Editor’s Note: This post is a product of the Communicating the Gospel to Youth class, taught by Dr. Andrew Zirschky as part of CYMT’s Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree program through Memphis Theological Seminary.
by Sara Galyon
When my CYMT classmates and I were in school (early 1990s to the millennium) we were all told what kind of learner we were. Everyone was auditory, visual, or kinesthetic, and teachers taught to these three styles. This research is still widely used in classrooms, based on the work of Neil Fleming and Colleen Mills in their 1987 article “Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection.”
Do you remember this? The fidgety kids were the ones who were obviously kinesthetic because they had to move all the time. The one who would gaze out the window during a lecture was probably visual, and the one who talked to himself while writing was more than likely an auditory learner. These preferences, as Fleming and Mills call them, were pretty easy to understand, but there was another theory had already emerged in the field of cognitive development and learning.

MI Theory: A Brief History

The Multiple Intelligence (MI) theory was first introduced by Howard Gardner in the early 1980s. He believed that “human cognitive competence is better described in terms of a set of abilities, talents, or mental skills… intelligences.” Through years of research, Gardner argued that IQ and SAT style testing shouldn’t be the only way one measures the intelligence of a student. While a world-class chess player, violinist, and athlete may not score high on an IQ test, they are extremely intelligent in their areas of expertise (Gardner 5). Gardner does differentiate his theory on intelligences from the learning styles of my youth. He makes clear that a learning style has been approached as a one-size-fits-all solution to the way students learn, as opposed to students having a spectrum of ways in which they cognitively function (Straus Gardner 1), His research led him to three conclusions about MI theory (Gardner 22) namely,

  1. Everyone has all of the intelligences, as all of the intelligences put together make us human beings.
  2. No two people share the same profile of intelligences, because each individual’s experiences are different, shaping her profile in a different manner.
  3. Showing a strong inclination for intelligence does not mean one will act intelligently.

The Intelligences Explained

8 ways your youth relate to the world

I can imagine that when you see the list of intelligences there will be students who come to mind just from the name, even before you have an explanation. This is due to the fact that children begin to develop what Gardner calls “proclivities” at an early age (Armstrong, Chapter 3). Anyone who deals with young children knows they relate to learning in very different ways. My own son returned home from summer camp adding numbers in his head, at the age of five. I still count on my fingers, so this is not a proclivity I share with him. See if you can guess your own proclivities just from the list below.

  1. Linguistic
  2. Logical-Mathematical
  3. Spatial
  4. Bodily-Kinesthetic
  5. Musical
  6. Interpersonal
  7. Intrapersonal
  8. Naturalist

So what do these intelligences look like in our lives and the lives of our students? The information that follows comes from the third and fourth chapters of Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom 3rd edition by Thomas Armstrong.

Linguistic or Word Smart

This is a great example of how everyone has all of the intelligences, just to differing degrees. If the student can speak and/or read then he has this intelligence; however, students who show a proclivity to this intelligence also are insatiable readers. These are your kids who bring their Kindle in the van to finish the Divergent trilogy, or participate in your library’s teen reading program every summer. They are the ones who love journaling on retreats and will correct the church bulletin when there is a misspelled word. They love puns and may communicate to others in a highly verbal manner.

Logical Mathematical or Number Smart

My older son has a science lab in his bedroom and gets the most satisfaction in life from doing science experiments. People who are number smart are not just good at math, although that’s a pretty good indicator. They relate to the world through reasoning. They like puzzles, calculating how long it will take for the van to get to the retreat center at 65 miles per hour, and they question everything. They are good at games that involve reasoning, like chess or checkers, and they love computer games. These students might be more interested in how the roller coaster works than riding it.

Spatial or Picture Smart

Students who show a proclivity to this intelligence probably draw all over the worksheet you gave them. Any available space on any paper will be filled with doodles. They also might daydream a lot as they are seeing pictures in their minds. They are the ones who will build a tower out of their marshmallows before they make the s’more. They love visual representations of what you are teaching, like maps of Jerusalem, or drawings depicting Bible stories.

Bodily-Kinesthetic, Body Smart, Sports Smart, or Hand Smart

Each of these represents a different facet of having a proclivity to this intelligence. Someone who is body smart might love doing plays where she gets to make dramatic gestures. A sports smart person may always look forv something to shoot in the trash can while you are talking. A hand smart person may love to fold paper into origami shapes instead of writing his answers on it. Students with this proclivity are probably fidgety if they are required to sit still for too long.

Musical or Music Smart

This is the student who won’t stop humming. She always wants the radio turned up on the way to the retreat, or you can’t get him to take his headphones out. She might play an instrument or sing in the choir. He drums on the table with his pencils, or may be very sensitive to the noises around him. She may make up songs to help her learn, or memorize lyrics to songs very easily.

