Smart Stuff [Close-Up / City of Fairfax Schools]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Editor / City School Close-Up
Cover Story, January-February 2006
IS YOUR CHILD WORDSMART, LOGICSMART, MUSICSMART, OR PEOPLESMART? DETERMINE HOW STUDENTS LEARN BEST MAY BE THE KEY TO THEIR SUCCESS
“I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind curious. I want them to understand it so they will make it a better place,” wrote world-renown educator and psychologist Howard Gardner in 1999.
It is with such a goal in mind that Gardner, a Harvard University professor, devised the theory of Multiple Intelligences. His 1993 landmark book, Frames of Mind, turned on its head the belief that human beings are blank slates that can be trained to learn anything — providing the information is presented in an appropriate way.
On the contrary, Gardner’s research suggests there are at least eight intelligences, each with its own strengths and constraints.
“We have found that the mind is far from encumbered at birth, and it is unexpectedly difficult to teach things that challenge these natural lines,” he explains. “The theory [of multiple intelligences] is an account of human cognition in its fullness. It provides a new definition of human nature.”
The professor’s list is comprised of eight sets of intelligence (see sidebar on page 3 for definitions). The first two deal with skills that are highly valued in school:
• Linguistic Intelligence (WordSmart)
• Logical-Mathematical Intelligence (Logic Smart).
The next three are associated with the arts:
• Musical Intelligence (MusicSmart)
• Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence (BodySmart),
• Spatial Intelligence (PictureSmart).
The final two are personal:
• Interpersonal Intelligence (PeopleSmart)
• Intrapersonal Intelligence (SelfSmart).
In the 1990s, Gardner added an eighth intelligence: the “Naturalist,” or someone who is NatureSmart and able to recognize fine distinctions and patterns in the natural world.
For Gardner, “intelligence” is the ability to solve problems or create products that are valued within one or more cultural settings, and he suggests that most people have a blend of these intelligences. Initially, his theory sparked tremendous debate in the education community.
The concern was that if it were tough to teach kids who presumably all have one kind of intelligence, how would you teach eight? “Eight kinds of intelligence would allow eight ways to teach,” Gardner responded. “Powerful constraints that exist in the mind can be mobilized to introduce a particular concept in a way that children are most likely to learn it and least likely to distort it. Ultimately, it can be freeing.”
APPLYING THE THEORY
More than 25 years later, educators have come to embrace Gardner’s theory.
“I love looking at the world in terms of everyone having a different kind of intelligence,” says Dr. Carol Horn, coordinator for the Gifted & Talented Programs for Fairfax County Public Schools. “It’s powerful for children to understand that we all have different strengths. If we can identify what kind of ‘smart’ they are, they’ll be able to focus on what they do best. Plus, the areas they have to work on also become clear.”
Traditionally, the two Intelligence needed to excel in school have been English (WordSmart) and math (LogicSmart), Horn explains. After all, she says, it’s easy to test a child on grammar skills and multiplication tables.
However, she believes that since Gardner’s work has become part of the mainstream, teachers and parents have realized that having an affinity for nature, art, gym, music, social skills and a strong sense of self are also signs of intelligence.
“It’s wonderful, really, because now that we know different children learn in different ways, we have new opportunities to hook students into whatever we’re teaching,” Horn adds.
For instance, if a 5th grade class is learning about volcanoes, the teacher might engage PictureSmart students by having them draw a diagram of Mount St. Helens. LogicSmart kids might calculate the likelihood of a volcano erupting in the next decade, and MusicSmart students might compose a tune that sounds like an eruption.
“The possibilities are endless,” Horn concludes. “And that’s what is so exciting about applying Gardner’s findings in the classroom. Ultimately, the more fun and creative teachers get with their lesson plans, the more students are engaged, and the more they learn.”
At Daniels Run Elementary, teachers often do an inventory of students’ learning styles in September.
“Teachers also ask for input from parents so they have a broad understanding of a child’s strengths and any areas of concern,” says Principal Kathy Mullenix. “Classroom assessments in reading, writing and math round out the picture of a child’s needs so teachers can set up an appropriate instructional program.”
At Providence Elementary, 2nd grade teachers Cindy Howe and Diana Schmiesing regularly apply Multiple Intelligences strategies. Consider their latest project: An interactive exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the day Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus. They had students build 3-D people out of paper and parked them in a giant 3-D bus. Posted around the perimeter of the school’s upstairs corridor were posters of the actual events from 1955, including a photograph of Parks on a bus.
In addition to it being a lesson on the civil rights activist, the project appealed to nearly all Multiple Intelligences.
“Our good readers enjoyed the question and answer part of the display, and the PictureSmart kids liked the photos,” Howe shares. “It was also good for BodySmart kids, because everyone moved around as they learned.”
Last year at Lanier Middle School, science teacher Sona Sharma and history teacher Paula Bentz also tapped a variety of their 7th graders’ Multiple Intelligences. They had representatives from the National Park Service come to school and guide students through a handful of science/nature lessons that culminated in a grand assignment: To design and construct a monument.
“Students used logic, writing and design skills, and worked together a lot,” Sharma shares. “It was an awesome project.”
Fairfax High’s Principal Scott Brabrand believes a great teacher will find ways for kids with all kinds of skills to access their classes.
“If there are eight Multiple Intelligences, why only show students the curriculum in one way,” he asks. “The mind is a muscle and using it in many different ways is critical to being successful — no matter what career a person chooses.”