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Faculty Development Center

November 17, 2010

Helping Students Move Beyond Mid-term

By mid-term you as an instructor often have several sources of information about your students’ experiences in your course. You have their homework, exam, and paper grades, and you may have their input on a mid-semester feedback form. These sources may show you what research bears out: novice learners often have a different idea of what doing the work in the course entails than you do. So how can you use that knowledge to help move your students forward productively?

In some cases you may want to refer your students to the Learning Resources Center for special help. But you may also want to consider some class activities that demonstrate and provide practice in the various learning processes and skills needed to succeed in your discipline. To experts like professors these processes and skills are invisible—a concept known as expert blind spot. And we as experts can often presume that what is familiar to us is obvious to our students. Below are some ways to help students develop the skills needed to do meaningful work in our disciplines:

Help students think about their own thinking. The practice of thinking about one’s thinking (metacognition) is a powerful aid to learning, and making students do this work explicitly can help them develop this habit. In quantitative work, occasionally ask students to explain their reasoning in words for each step in solving a problem, either in writing on homework or orally to a fellow student during class. When students are preparing to write essays, have them analyze writing samples for thesis, claims, and evidence. Consider having students read each other’s work with guidance on critique, or have students evaluate some samples of their own work using a rubric. In class discussions, ask students to explain the reasoning behind their comments.

Model the thinking processes and specific skills needed for your course. Show students how you work in your discipline. Demonstrate a close reading of a piece of fiction or model how you read a journal article. Show them how you interpret a data set. Solve a sample problem in class, showing students how you ask yourself questions and try alternate paths. Bring to class a stack of drafts of a manuscript you’re working on, illustrating your own revision process. Students often assume that learning should be easy—we need to show them the kinds and amount of effort required for learning, even for us.

Allocate some points on assignments based on the processes of learning rather than the products. Assign some points on problem sets or in-class exercises to students’ explanations of steps of a problem, thus forcing them away from “plus and chug.” Give students credit for identifying and/or generating thesis statements and evidence in portions of written work. Include drafts of papers as part of the grade (think about peer review, another powerful tool, as a way to lessen your grading burden). When students are doing design or engineering projects or major term papers, have them keep a journal or portfolio of their ideas and drafts and include it as part of the grade. Students know what you value by what you grade, so if you want your students to develop the thinking habits and practices for your discipline, help them focus their attention on the process, not just the product, through your assignments.

Teaching Effectively and Efficiently

Lecture less. Rethink the coverage/transmission model in which you do all the work in lecture, and students sit passively listening. Giving students an opportunity in class to think, reflect, and practice the intellectual skills that you model when you lecture promotes their learning and uses your time more efficiently. Consider having students analyze texts, interpret graphs, or work through problems in groups as part of the class time. An added benefit is that you see how students are processing the ideas that you’re sharing with them.

Put time limits around class prep. Don’t let preparation take an unlimited, unspecified amount of time. Set aside prep time and stick to that.

Assign realistically and efficiently. Consider sequencing assignments toward ever greater depth/development rather than asking students to write several papers or solve hundreds of problems. Your providing feedback on drafts of a single paper can be much more productive for their learning than assigning several papers with no chance for them to revise. Similarly, asking students to solve a limited number of problems that gradually get more challenging, rather than lots of problems that require only rote processing, saves you time and promotes better learning.

Establish your grading criteria and, if applicable, your point allocations for particular assignments. Being explicit about the basis for your grading promotes consistency in assigning grades including partial credit, and saves you time overall.

Give thorough assignments. Clarify your expectations in the assignment. Share your grading criteria with students, thus telling them what you value in their learning. Consider providing exemplars of prior students’ work (anonymously and with permission, of course). Save time by not having to field questions about title pages, citation methods, and research expectations.

Have students use resources other than you. Let your students know about Learning Resources Center and the Writing Center. If students can hone their critical reading or problem solving skills or get their drafts in shape, it may save you time for addressing their specific disciplinary questions in office hours.

Give feedback, but don’t do all the work for them. Ask questions, point to places where students need to rethink an idea or computation. Avoid the urge to edit their work. Instead, decide on 2-3 strengths of the paper and 2-3 areas where they need improvement. Write up these remarks separately and save them. This way you have a record for later discussion with students and a way to follow their progress. Consider providing answer keys for problem sets that highlight strategies for solving problems and point out common errors, rather than writing these same comments over and over on individual student work or not giving students enough feedback.

