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Multiple intelligences: seven ways to approach curriculum

30 July 2009 4 Comments

Thomas Armstrong

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I don’t remember how I learned to tell time. So, when I was asked by a Wisconsin school district to develop a multiple intelligences way of teaching time to a group of first graders, I was initially stymied. My thoughts went back to my own teaching experience as a learning disability specialist. My students’ workbooks on telling time had them drawing in the large and small hands on pictures of clocks. Bo-ring! If we wanted to get a little more experiential, the special education office furnished cardboard clock faces. Students were supposed to get “hands-on” experience by pushing the little hands around these faux clocks. Not very inspiring.

Fortunately, I had a new model of leaming – the theory of multiple intelligences – to help me in my quest. Developed a little over 10 years ago by Howard Gardner, Professor of Education at Harvard University, the theory of multiple intelligences consistently amazes me with its ability to serve as a template in constructing strategies for student success.

The intelligences, briefly described, are:
Linguistic: the intelligence of words.
Logical-mathematical: the intelligence of numbers and reasoning.
Spatial: the intelligence of pictures and images.
Musical: the intelligence of tone, rhythm and timbre.
Bodily-kinesthetic: the intelligence of the whole body and the hands.
Interpersonal: the intelligence of social interactions.
Intrapersonal: the intelligence of self-knowledge.

At times, I almost think of Gardner as an archaeologist who has discovered the Rosetta stone of learning. One can use this model to teach virtually anything, from the “schwa” sound to the rain forest and back. The master code of this learning style model is simple: for whatever you wish to teach, link your instructional objective to words, numbers or logic, pictures, music, the body, social interaction, and/or personal experience. If you can create activities that combine these intelligences in unique ways, so much the better!

A story of time
When I marched into that classroom in Wisconsin to teach “time,” I had no worksheets or tiny cardboard clock faces in my briefcase. Instead, I began by telling them a story about a Land of No Time and how confusing it was for people there (they were always missing appointments). The King and Queen sent a group of adventurers in quest of time because it was rumoured that a Land of Time existed beyond the horizon. After many exciting adventures, the group finally arrived. They knew they’d arrived because there were clocks and watches everywhere! They met with the King and Queen of Time and were told to contact a family who lived up on a hill on the outskirts of Times City; an Irish family named (appropriately enough) the O’Clocks! They had 12 children. The youngest was named One, the next in age Two, and so on down the line. And twice a day, each child would climb up onto the highest point in the land and shout a little rhyme. This is what One O’Clock’s rhyme sounded like:

My name’s One O’Clock
I tell time
Listen while I sing
My timely little chime!
BONG!

Well, the adventurers were excited when they heard and saw this. They convinced the O’Clock family to come to the Land of No Time and set their home up on the highest point in the kingdom. Now everyone in the land had a reference point, for all they had to do was look up and hear one of the kids sing a timely little chime.

After hearing this story, students got up one at a time and stood in front of a huge handless plywood clock face five feet high and acted out the role of one of the O’Clocks. At this point I mentioned that each of the O’Clock children had one huge hand and one tiny hand. So with my assistance, each child made a different time with his or her back to the clock and “hands” pointing to the appropriate numbers while they sang their special rhyme. After we all gathered around a circle, I told them that the Land of Time (as it was now called) celebrated the O’Clocks’ arrival by having a special “clock dance” every year. Twelve students sat in an inner circle, each one holding up a number from 1 to 12, while students got inside the circle and created a time of day using their hands and/or feet. Everyone danced around the clock to the tune of Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”. Then students went to their desks to write stories of the tale illustrated by clock faces showing different times. After they were finished, they returned to the circle and shared their pictures and words.

All of this took about an hour and a half. During this time, students used their whole bodies, their musical voices, their logical (number counting) minds, their artistic selves, their cooperative spirit and their own linguistic and personal intelligences to create images of telling time. The possibilities for extending this brief lesson into a more extensive curriculum was positively mindboggling. Students could put on a play of the story (interpersonal/bodily-kinesthetic), invent their own special time pieces (bodily-kinesthetic/spatial), make up their own time songs or raps (musical/linguistic), keep a personal journal of special times in their day (intrapersonal/linguistic), and explore other ways of telling time historically or cross culturally. This kind of approach to the curriculum begins to make worksheets with clock faces sound like educational malpractice!

