Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Multiple Intelligences and Fish

Today, I participated in a discussion at the university of Gardener's theory of multiple intelligences in relation to pedagogy. I was enjoying the discussion a lot, until one of the teachers put an end to it by prescribing the exact way in which they should be considered: first decide what your lesson goal is, then think of how to teach in a way that caters to multiple intelligence.

I put is to him that perhaps the learning goal may not be the same, once multiple intelligences had been given proper thought. His response was a flat 'no.' Not wanting to be rude, I didn't pursue the matter further at the time. However, needless to say, I was far from satisfied.

The scenario we had been considering was a school in Papua New Guinea, in a small wooden building on stilts over the sea. The building had no windows, but cracks between floor boards meant that the students could look down and see fish swimming below. Fish were the topic of the unit. One of our lecturers said he had watched the teacher's first class, in which the students had read in silence about fish from a textbook.

The lecturer asked members of our class what advice they might give the teacher. Most of the responses were along the lines of introducing practical interaction with fish, visual representation, song and rhythm and interpersonal interaction through group work, each of which would suit students strong in a different one of Gardner's intelligences. Of course this made a lot of sense and would no doubt have helped the teacher a great deal.

Some students in our class also pointed out that the children being taught, being from a fishing community and having caught, cleaned and gutted fish since an early age, probably knew a great deal about them already. One of my friends suggested that the students should be taught as experts and their knowledge valued and respected by the teacher, he himself being a highlander with little experience of fishing. However, having studied biology, he possessed other kinds of fish related knowledge which he wanted to share with the students.

The point I really wanted to make though, and I don't think I did such a great job of communicating it, was that multiple intelligences have the potential to be used formatively. That is, rather than just asking 'how can students understand this set of facts through the forms of intelligence they posses?' we might also begin to ask 'which forms of intelligence are of the greatest potential value to them?' and 'how can students learn to think in new ways?'

Of course that last question goes a bit beyond gardener. We understand the brain as 'plastic' and able to be changed. We know that people can improve their score on IQ tests through training, for example. This of course brings the whole concept of intelligence as it has traditionally been understood into question. However, Gardener's multiple intelligences were never all that aligned with traditional conceptions of intelligence in the first place. Things like 'musical intelligence,' 'linguistic intelligence' etcetera are seen by many psy' discipline scholars as more like areas of talent than anything so fundamental as intelligence. In any case, it is clear that they can be learned.

What needs to be considered in the case of the class in PNG is whether the types of intelligence in which the students are strong are those which will help them in their future. Any particular culture assigns values to types of intelligence. In the west, linguistic and mathematical in ability are in broad demand because the nature of our economy and education system relies on them to a greater extent than others. There are of course niches for those who posses the other forms of intelligence, such as artists, athletes etcetera, but the relatively small numbers who succeed in these areas are determined by economic and social factors and it is generally only an exceptional few who are able to use these kinds of talents to make a living, either by becoming famous or by going into teaching.

In a fishing community in PNG, spacial intelligence and kinesthetic intelligence are likely to be of great importance for catching fish, while linguistic and mathematical intelligence may carry far less weight, though this is merely a speculation based on the nature of fishing as their primary occupation. Assuming this to be the case, the question any teacher in such a situation must ask is this: for what kind of future am I preparing my students? On the one hand, I can share with them the knowledge created by and for western post industrial society. This may change their lives and give them opportunities of which few fishing village denizens have dreamed. On the other, I can respect their culture and way of life, learn from them and seek to enhance the value of what they already own.

As educators, are we there to spread our culture, or to help students within their own, which is what we would be doing if we were educating at home. Note that the teacher in our example was not a westerner, but he was an outsider to the fishing community and possessed a western style education himself.

It's a difficult question. Perhaps it may be possible to offer both or to find some compromise, but that too would necessarily come with its fair share of drawbacks. A better answer may come in the form of a bilateral cultural exchange between teachers and students in such as context. This would require mutual respect, caution and humility. The greatest achievement of Gardener in terms of education  was, I would argue, his recognition of the value of forms of thought, activity and knowledge outside the traditional academic sphere. Calling them intelligences, controversial though it may be, has helped many to see their value and in some cases change the distribution of intellectual capital.


  1. I agree with you here - it seems like a fairly short-term, short-sighted approach to me. It's basically a slight refinement of the "banking theory" decried by Freire - Gardiner's "multiple intelligences" theory is being used merely as another way to shovel knowledge into passive receptacles. Consider also Piaget and constructivism, and the associative structure of human memory - if you want students to actually understand something, you've got to work from what they already know. If you decide your exact aim before you even know what resources you have to work with (both in the students and in their environment), then you're very unlikely to be making good use of those resources. Oh, and the cultural imperialism you're alluding to here relates very well to Freire's theory - pedagogy of the oppressed, indeed.

    It's possible that I'm missing something here, and it's possible that you're not relaying the discussion accurately. However, based on the information available to me, I think your lecturers need to relearn some of the first-year undergraduate content - it seems a whole lot like they're falling back on the old authoritarian guardian-of-facts paradigm, both in how they teach you and in how they want you to teach.


  2. I don't think that the lecturers were actually thinking of the students as passive. However, I think they were failing to think at a fundamental enough level about the implications of their subjects possession of the intelligences in question. That criticism is only for the one who said 'no.' I think at least one of the other lecturers present would have got what I was getting at, but not wanted to criticise hie colleague right then and there, he kept a respectful silence. That's just my impression based on my experience of their thinking and personalities though and I could well be wrong.

    Certainly there is an element of cultural imperialism present there. Anglocentrism is inherent in many of the assumptions upon which our currant pedagogy is based. I fear it may be resistant to change.