Use Blackboard. Post course materials online, rather than field questions about individual assignments or course expectations. If a student asks a question that you suspect other students share, use the communication functions or discussion board to get your response to the others.

Adapted from materials of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, Princeton University.

January 31, 2010

Building To True

I’ve been reading Thoreau’s Walden in the Yale edition (2006) with an introduction, notes, and a beautifully-designed cover. It’s a satisfying chunk of a book, fitting easily to the hand, and a good price at less than ten dollars. I went back to Thoreau because I’m also reading Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own, the story of how he built himself a writing hut in the woods behind his home. Pollan, a journalist for the New York Times and the author of In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Food Rules, wrote two of his books there and probably would have written more had he and his family not moved from Connecticut to California in the years after it was built.

Pollan cites Thoreau’s opening sentence to ‘Where I Lived, and What I Lived For’ as he describes the reasons that compelled him to plan and to build: “At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house.” Elsewhere, Pollan notes that Walden can be read as Thoreau’s exploration of foundations for life, what it takes to build a character deep and strong. Digging down below the frostline, weary with the labor, and allowing himself the fantasy of slacking off, Pollan is brought up short by his co-worker, a sometimes laconic, sometimes obstreperous day worker, who quickly reminds him that houses fall out of ‘true’ when subjected to the upheavals of frozen ground straining at a foundation. Later, quietly exultant as he stands on the footings he himself poured for his place, Pollan muses about the nature of foundations, the need to plant ourselves on solid ground, and the architectural metaphors we freely borrow for the blueprints of our lives.

Michael Pollan built his writing house because he wanted to grapple with material, feel the roughness of the wood and stone in his hand, and turn ideas into something with weight and heft. He’s a master at the reflective moment, like Thoreau, hewing the blank stone of experience into a textured wall of meaning. Thoreau’s sturdy independence is not exactly Pollan’s way; he is under no illusions about his ability to put up a house in the woods all by himself. But he reaches back to Walden as a touchstone, it seems, to capture Thoreau’s sense of being in a site and to fit the words to the experience.

Thoreau’s prose in Walden is spare, as lean as the man himself. At times, when he is describing the color of the water in the pond or the thick pleasure of feeling one’s way through a forest in a night without stars, his sentences become poetic, though always with a lightly bemused air. This is a man for whom words are gems in the rough to be cut to refract light in a hundred directions. He renders experience, shapeless and dark, into bright moments you can hold in your hand.

It’s that ability to dig deep into remembered experiences and form them into something that can be experienced by others which makes Thoreau such an exemplary teacher. In a letter written to a friend in 1857 he suggests a theme for an essay recounting a hike up Mt. Washington. State to yourself, he urges, exactly what that experience meant to you and why. Keep coming back and back to it until you are sure you’ve gotten to the real heart of the experience. “Not that the story need be long,” he advises, “but it will take a long while to make it short.” Climbing a mountain and getting blown all over the summit isn’t unique: it happens to many people. “It is after we get home that we really go over the mountain, if ever. What did the mountain say? What did the mountain do?” In other words, until we interpret our actions they are simply occurrences. Reflecting on them shapes them into experiences filled with meaning.

There are days in which we enter the classroom brimming with intention and plans and it all seems to fall to the floor as lifeless as last year’s leaves. And there are days in which the air in the room seems charged and there’s a grandeur shining through each face before us. Those are the times in which Thoreau’s—and Pollan’s—incandescent ability to see the foundations rising to life from the ideas on the page become an inspiration. To state it plainly: reflection on our practice gives meaning to our actions. It is the foundation upon which we may build to ‘true.’

December 1, 2009

Every Farm is Different

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”
— Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

There are many ways to poke people with a sharp stick; here Marx provides one of them. Hearing this sentence for the first time years ago in a course on liberation theology, I was enchanted. The complexity and messiness of the political process could be sloughed off like an old snakeskin: we could skip the cautious questioning and go directly to the barricades! It’s the interpreters against the change agents: wimps vs. superheroes. Not much of a contest when you put it that way.

