Using Multiple Intelligences to Raise Self-Esteem

How an understanding of Multiple Intelligences enables students to; identify their strengths (which leads to greater self-esteem), as well as fully appreciate why some things prove more challenging. Both of these attributes improve personal resilience in learning, which in turn enhances engagement and attainment.

Here is the second in the new series of blogs, designed to share 30 years of study, training, and experience in the field of teaching and learning, by providing enough information each time for you to pick up an idea and run with it in your own practice. All topics covered are still part of my thriving Success Coaching practice in schools.

My previous share was about helping students to understand basic neuroscience on which they can build greater confidence as a learner. This time we are going to focus on expanding the idea of ‘intelligence’ and how that knowledge too can be supportive of student progress without any extra work on your part.

Keep in mind throughout the following, that this theory should not just be of interest to you, but is meant for sharing with students which is what actually makes the difference!

Our ideas on intelligence have developed over the years from testing  IQ, (‘Intelligence Quotient’ from Alfred Binet), which is how much intelligence you have in numerical terms, through EQ, (‘Emotional Intelligence’ promoted by Daniel Goleman), which is more about how you use that intelligence, to MI (‘Multiple Intelligences’ from Howard Gardner), accepting that everyone is intelligent in some way.

Our problem of course is that the education system dictates what it is important for a child to learn, with no thought as to how they might be able to achieve great things by using the intelligences that they already have. Many ways of demonstrating intelligence are stifled by years of conformity in school with its emphasis on core subjects and limited access to practical application of other skills.

I am not saying that children should not be taught curriculum subject areas, but that room should be made for them to shine in areas where they can use their strengths as well. Not only will they feel a sense of achievement, but others will view them as capable too. This is only possible if they understand that they have some strengths and are helped to appreciate the need for greater resilience in areas of weakness.

Howard Gardner gave us his basic 8 ways of being intelligent which are a good starting point for a discussion with students. (Mathematical, Linguistic, Naturalistic, Visual, Interpersonal, Musical, Kinaesthetic and Intrapersonal). I am not convinced that this is a fully comprehensive list and Gardner himself has suggested that there are more than this number, but his original idea is an adequate starter for students to fill in a questionnaire that identifies their personal top 3 ways of demonstrating intelligence.

Remember that the point here is that we are trying to create a confident and independent learner, not burden teachers with the need to cater for every intelligence in the classroom. For some students, this is the first time that anyone has opened up the idea that they are an intelligent person and it can have quite a profound effect. Armed with this information learners can begin to understand why some subjects feel easier, and why more effort is required in others.

Any problem that the student has with learning doesn’t magically disappear, but the explanation; ‘of course that’s more difficult for you, it’s not one of your main intelligences’ really helps! The important thing for that learner is to build on the knowledge about themselves to work out what is needed to support their future progress. In other words, we want them to have more success in those weaker areas whilst maintaining greater confidence via their strengths.

For example, it feels good for a learner to know that the reason they are easily distracted in class is because they are a people person (interpersonal), and are being attracted to what is going on for others in the room. A future dynamic leader of people at work. Someone else may get stressed (and therefore have diminished concentration) because everyone is putting their paper in an ordinary bin instead of a recycling one, or leaving too much of it on the floor. You are watching a future environmentalist who may help to save our planet! We need to acknowledge these strengths, whilst not allowing them to be used as an excuse!

I recently worked with a very personable and bright young man who was an almost exclusively hands-on learner with physical (kinaesthetic), interpersonal and naturalistic intelligences. He was in danger of exclusion due to his inability to sit still or keep his nose out of other people’s business, along with the ‘don’t care’ attitude displayed when disciplined. He and I had a chat about what a fantastic set of strengths he had for the working world and how successful he would be in that arena.  We then acknowledged the need to keep him in school long enough to take his exams!

Because of the relief he felt at understanding why school was so hard for him and having gained back his self-esteem using the strengths profile, this student worked hard with me to access the Maths curriculum that he had refused to engage with previously because he had considered himself useless. He definitely was not!

I don’t like the idea of a deficit model where people are seen as not meeting the expected standard in some endeavour, when given the opportunity they might outshine others elsewhere. (That whole judging a fish by its ability to climb a tree thing!) Within our current education system however, we have to find ways of helping learners raise their self-esteem so that they are more willing to learn strategies for improvement. Introducing students to the fact that they are intelligent, is one way of opening up a conversation to help kickstart personal responsibility for academic progress.

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