Thursday, March 5, 2015

Multiple Intelligences

The idea of multiple intelligences is for the most part nonsensical. The idea that almost all individuals could not read a wikipedia page and glean the most important points, or listen to a podcast and pick up on some key points, has to be deemed a bad idea. All individuals, without significant brain problems or perceptual problems, should be able to do such. More pointedly, they should be adept at doing such after 12 or 16 years of a good education. Now, if all you do for ten years of an education is have teachers encouraging you to develop your musical talents, perhaps the reading medium is more difficult. In a self-reinforcing manner, perhaps you will turn consistently to musical talents or physical talents, and make instantiation of verbal skills even more difficult.

The processes of learning do not come readily to anyone. Solving quadratic equations is difficult, and requires a great deal of given background knowledge, such as more basic addition and subtraction. The importance of that is that all individuals have to be beat over the head of how to solve such problems. They have to be inculcated or disciplined (in the Foucaultian-sense) into educational structures. Such a process of learning how to solve a problem is not greatly present in some people as opposed to others. It is something that takes many hours of fitting pieces together. It is also beneficial if the student accepts the process itself. That is, they are willing learners.

One of the more absurd angles on multiple intelligences is the idea of the emotional learner and the physical activity learner. We are creatures and brains that are primed on emotion and physical activity. The evolutionary story there even makes a great deal of sense. We likely do not have architecture that makes it easy for us to sit down and rummage through math problems for 12 hours a day. Adding in interpersonal engagement, stronger emotional engagements, and physical activity here and there is useful for all learners. It may even keep the brain/body primed to continue learning. Even when learners manage long bouts of heavy academic engagement, we are usually tapping into emotional desires. Students often engage education materials because of fear of failure or pleasure of praise. They are not learning because the math problem in front of them is self-rewarding (though the solving of any and all problems may require emotional feedback as we recognize the right answer, and is thus self-rewarding in some minimal way).

If a student does not seem as willing or as able as their peers to take in information, say from 30 minutes of lecture or 30 minutes of reading, it is likely not because they have some intrinsic genetic characteristic that has made them unable to do so. It may be that they do not have as much practice or motivation concentrating in the appropriate way. Or they may not have the background structure (and hence we could say an identity characteristic) to readily take in the material within such a format. Both texts and lectures (say any communication medium) often takes certain informational givens to then convey further information. Obviously, subjects who are lacking some of the background knowledge will struggle with comprehending the target information, and will probably also quickly lose attentional and emotional focus on the activity.

As was hinted above, this does not mean that varying lessons and souping-up lessons is not beneficial to all learners. Given a variety of individuals and backgrounds, some lessons will be more readily attained in some formats as opposed to others by different individuals at that time. In the end though, but fairly early on in education, almost all individuals are capable of visual and audio learning, of taking in information from such mediums. And if individuals are not capable of doing such or resist such, that is because of other failures in building up the skills and education of these individuals, as opposed to thinking that these individuals have some kind of learning style or intelligence specialty that is simply inherent in their identity. 

If a child ends up in a teacher's classroom, say a fourth grader, who is deemed far behind their peers in taking in the appropriate information from a short spoken lecture, the answer is almost certainly not that this individual just happens to have more of a kinesthetic or musical capacity than logical or linguistic capacity. It may be a lack of background knowledge or of bad study skills, or a lack of practice of note taking and attentional focus (we will side-step that for now). But it is going to be important that such a teacher either bring a student up to speed on such a skill, or find the actual physical limitation that prevents such. And not to buy into the nonsense that such a student has a different learning style or has a different propensity for other kinds of skills and knowledge, other than semantic or logic.

For people who actually propose that individuals have such radically different qualities, they better bring more evidence than what has been brought in the past. If not, then they are making as empty statements as parents who misinterpret that their babies just always loved pink or blue. The idea that multiple intelligences should be informing teacher preparation (and it is a common theme in the teaching world) is deeply troubling. But if we cannot form grounded and useful psychology, cognitive science, and general philosophical ideas, it is little wonder that our teaching programs are so scattered, and that teachers and school districts continuously walk off cliffs. In other words, it is not exactly the teaching profession's fault that Howard Gardner has as much credibility as he has. (Though, like “girls like pink” kind of psychology, given that these kind of multiple intelligence theories fit nicely into the identity and social world that seems so obvious around us, it is easily bought by the public, and even by other academics who do not turn such a critical eye to the development of self and society.)

The first lesson, and it rebuts some of the miscues of these multiple intelligence beliefs, is that we cannot separate socialization from education. That is, educational thought has to accept the totality of why individuals have the skills and knowledge they have, why they are the individuals they are. They have to turn to the whole package of socialization/education, the entire process of genes and environment that makes the individual before them what they are. The idea that genetically any child has some special propensity to be a musical learner as opposed to a visual learner (in such a disparate and species differing manner) is absurd. Likewise, the idea that any child cannot be a successful chemist, philosopher, doctor, or math professor is absurd. It may require creating a significantly different world around most individuals. That is, it may require building different selves than the ones that we casually allow parents, communities, and societies to build out of the genetic material that makes up any one individual.

Update: I was confusing multiple intelligences and learning styles here (according to Gardner). Learning styles has to do more with things like an audio learner versus a visual learner. This is what the New York Times article is about. Multiple intelligences is the idea that we can split cognitive abilities into different groups (e.g. musical, spatial, verbal, logical, kinesthetic). The overlay of these ideas is prevalent. And neither of them has significant grounding or are likely to be useful. What I wrote about above was focused more on multiple intelligences. The New York Times article gave a good enough counter to the idea of learning styles.

The multiple intelligences perhaps has some meaning if we want to say musical skills are using different brain processes than verbal, and those are different than skilled bodily movements. As I have stated elsewhere, however, almost all individuals are going to be capable of being excellent at all of these skills. Everyone can learn to play a musical instrument expertly. Everyone can do logic good enough to be a philosophy professor. The idea that individuals have some extraordinary ability in one of these areas or are very deficient in one of these areas is likely not to hold up (except as a trained in phenomena). At the least, it will not hold up in the way that musical, athletic, and mathematical talents are often expressed or denied, that is, the way they often are perceived within the identities of individuals.

One can argue for a ballooning effect, such that slight differences in capacities become noticed by others or are inculcated into selves, and this process leads to some students taking in more math or science, while others go other routes. If such a theory somehow has merits, then I again will strongly argue that in our highly productive, high longevity age that we first provide a well-rounded, fully-baked skill and knowledge set to all individuals, regardless of what slight propensities or abilities eventually balloon out. And this of course is already the goal behind much of our thinking on universal education, and for good reason. 

No comments:

Post a Comment