Marx had a way with words; he could turn a phrase that would ring in the world’s ears for years to come. This one is no different. In a simple sentence he manages to disparage centuries of philosophical thought, subtly undercut the importance of recognizing the perspectives of others, and assert that changing the world is a duty bound to be self-evident.

The Tao Te Ching begs to differ: “Do you want to change the world?/I don’t think it can be done,” says Stephen Mitchell’s luminous translation. But we need not be whipsawed back and forth between these two, for the truth is that interpreting the world changes it. When we perceive and accept the present reality we do so from our limited but personally persuasive point of view. What we perceive we act upon—monkey see . . . monkey do.

Marx had a point, though, and he kept poking the spectators of life with it. Are you in or are you out of the game of life? Are you simply going to observe the roiling turbulence of the world from your safe position and then walk away, smug in the assurance you are above the common rabble? The act of interpretation, says Marx, should move us from inertia to engagement with the world. With our eyes wide open we grasp the world with both hands and change it! He saw a seamless and inevitable movement from awareness of the conditions to revolutionary change. Once I was blind, but now I see—and so does every other person caught in this situation. Together, in lockstep, Marx’s minions would change the world. But that’s where he missed the mark. He got it half-right—awareness triggers interpretation and may lead to action—but he didn’t see that each of us interprets and acts from our needs and according to our abilities. All of us together, changing the world in our own ways.

A myriad of teachers have written movingly of wanting to change the world one learner at a time. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my brief tenure in “faculty development” it’s that there is no one way to do that. Every classroom is different, every learner is different, every teacher is different. Not so different that they have nothing in common, but different enough that one pedagogy does not fit all.

Wendell Berry, a farmer who writes and a writer who farms, goes to the heart of true individuality in an essay in The Way of Ignorance:

The most insistent and formidable concern of agriculture, wherever it
is taken seriously, is the distinct individuality of every farm, every field
on every farm, every farm family, and every creature on every farm.
Farming becomes a high art when farmers know and respect in their work
the distinct individuality of their place and the neighborhood of
creatures that lives there. This has nothing to do with the set of personal
excuses we call ‘individualism’ but is akin to the holy charity of the
Gospels and the political courtesy of the Declaration of Independence
and the Bill of Rights. Such practical respect is the true discipline of
farming, and the farmer must maintain it through the muddle, mistakes,
disappointments, and frustrations, as well as the satisfactions and
exultations, of every actual year on an actual farm.

Berry’s persistent theme is the loss to America of the family farm, swallowed in the corporate maw of industrial agribusiness. He thinks of the farmer as an artist, a craftsman, a musician constantly attuned to the creative environment, aware of the subtle changes in soil, wind, rain, slope and sun. The farmer works with the earth, not in spite of it. There’s nothing romantic about it; his farmer is practical, solid, a realist who hopes from the foundation of experience.

If American education is to become fertile ground again it will not be through the commercialization of teaching practices nor the commodification of a student’s vocation (from Latin, vocare, ‘to call’). Change that matters will come when one teacher after another works with students where they are to help them learn how to learn—how to interpret their world for change. Every farm is different.

November 20, 2009

Beginner's Mind

It comes as a shock to realize, well into a teaching career, that the more you know about your discipline the harder it is to teach it well. So says Dr. Eric Mazur, physicist, Harvard professor, and an educational innovator who developed peer instruction in the early 1990s. And though the inverse may not be true (the less we know the easier it is to teach), the truth of what Mazur says should stop us in our tracks. Long after we take a deep breath, walk into a classroom for the first time, and realize that we’re flying on a trapeze without a net, we find out that knowing our stuff may have rendered us incomprehensible to our students.

Another truth is that we teach as we were taught, replicating the best of the teachers we had and avoiding the teaching methods that discouraged, enraged, or simply bored us cross-eyed. And so the practices of generations now gone sift down to our students, most of whom were born after the Berlin Wall toppled. Why is it that the very profession responsible for opening minds, challenging the status quo, and pushing the limits of what is known, is one of the last to welcome change?

