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Greatest gift is understanding

Two internationally renowned 'gurus' visited Scotland last week - and challenged the way we teach

THE influential American academic behind the theory of "multiple intelligences" has slammed the traditional curricular approach which suggests that a subject like history can be taught "from Plato to Nato in 20 weeks".

Howard Gardner, of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said: "The students will pass their tests right away - but ask them to take them again two years later and they will fail because they have not understood or absorbed."

Professor Gardner was in Scotland addressing teachers as part of a programme organised by the Glasgow-based educational think-tank, Tapestry.

He called instead for learning to be grouped round topics such as evolution, the Holocaust or Mozart. These could be approached in a variety of ways using different "intelligences" including the linguistic, the logical, the spiritual, the aesthetic and the interpersonal.

Professor Gardner said: "Anything that is worth learning can be approached in these different ways. The benefits are twofold - you reach more students and they learn what it is to understand something and to become an expert.

That's the greatest gift we can give our young people because, once you understand, you are not going to settle for not understanding."

The notion that different people have a differing range of intelligences is at the heart of Professor Gardner's theories. Someone who is linguistically gifted is not necessarily aesthetically talented.

Nor, he said, is someone who is good at maths necessarily mathematically intelligent - "although it helps". A good deal of maths depends on spatial intelligence, Professor Gardner said. He cited his own skills in the subject which tend to algebra rather than geometry because the latter depends on good awareness of shapes and space which is not his forte.

He said this view of intelligence challenged the idea that "if you are smart at one thing, you are smart at everything". Bobby Fischer, regarded as the complete chess player, "would have been 100 per cent useless or worse if he had lived in a pre-chess age".

Professor Gardner is also opposed to teaching in a uniform fashion, in which the same subjects are taught and assessed in the same way.

"This sounds fair because everyone appears to be treated similarly," he said. "But I want to argue that it is unfair because it is based on a linguistic profile of intelligence, pitched in the same way for everyone and getting everyone to pass through the same eye of the needle."

He said this all pointed to the need for an "individually crafted education", which computers will encourage. "Don't simply assume that learning is a matter of plotting people on different points of the same intelligence curve."

Professor Gardner said all he was trying to do was "to open up the concept of intelligence and take it away from the psychometricians".

He was not on a crusade against "general intelligence", or what teachers consider as the able student. "What we don't know is whether that 'ableness' translates out of school: many people successful in business or politics, for example, would not have been counted able in school."

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