MI: mission impossible?

24th November 2006 at 00:00
Hard enough to teach seven let alone 30 minds at once. Harvard professor Howard Gardner has a theory on multiple intelligences that might actually work, reports Biddy Passmore

The trouble with Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences (MI) which has been influencing classrooms for a generation is that it is all very well saying people have seven - or eight, or nine - different kinds of intelligence but what use is that as you stand in front of 3C on a wet Friday afternoon?

How are you supposed to teach, say, maths, in a way that appeals to little Miss Linguistic in the front row while somehow grabbing the attention of Master Musical rapping away at the back? Well, now we have it from the horse's mouth that you don't have to and never should have been trying to teach that way.

Brought over to the UK by the Edge Foundation to talk about his new thesis of five minds Professor Gardner, the Harvard professor of cognition and education, was happy to discuss the application of his theories to the classroom - and to dispel some misconceptions.

About learning styles, for instance, which are often taken as the logical extension of his MI theory. "I'm dubious that learning styles exist," he says.

But what about those children who wear badges saying "I'm a visual learner"? Or those who leap up and down in the back row, proudly announcing that they favour the "kinaesthetic"? Isn't that Gardner's multiple intelligences in action?

Well, no. He is sceptical about all of it. He doesn't like labelling children and he's puzzled when teachers proudly show him a "bodilyspatial"

corner in their classroom. "Why?" is his reaction.

He explains that when he first published his book introducing multiple intelligences 25 years ago (Frames of Mind, 1983), he was writing strictly as a psychologist. He did not have particular educational nostrums to disseminate. That, of course, has not stopped eager educationists picking up the theory and running with it. It is a mistake, says Gardner, to confuse the various intelligences with the sensory system. A visual learner, for instance, is not simply a child who likes to learn by looking.

"What matters is the operations they perform on the material they are absorbing, not how it got into the system," he says.

It is also wrong to confuse intelligences with domains and disciplines, he adds. For instance, a child learning music will use not just musical intelligence but also, for instance, bodily-kinaesthetic and interpersonal intelligences.

So if it is a mistake to try to match intelligences neatly with either senses or learning styles, how should MI theory inform how teachers teach?

"There are two fundamental points that anyone who takes MI seriously should honour," says Professor Gardner. "One, that kids are different from one another and that you should personalise as much as you can.

"Two, when you teach something, you should teach it in lots of different ways."

This, he says, demands the self-confidence that comes from a teacher's deep understanding of their subject. Does he think personalised learning, designed to appeal to as many different kinds of intelligence as possible, could hold the key to raising attainment? Even, perhaps, to narrowing the gap in achievement between boys and girls? He looks doubtful on both fronts.

While a self-confessed "demon for high standards and high expectations," he has little time for the current testing mania. When former schools minister David Miliband, a Gardner fan, credited his MI theory with the rise in Sat results, he was happy to accept the compliment - but said he would decline the blame if they fell.

As for boys and girls, he points out that many of the usually stated differences - boys strong in spatial and logicalnumerical intelligence, girls in linguistic and interpersonal skills - could be genetic or cultural. There is, for example, no difference in the spatial skills of male and female Eskimos.

In any case, his educational focus is now switching from psychology to policy-making. In his forthcoming book, Five Frames of Mind, he turns to the "transformational change" needed to develop young minds for the challenges of the 21st century.

They will need to develop five minds, he says: disciplined (so that they acquire a real mastery of one or more disciplines), synthesised (able to assess the huge amounts of information available and sort out what is valuable), creative (so that they can innovate), respectful (a notion going beyond mere tolerance), and ethical (i.e. able to act against self-interest, for the greater good). And the most important of these, he says, will be the ability to synthesise

Top of the hops

Where does Howard Gardner think the best education is to be found?

In general, he has been most impressed with the Scandinavian systems. But you need to hop about the world to get the best at each stage:

Best nursery: the French ecole maternelle

Best pre-schools: Reggio Emilia

Best primary: Japan

Best secondary: Western Europe (especially Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic)

Best college and university - US

Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences

The seven original intelligences:








And two possible extras: naturalist


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