Interpersonal or People Smart

These are your social butterflies. They love to be with other people, and might even seem like a natural leader. They give advice, possibly even when it is unsolicited. They are members of lots of extracurricular clubs and organizations, and love to play games. They usually have a highly developed sense of empathy and concern for others and make great ministers to their peers.

Intrapersonal or Self Smart

Everyone has a student who needs extra processing time, that one who needs an extra moment to come up with an answer that satisfies him or her. These students like to have some alone time to work, and can be nervous about group work. At a retreat they are the ones who love quiet time, or time to go off by themselves and process the day’s events. They are very independent and have a realistic understanding of their own abilities.

Naturalist or Nature Smart

This is the kid who probably has four dogs, three cats, and an aquarium, or he wishes he could. He might be picking up bugs instead of playing Frisbee with everyone else. They are usually very conscious about problems in the environment and might be activists for animal rights, going green, recycling etc.

So what does this all mean for youth ministry?

I know that I can be guilty of doing the same sort of thing every week for a lesson. We come into Bible study or Sunday school and we all sit in a pretty haphazard circle of worn out couches. We talk for a few minutes (intrapersonal) about life in general and then get started on the lesson. It might be a video with great graphics (spatial) or really good narration (linguistic). Then we’ll probably read from either our text or the Bible (linguistic) and I’ll ask them to share their answers out loud (interpersonal). Sometimes we work in small groups (interpersonal) and very rarely I have them sit alone for a while to think about their answers (intrapersonal).
What has happened in my sort of default mode of lesson planning is I’ve only really catered to three or four of the intelligences. I’ve missed about half of the other proclivities. So let’s look at some ways we can incorporate all of the intelligences into lesson planning.


Ice breakers can be great, and they can involve a lot of different intelligences. Having the kids fill out a sheet about themselves (intrapersonal) and then sharing that with someone else to learn about each other (interpersonal). Icebreakers are also great ways to let those who show a proclivity towards bodily-kinesthetic intelligence move around and make those big gestures they love to do. Maybe we can even play music while the kids are participating (musical).


Lectures are a time tested way of teaching; any time we stand up in front of students and talk about a lesson we are lecturing. This method appeals to the linguistic intelligence but it might be ultra-boring for others. Some simple changes to the way we lecture can open up space for those with other proclivities.
Asking a student to come up front and act out a situation with you (bodily-kinesthetic) or draw on the board (spatial). Having the students participate in a rhythmic call and response to check for understanding or attention (musical/intrapersonal). Sometimes even being able to go outside to deliver a lecture opens up opportunities for other intelligences (naturalist/bodily-kinesthetic)


Yes, they can be way overused, but maybe we can restructure our worksheets to be more than just a linguistic tool. Not all answers need to be written; there could be a space to draw (spatial) a response to the topic. Making up new lyrics to a popular song might be another interesting option to include in the response section of a worksheet (musical). What if we put puzzles to solve or a brain teaser at the bottom of the worksheet or calculations to solve (logical mathematical)? For example: “How many years are between your birth year and when King David was alive, around 1040 BC?” While this might seem like an inconsequential question to include for some students, it will pique the interest of a logical mathematical intelligence.


Games are an excellent ministry tool that can include all of the ways we use our intelligences. Think for a minute about your group’s favorite games, I’m sure you can come up with several ways they cater to the different intelligences. Lots of games are naturally geared to those who are body smart, or intrapersonal. But many games are not geared to the logical-mathematical or the intrapersonal intelligences. So sometimes it is great to orchestrate some game time that might be just one on one games, like a checkers tournament. Or maybe hide jigsaw pieces and have the students race to find all of the pieces to their puzzle and put it together the fastest (logical mathematical/bodily kinesthetic/interpersonal). I highly recommend owning the game SET, a small group game that highly appeals to the logical-mathematical intelligence.
The next time you are preparing a lesson for your group, take a look at who might be naturally attracted to your lesson and who might be left out. Come up with some creative ways to use all of these intelligences in your next lesson, and maybe that student who never wants to participate might just feel a little more included.

Bibliography and Resources for Further Study

  1. This site has a test where you can find out your own proclivities: http://www.bgfl.org/bgfl/custom/resources_ftp/client_ftp/ks3/ict/multiple_int/index.htm
  2. Washington Post Article, “Howard Gardner: ‘Multiple intelligences’ are not ‘learning styles’” by Valerie Straus and Howard Gardner, October 16, 2013 http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/16/howard-gardner-multiple-intelligences-are-not-learning-styles/
  3. Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom 3rd Edition, Thomas Armstrong, Copyright 2009, ASCD
  4. Multiple Intelligences: New Horizions in Theory and Practice, Howard Gardner, Copyright 2006, Basic Books
  5. “Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection From To Improve the Academy,” Vol. 11, 1992, Page 137 Neil Fleming and Colleen Mills. http://www.vark-learn.com/documents/not_another_inventory.pdf

Sara Galyon is a third year CYMT graduate resident and serves as the youth minister at FUMC Covington outside Memphis.