To be sure, education as a profession is a perennial whipping-boy—whipping-person?—these days. Reports, commission findings, and investigative articles on the dire state of American education cascade through the media and pile up on our desks. Most of these conclude that somewhere along the trail from the 19th century we lost our edge in the teaching game, that Chinese and Indian students are hard on our heels in engineering and science fields, and the country that put a man on the moon can’t seem to locate Iran on a map.

A recent Newsweek/Intel international poll finds that more Chinese think Americans are still innovators than Americans do. And the poll confirms that Western and Eastern ways of teaching produce different results. To wit: Americans are great at conceptual thinking but apparently tank when it comes to math and science. And now the Chinese, having aced the facts and figures, want to learn how we teach independent and creative thinking to our students.

When we hear students ask, “What do you want in this paper?” we think we know what they mean, but the impulse to whack them lightly on the ear with a rolled-up term paper is sometimes almost overwhelming. It’s that alert passivity, the talent for doing exactly the minimum and no more, that can be discouraging to the teacher for whom critical thinking is the Holy Grail. How do you get across to a student the joy of discovery when he or she is bent on mimicry? How to pry them loose from the notion that if an idea doesn’t have immediate application to an assignment or a job situation then it’s probably not worth considering?

Something is not working in the castle that is American education. But before we leap into the moat or pull up the drawbridge, let’s return to Mazur’s idea about the expert who can’t teach. Peter Senge, in his masterful book, The Fifth Discipline, spends several chapters exploring the idea of mental models. Mental models are what help us perceive the world and interpret it, says Senge. As the models go, so go our perceived realities. We build these models, inhabit them, pass them on to our children, until they become Reality instead of a way to depict a slice of reality. Nothing wrong with mental models, says Senge, unless we forget that they are models. We work inside our disciplines, crossing the threshold daily in from the outside, and knowing, even in the dark, where all the furniture is. Such familiarity can breed contempt for those who struggle to grasp even the floor plan. So the expert who would teach well, says Mazur and others, must learn to think like a beginner as well as an expert. How can we help our students if we can’t regard our disciplines from the perspective of a first-learner? How can our students tell us what they do not understand if they feel intimidated in doing so?

We must become as little children, said Jesus; we must cultivate beginner’s mind said the Buddha. In this context we could imagine what they meant was to see the world anew with fresh eyes, to ask questions both simple and profound, and to do so with the joy of discovery in our minds and hearts.

October 9, 2009

Times Wingéd Chariot

I went to a library book sale not long ago and it made me melancholy. The opportunity to browse over used books usually fills me with a quiet glee for the treasures I might find there. I’m almost always rewarded with one or two books I’ve been looking for that I like to think have been waiting for me.

I constrain myself by several rules so that I’m not simply warehousing more books. First, no hardbacks unless they’re cheaper than the paperback edition. Second, only buy what can be clutched in one hand. And finally, keep the total under $10. Having fulfilled the conditions and dutifully heading toward the cash register, I paused near a rolling cart full of books of educational theory, sociology, and psychologies of human development. That’s when the melancholy crept up on me.

A bit of context might help to explain this condition. I grew up on college campuses because my guardians, my grandparents, were teachers and librarians. I spent countless hours as a child in libraries, sitting cross-legged in a quiet corner poring over anything I found that intrigued me. In the late afternoon sun dropping in slant-wise between the stacks of books I could find geography, literature, religion, psychology, myth, history, economics, political science and physics. All these books! All these authors! These were their lifeworks, their precious ideas, concepts they had been exhilarated by and had inspired others with. And now they were dead and their books sat, illuminated by the afternoon sun, catching the dust motes that drifted in the shafts of light. Occasionally, a student would wander through without pausing to read the titles or even to glance up. I wondered if the spirits of those books ever longed to take flight off the shelves, find themselves opened and breathing again, to hear the buzz of ideas and feel the bracing surge of excitement as their pages were smoothed.

So when I see these books for sale it’s a reminder that discovery does not wait, will not be fettered, and all our ideas are conditional. What is the shelf life of these ideas and interpretations? Fifty years? Twenty? In an online conference recently a presenter noted that knowledge in some areas becomes obsolete in 18 months. By the time computer science majors graduate from college, assuming they do so in four years, the information they began with will have been surpassed several times.

