiences in academic settings, some students incorrectly assume that learning cannot be enjoyable or fun-no pain, no gain. If a learning activity is fun, it is automatically suspect. The AMI experience suggests that adult educators interested in introducing MI-based lessons need to anticipate and plan for these responses. Many AMI students who were initially hesitant or, in some cases, quite negative toward MI-informed activities came to embrace them relatively quickly. The AMI experience demonstrates that an explicit introduction to MI theory and its relationship to unfamiliar, nontraditional activities can work to overcome students bias against these new learning experiences.

Conversations about multiple intelligences or the concept of intelligence are not typically a part of the ABE, ESOL or GED curriculum. As there are few resources for teaching about intelligence, AMI teachers who chose to go down this path had to create their own lessons. They created presentations, handouts, and hands-on activities, and paused to identify intelligences students were using during classroom activities. These activities introduced students to MI theorys major tenets. In a few instances, they also engaged students in debating the concept of intelligence.

Lessons about MI resonated with some AMI learner groups and not with others. Students can perceive MI theory as extraneous, confusing, or irrelevant to their learning goals. For the two AMI ESOL teachers, teaching about MI theory was neither straightforward nor an unmitigated success. All but one of the AMI secondary-level teachers and the one career counselor, on the other hand, found talking about MI theory useful for increasing students acceptance and appreciation of nontraditional activities.

Understanding the link between students perceptions of their abilities and their actual academic performance, several AMI teachers set out to create opportunities for students to recognize and experience their abilities as defined and described by MI theory. The AMI teachers primary goal for learning about ourselves was that their students believe and own their unique profile of abilities and their particular areas of strength.

Almost every AMI teacher documented student comments about more positive feelings toward their abilities and themselves as learners subsequent to doing MI-based self-reflection activities. Our data suggest that MI reflections prompted these adult learners to see themselves as learners in a more positive light after identifying and reflecting on their own abilities. This was particularly the case when they were able to apply their abilities to successful learning strategies in the classroom.

Research suggests that those who know themselves as learners and are able to monitor and change their learning strategies accordingly are better able to transfer their learning to new contexts (Bransford et al., 2000). In the AMI study, MI theory served as a tool for developing the learners metacognitive abilities. In virtually every class, this was a challenging undertaking that required the teachers skill and persistence. MI self- reflection with students was an important preliminary step to identifying learning strategies. Four of the 10 teachers helped their students develop learning strategies based on what they could observe about the students intelligence strengths. For example, AMI teacher Meg Costanzo emphasized ongoing, regular communication with her students through dialogue journals in which she would often pose such questions as How do you think your spatial abilities and your ability to work with your hands can help you solve this math problem? and What essay topic would be engaging for you?


The AMI study illustrates how MI theory can be used well and substantively in adult literacy education. There is now a foundation of MI practice in adult literacy that can serve other practitioners in the field. However, individual teachers need an understanding of the theory and access to and willingness to implement a diverse body of learning activities. To implement a curriculum that offers students who are at the beginning literacy levels multiple pathways to learning a particular skill, concept, or subject also requires the educator to develop the students metacognitive skills. At the same time, teachers need to anticipate that not all students will necessarily embrace MI-inspired lessons or reflections. Teachers also need to be willing to get to know their students in a more holistic way, as adults who not only possess academic strengths and weaknesses, but also have talents, interests, and life experiences that teachers can consider when they plan lessons.

At the same time, teachers need their literacy programs support to en- gage in and sustain MI-based practices. Programs can express institutional support by ensuring that teachers have adequate paid preparation time, access to staff development, permission to purchase a variety of supplies, and the ability to change the physical learning environment so it is conducive to different types of activities and groupings.

More definitive research is needed to investigate learning gains and other impacts of MI-based practice. As an exploratory study, the AMI study sets the stage for this further research. The research for this paper has been completed and published by the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy in 2002, available at


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 1, 2004, p. 58-66 ID Number: 11509, Date Accessed: 1/18/2022 7:58:02 AM

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