What you need to know about Howard Gardner’s contribution to special education

What you need to know about Howard Gardner’s contribution to special education

1983 marked a revolution in the way learning is approached.  That year, a brilliant mind from Scranton, Pennsylvania launched what would become one of the most popular educational theories in the history of the discipline.  It was the introduction of the Multiple Intelligence Theory by Howard Gardner and boy did it change how we looked at the way people learn.  In few words, MI theory is how we acquire a knowledge of our surroundings by depending on 8 distinct types of intelligences.  Gardner believed that there was more to intelligence than a simple numerical quotient, which was how intelligence was mainly measured at the time.  This proposal was met with some criticism early on but it has now been widely accepted by the educational community and Gardner’s many recognitions are a testament to this.

The 8 intelligences are:

– Spatial:  this is our ability to understand and work with our surroundings whether they be large spaces or concentrated areas.
– Bodily-kinesthetic:  this deals with how we use our body to gain knowledge by creating something o movement in order to solve problems.
– Musical:  this intelligence is related to learning through rhythm and the noises we hear.
– Linguistic:  it’s how we use different elements of language to express ourselves and associate new concepts.
– Logical-mathematical: the focus of this intelligence is to seek out and analyze patterns logically.
– Interpersonal: It’s our ability to handle social situations by understanding things like how someone feels or what motivates them.
– Intrapersonal: This is how sensitive we are to what we feel and how we use act according to what’s inside each of us.
– Naturalistic: The last intelligence deals with our capacity to grasp and differentiate different elements of nature.

Through Gardner’s theories, the educational community has been able to develop and implement new strategies that are able to ensure no student is left behind.  Adapting a class to every child’s learning style can be time consuming and a bit frustrating for teachers at first, but as they become more familiar with how different student learns they can help them reach maximum potential and ultimately gain more confidence. Multiple intelligence has been extremely beneficial to one educational sector in particular: special education.

Image courtesy of Neil Conway at Flickr.com
Image courtesy of Neil Conway at Flickr.com


Many teachers have always considered that students unable to learn have a learning disorder.  This is not always the case.  Difficulty in acquiring knowledge can often time be associated to how information is delivered rather than a biological deficiency in a student’s brain.  Jumping to the conclusion that a student suffers from a learning disorder is often the easy way to deal with a student who has difficulties learning things.  Through multiple intelligence theory, many teachers have broken with the previous paradigm and have opted to take an interest into how a student learns more effectively.  They try to get to the bottom of why a child can’t grasp a concept before diagnosing learning disabilities.  Teachers should consider tweaking their methodology before jumping to the conclusion that a student has a learning disorder.

Another way Gardner’s work has influenced special education is how it plays to the student’s strengths.  While Gardner proposes that the different intelligences work together simultaneously, there is normally one that stands out more than the others.  Identifying which intelligence is stronger in a special education student can be the key to customizing the class to his or her needs in a way that is more effective to his or her abilities.  One of the pillars of special education is raising a child’s image of him or herself, which is normally low when facing a learning disorder.   Caring about a student enough to make the class better suited to him or her will lead to an increase in the pupil’s self-esteem, which is something that special education students struggle with every single day.   

Gardner has done more for special education than people have given him credit for.  He gave special education teachers one of the most powerful tools to assess students and fit the classes to each one’s individual strengths and in turn help them cope with handling their respective disorder.  By going against the grain and shifting the paradigm, Gardner has made sure that student performance is measured not by one quotient but by how they actually perceive and interact with the world.  Special education students see things different from everyone else and multiple intelligence theory levels the playing field a little.  This can go a long way into making a more inclusive educational environment where no one feels more or less than anyone else.

Howard Gardner has not been the only person to revolutionize education or to make outstanding contributions to the field.  Check out the Dwyer Family Foundation blog to read more about amazing people who have also contributed to education as well as how to deal with some of the most common learning disorders.