And so, like Andrew Marvell, that impatient prelate from the 17th century, I feel time’s wingéd chariot at my back. Maybe it’s because having cleared the year-50 hurdle seven years ago my horizon line is beginning to appear faintly through the fog ahead. Maybe it’s because I treasure the wisdom of the ages and wince when it’s lightly passed over or simply dismissed with a blank look. Or maybe I find myself suffering from vertigo on this bridge to the indefinite future where knowledge and information appear without effort on my computer or iPhone screen.

Shouldn’t we rejoice that the drudgery of gathering facts, the slow accumulation of lines of thought, the tedious totting up of countless experiments has been sloughed off like a snake skin? Why would we want to return to card catalogues, IBM Selectrics, slide rules and protractors when we can move directly to opinion? And opinion is the dominant viral agent in our biosphere. Once released it circles the globe in minutes, leaping effortlessly across borders of race, gender, ethnicity, income level, education, religion, and status. We hear its voice, tinny, sharp, brittle and shrill; indeed, its very name is Twitter, the meaningless chatter that hums through our culture day and night.

But there’s no reason to think this is the twilight of Western Culture. A few million Tweets from teenagers aren’t going to blow the lights out in libraries across the country. One need only listen to the most popular talk shows and read the comments following an op-ed piece or a music review to realize that it’s adults in this country who have cornered the market on vicious and predatory opinion making. Blaming the generational divide for the triteness of popular culture is to ignore the fact that those with the most strident voices usually have the least to say of substance.

No, gentle reader, what found me sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought there in the library was the sense that opinion and the manufacture of it is rushing outward at the speed of light, while the wisdom of thoughtful women and men is dropping like stones to the bottom of the sea—and I wonder if we are teaching our students how to dive.

To change up the locus of attention in conclusion: Andrew Marvell, in his colorful and sensuous phrases, was urging his coy mistress to give in to the sweetness of love before old age dimmed their eyes and their ardor. Surely we can do no less than to be the lovers of wisdom—philosophia—in our classrooms and laboratories.

September 1, 2009

Two Mistakes To Avoid Early

NOTE: Here are timely words at the beginning of the semester for any teacher. These are two of the mistakes featured in a column from Rick Reis’ weekly Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter from Stanford University. For the full 10 go to:

— Barry Casey, Interim Director, Faculty Development Center, UMBC (;

The posting below looks at common teaching mistakes we need to avoid. It is by Richard M. Felder, North Carolina State University and Rebecca Brent, Education Designs, Inc. See also Felder's: RESOURCES IN SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING EDUCATION at:

Rick Reis -

[Two of] The Ten Worst Teaching Mistakes

Like most faculty members, we began our academic careers with zero prior instruction on college teaching and quickly made almost every possible blunder. We've also been peer reviewers and mentors to colleagues, and that experience on top of our own early stumbling has given us a good sense of the most common mistakes college teachers make. In this column and one to follow we present our top ten list, in roughly increasing order of badness. Doing some of the things on the list may occasionally be justified, so we're not telling you to avoid all of them at all costs. We are suggesting that you avoid making a habit of any of them.

Mistake #5. Fail to establish relevance.

Students learn best when they clearly perceive the relevance of course content to their interests and career goals. The "trust me" approach to education ("You may have no idea now why you need to know this stuff but trust me, in a few years you'll see how important it is!") doesn't inspire students with a burning desire to learn, and those who do learn tend to be motivated only by grades.

To provide better motivation, begin the course by describing how the content relates to important technological and social problems and to whatever you know of the students' experience, interests, and career goals, and do the same thing when you introduce each new topic. (If there are no such connections, why is the course being taught?) Consider applying inductive methods such as guided inquiry and problem-based learning, which use real-world problems to provide context for all course material.6 You can anticipate some student resistance to those methods, since they force students to take unaccustomed responsibility for their own learning, but there are effective ways to defuse resistance, 7; and the methods lead to enough additional learning to justify whatever additional effort it may take to implement them.

Mistake #2. Teach without clear learning objectives

The traditional approach to teaching is to design lectures and assignments that cover topics listed in the syllabus, give exams on those topics, and move on. The first time most instructors think seriously about what they want students to do with the course material is when they write the exams, by which time it may be too late to provide sufficient practice in the skills required to solve the exam problems. It is pointless-and arguably unethical-to test students on skills you haven't really taught.