A blueprint for the future
Of course, some educators may think that this learning philosophy works fine with younger kids but that when students reach middle or high school age, they need to put these frills aside and get serious about learning. Unfortunately, this narrow perception of learning helps contribute to the alienation of adolescents. Children do not leave their multiple intelligences behind once they reach puberty. If anything, the intelligence become even more intense (especially bodily-kinesthetic and the personal intelligences).

Consequently, students should be learning their algebra, ancient history, government, chemistry, literature and more through multiple intelligences. In algebra, students should be talking about the unknowns (the “x’s”) in their own lives. In chemistry, they should be learning Boyle’s law by puffing some air into their mouths (gas in a chamber) and then seeing the pressure go up when they put all the air into one side, where it occupies a smaller volume (Boyle’s law: volume is inversely proportional to pressure). They should be role-playing literature. They should be interviewing, surveying, building, dramatising, rapping, cooperating, computing, problem solving, sketching and learning in a thousand other ways. Why? Because these are the activities that go on in the real world. If we could travel the world and look at the many ways in which different cultures show their capabilities, we’d probably observe thousands of different intelligences. The theory of multiple intelligences makes things a little simpler for us. By chunking the broad range of human abilities into seven basic intelligences, we now have a map for making sense out of the many ways in which children learn, and a blueprint for ensuring their success in school and in life.

When planning, ask the right questions
Certain questions help me look at the possibilities for involving as many intelligences as possible:

Linguistic: How can I use the spoken or written word?
Logical-mathematical: How can I bring in numbers, calculations, logic, classifications, or critical thinking?
Spatial: How can I use visual aids, visualisation, colour, art, metaphor or visual organisers?
Musical: How can I bring in music or environmental sounds, or set key points in a rhythm or melody?
Bodily-kinesthetic: How can I involve the whole body, or hands-on experiences?
Interpersonal: How can I engage students in peer or cross-age sharing, cooperative learning or large-group simulation?
Intrapersonal: How can I evoke personal feelings or memories, or give students choices?

You won’t always find ways of including every intelligence in your curriculum plans. But if this model helps you reach into one or two intelligences that you might not otherwise have tapped, then it has served its purpose very well indeed!

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., is an award-winning author and speaker with over thirty years of teaching experience from the primary through the doctoral level, and has several books in print on issues related to learning and human development.

This article was first published in Educational Leadership, November 1994. It has been reprinted here with the author’s permission.

Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences is not a new concept, especially for us in India. If you ask me, this whole concept started in India. We are the original theorists of multiple intelligences. If you go back to the Vedic Period, you realise that India built an oral culture of learning; prayers offered in the form of slokas which have rhythm, pattern and music all built into them. Don’t you sense them when you chant a sloka? So I would say that while this is not new to us, Gardner has certainly helped us look at multiple intelligences from a modern perspective.

Gardner’s theory has challenged this myth of the supremacy of the verbal-linguistic and mathematical-logical intelligence over the others and teachers are now aware that learning can happen in different ways. In that sense, I think Gardner has achieved his objective. However, applying the theory to an actual classroom setup is quite another story.

Gardner’s theory gives one hope that one can teach a concept in different ways to cater to the needs of children with different intelligences. I am not very sure how widely applicable that is. Yes, it is true there is a connection between math and music (mathematical and musical intelligence) or between math and architecture (mathematical and spatial intelligence) but you will not always be successful in trying to integrate or find a link between subjects to teach all concepts.

Gardner’s critics have pointed out that what he calls intelligences are merely abilities/talents that people may or may not have. Gardner is not very clear with his definition of intelligences and that it is not pure science. He does not tell you how intelligences are different from skills, abilities or talents that people can acquire. Neither has Gardner explored the role of emotions and memories which play such a significant part in the learning process. Although it’s been 25 years since the theory was first published, I think it is still very raw and can be explored further.

