Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Musings On Multiple Intelligences

I have a pet peeve I need to discuss. I get really annoyed when I hear people refer to kids as “stupid,” “dumb,” “not that smart,” or any variation of the above.

Occasionally I hear people express this belief about students, and I wonder how they so easily wield such condemning words with a clear conscience.

I was corrupted early on in my teaching career when I heard about Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory and it resonated strongly with what I already believed about human beings and their intelligence and/or potential. (Gardner is a Harvard professor who is recognized as "one of the most influential public intellectuals” in the world. I personally think it behooves those of us in education to follow his research whether we agree with it or not, because he is initiating conversations that we need to participate in. He has a new book out called Five Minds for the Future, outlining his theory about the types of minds that will flourish in the coming decades—those he calls the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind. Check out

Teachers sometimes roll their eyes when you bring up multiple intelligences, I suppose because they feel that drum has already been beaten too much, and they fear that it implies yet another layer of work for us in an already-tough-to-keep-up-with job.

It is true that some teachers work at incorporating all eight or nine intelligences into each and every lesson plan. (I say eight or nine intelligences because it depends upon whether you admit spiritual intelligence into the fold. Personally, I say admit them all, and find others. The more ways I can see intelligence and potential in my students, the better I feel about my practice, the better I instill confidence in them, and the better they learn.)

Incorporating all the intelligences would mean every lesson would include something musical, something mathematical, and so on.

I find that type of planning to be mostly too much work for too little gain, but the multiple intelligences theory helps me immensely in my thinking, in my perception of my students, and in my refusal to view any of them as “dumb” or “slow.” I’ve had students who took a long, long time to acquire any usable Spanish, but who could draw amazing artwork or play beautiful guitar music. I don’t feel comfortable labeling such a kid as stupid, because it’s obviously not true.

Someone will say, yeah, but I know people who display no talent for anything at all. My response to that is their potential hasn’t been tapped yet. Maybe nothing difficult has ever been demanded of them, so they haven’t had a chance to show what they would be able to do if given the opportunity to grow in a certain area. Or nothing has piqued their interest yet. As a teacher, I consider it my job to at least attempt to do those two things—challenge students to reach their potential without discouraging them, and pique their interest without assuming all people will love learning a new language.

So, what to do about multiple intelligences in your instruction, on a practical level?

· Believe they exist, look for them in your students

· Bring them out through praise and encouragement

· Vary your planned activities in class

· Allow students to show what they know through various means (not just on the district’s “common assessments”)

I believe that teachers who actively approach their practice from this mindset will feel better about their teaching as well as notice gains in student learning that are well worth the effort.

Just my 2 cents.