Whether a mix of traditional teaching and multiple intelligence methods would be a good way to approach the comprehension and application problem – no distinction can really be made between the two. Different situations demand use of different resources and with quicker and new methods of learning emerging, it makes sense to pick them accordingly.

Jayaprakash Rao, Principal, Indus World School.

As far as the Waldorf system of education is concerned, the Multiple Intelligences theory that Gardner visualised is not very new. When Rudolf Steiner first proposed the Waldorf system in 1919, he believed that learning is interdisciplinary and includes all senses and body parts, which is why when we teach, we teach to reach all intelligences. We sing, dance, draw, have field trips… all around the topic we are teaching. And like Gardner we don’t believe in labelling our students as dull or not very intelligent. We believe each child has some ability and it is up to us to bring that out in the child and help him relate to the rest of the class.

Gardener believes that the lecture method popular in most schools does not allow all students to internalise what they are learning and hence they are unable to apply what they learn in school in real life situations. Such a method only helps students pass an examination in school. At Waldorf schools, education takes into account the age and consciousness of the child. We believe in developing the individual as a whole and therefore what our students learn in school they remember for life. We don’t teach for students to forget after writing their exams.

Meera Kamlakar, Teacher, Sloka.

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The Multiple Intelligences theory, in my opinion, is a very good concept. Learning happens on multiple levels and core intelligences such as the linguistic, logical, interpersonal, intra personal, etc., form an integral part of basic education. It is important that teachers realise this. At Ramadevi School we have orientation sessions to help teachers understand what multiple intelligences are and how they are to approach these.

I don’t think it is difficult to apply Gardner’s theory in Indian classrooms. It will only mean more involvement and thinking on the part of a teacher. Since teaching is not mechanical and means constant improvisation, teachers can easily make the transition from just lecturing to using different methods that involve the students more while teaching. To begin with Indian schools could have a mix of the traditional teaching approach (which caters mostly to the verbal-linguistic intelligence) and multiple intelligence methods. Wherever possible, schools can allow their teachers opportunity to teach differently.

Maruti Ramprasad, Principal, Ramadevi School.

Bringing Multiple Intelligences into the Classroom

Margaret Warner

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The Achievers’ Programme based in Chandigarh and MAW Education based in the UK have been introducing Multiple Intelligences theory to classroom teachers across India since September 2006. At a two-day workshop, teachers are introduced to the original research of the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, who promoted, in book Frames of Mind (1983), the concept of Multiple Intelligences, rather than a fixed intelligence. Teachers are encouraged to discuss the meaning of ‘intelligence’ as different intelligences are needed and valued to a greater or lesser extent in different cultures. For example, in a jungle community, kinesthetic and spatial intelligences are given respect and importance. Linguistic and mathematical intelligences are of lesser importance to survival. In any society, it is the quest for survival that establishes the value given to the different intelligences. For instance, in Norway, a predominantly rural country, the school curriculum favours naturalist intelligence and gives due time to developing this for the younger children, through weekly visits to study in log cabins.

Lessons in the past have been ‘chalk and talk’, which those with a strong linguistic intelligence benefit from, but those with strong spatial or kinesthetic intelligences benefit little. They become ‘failures’. Need this be? No. They too can succeed if taught in a different way. Within a lesson or series of lessons, knowledge can be gained and skills taught through the different intelligences, so that all are successful. In Kaushik Basu’s article, ‘India’s faltering education system’ in Teacher Plus, he writes, “Minimally, we need to break away from the mindset of having one uniform standard for all”. He is referring to the funding of universities, but his comment could apply just as well to the mindset of many teachers and the way they teach. Clinging on to one method is holding back those who would benefit from a more flexible approach.

During our two-day workshop, teachers are made aware of the career opportunities open to people with strengths in the different intelligences, helping them realise further the importance of their own responsibilities as teachers. They are encouraged to think about how they approach lesson plans, class-room organisation and classroom management, and about how these impinge on learning. In subsequent discussions, strategies for improvement are suggested, based on the concept of multiple intelligences.

The Indian economy is moving forward fast, but is education keeping up with it? And will people leaving schools and universities in the near future have the necessary knowledge and skills to service this economy? Not unless things change, it would seem, from Dilip Thakore’s article in the November 2007 edition of Education World. Thakore records that the “National Knowledge Commission is in the process of engineering root and branch reform of the country’s moribund education system which by common academic consensus is notorious for its rigidities and is obsolescing rapidly”. He quotes Madhav Chavan, founder trustee and director of the Pratham Mumbai Education Initiative “Indian education is stuck in a time warp, groaning under an archaic philosophy”.

In July 2004 the Executive Committee of the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) decided to revise the National Curriculum Framework. They came up with five guiding principles:

  • To connect knowledge to life outside school;
  • To ensure that learning shifts away from rote learning;
  • To enrich the curriculum so that it goes beyond textbooks;
  • To make examinations more flexible and integrate them with classroom life;
  • To nurture an overriding identity informed by caring concerns within the democratic polity of the country.

They recommended that the curriculum should be made more relevant to the present day and future needs. Teachers should:

  • Understand the way learning occurs;
  • Find possible ways of creating conducive conditions for learning;
  • Provide for the differences among students in respect of the kind, pace and style of learning;
  • View the learner as an active participative person in learning;
  • Understand that his/her capabilities or potentials are seen not as fixed, but are capable of developing through experiences.

Schools in India have many challenges, but teachers are keen to do their utmost for their students. Working with them has been a delight and the results have sometimes been outstanding. Teachers deserve to be given all the professional development opportunities available to them, so that they can continue to guide pupils in ways that will enable them to take full part in this fast developing, vibrant and united country to which they belong, where children are taught that “even beggars have dignity”. The dignity of the individual is a quality that underpins society as a whole. May this quality be enhanced, by teachers being aware of their pupils’ multiple intelligences, so that people’s many and varied interests and skills are all appreciated.

Margaret Warner is an International Educational Consultant with MAW Education. She can be reached at .

Fractions in multiple ways

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One of the concepts that can quite easily be taught in different ways, to tap into different kinds of intelligence, is fractions – something many children find difficult to grasp. Here is a very brief introduction to how the idea of fractions can be interpreted variously.

  1. The conventional way – for those who understand symbols and abstractions – is to write out the numbers and illustrate simple fractions using pie diagrams.
  2. See, smell, touch and understand: Use chocolate bars – most of them are divided into equal parts, either eight or sixteen squares, or twenty-four. The part can be compared to the whole, and you can ask questions like “If I give you one square, how much of the whole bar does that make?” “If I promise to give you half the bar, how many squares will I have to give you?” And then ask them to come up with different fractions and show how much that makes of the whole. “Is one sixteenth larger than one fourth?” “How much more is one half than one eighth?”
  3. See how the whole changes: Give the children several strips of construction paper each. Have them fold one into half, the next into four, the next into three and so on, and compare the different sizes against one whole strip. They can also use these folded strips to learn how to add and subtract simple fractions.
  4. Keep time by clapping: Play a simple piece of music and ask the children if they can figure out the beat by clapping to it in a regular manner. What happens when you have two claps instead of one? Can the beat be divided into four, or eight? If you have any children who are learning music in the class, ask them to talk about the concept of rhythm (taal) in music and what happens when one uses the second or third speed in classical music?
  5. Now tap those feet: As in music, in dance too, fractions are an important part of composition. In bharatanatyam, for instance, the jathis (steps in a specific configuration) are set to a specific speed, incorporating a specific number of beats, but these can be speeded up or slowed down by changing the number of beats, but the entire length of the item remains the same – the number of steps performed changes. You can get the children to try a simple step, such as a four-step pattern, even ask them to choreograph their own dance in different fractions of a beat.
  6. Use words to describe the idea of dividing a whole into parts, for instance, describe how a birthday cake was cut into a number of equal sized pieces so that everyone received the same amount. If there were twelve people in the group, how would you slice the cake so that you could be sure it was divided into twelve equal pieces? Use plenty of description to appeal to children who respond to verbal cues.

There are probably many other ways in which fractions can be taught and practiced. This is just to illustrate some of the ways in which we can interpret the concept so as to tap into multiple intelligences.

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