A key to making courses coherent and tests fair is to write learning objectives-explicit statements of what students should be able to do if they have learned what the instructor wants them to learn-and to use the objectives as the basis for designing lessons, assignments, and exams.11 The objectives should all specify observable actions (e.g., define, explain, calculate, solve, model, critique, and design), avoiding vague and unobservable terms like know, learn, understand, and appreciate. Besides using the objectives to design your instruction, consider sharing them with the students as study guides for exams. The clearer you are about your expectations (especially high-level ones that involve deep analysis and conceptual understanding, critical thinking, and creative thinking), the more likely the students will be to meet them, and nothing clarifies expectations like good learning objectives.


6. M.J. Prince and R.M. Felder, "Inductive Teaching and Learning Methods: Definitions, Comparisons, and Research Bases," J. Engr. Education, 95(2), 123-138 (2006), .
7. R.M. Felder, "Sermons for Grumpy Campers," Chem. Engr. Education, 41(3), 183-184 (2007), .
11. R.M. Felder & R. Brent, "Objectively Speaking," Chem. Engr. Education, 31(3), 178-179 (1997), .

July 29, 2009

Five Things for the First Week

1. Introduce yourself to the class. Let them know how you prefer to be addressed (first name or last name prefaced with Dr., Professor, Mr. or Ms.). Share a bit about yourself, your educational background, where you grew up, your interests and passions. Above all, share your enthusiasm for your discipline and for teaching.
2. Introduce the syllabus and explain the learning objectives of the course. Go over course requirements and give estimates on the workload. Invite students to stop by your office and to post questions on the course discussion board.
3. Gather information about the students in your class. You can learn a lot from a questionnaire handed out in class or completed online. Ask students for: name (what they prefer to be called), hometown, campus address, email address, phone numbers and how they prefer to be contacted, year in school, participation in campus clubs and activities, chosen major. You may also want to know what courses they have taken already in this field, other courses they are taking this semester, reasons for enrolling in this course, career plans, hobbies and interests, and jobs/internships completed. Some faculty have asked other questions such as: How do you learn best? What do you most want to know about this course? Where do you feel strongest in preparation for this course and where do you feel the need for improvement? What do you expect to do with what you learn in this course? Some teachers ask students to write a paragraph about themselves and attach a photo. This can be emailed or printed out and brought to class within the first week of the course.
4. Learn students’ names. When you call roll the first day, ask them to correct your pronunciation and how they would like to be addressed. If you have small classes of 20-30 consider calling roll for the first few sessions. Try to call upon students using their names in the first week or so of discussions. If you make a mistake it can be a learning experience for the class and for you—and provide a laugh as well.
5. Introduce students to each other. Have students introduce themselves to the person next to them and then each pair introduces each other to another pair. Everyone should leave the first week of class knowing at least two other students.

Derived from Davis, Barbara. (2009). Tools for Teaching, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publ.

July 23, 2009

Entering the Cave


“I want my children to understand the world, but not just because the world is fascinating and the human mind is curious. I want them to understand it so that they will be positioned to make it a better place.”
— Howard Gardner, 1999

If you browse around Facebook a bit you might be accosted by an application challenging you to test your IQ. It pulls a few friends from your list and assigns them labels about their intelligence. You come at the end of a descending line and the implication is that you’re a moron if you don’t take the quiz. That’s okay: if it means avoiding a plethora of notifications and sidebar advertisements, I’m happy to be the moron.

While we’re fascinated with intelligence it’s usually the first thing we denigrate when ridiculing others. My own highly subjective research suggests that readers’ comments online about their fellow respondents’ intelligence become personal and even vicious after about 10 entries. It’s illuminating to graph out the trajectory of these ad hominem comments. You’d think we were a nation of amateur jihadists, ready to kosh each other upside the head at the slightest deviation from conformist bloviating. But not to worry—this won’t be another rant about the coarseness of public discourse.

Howard Gardner has been exploring intelligence for the whole of his career and has made the concept of multiple intelligences part of educational conversation since 1983 when Frames of Mind, his first book on the subject, was published. In a chapter published in 1999 he gives educators and parents a view into how his multiple intelligences (MI) approach can work in the classroom.

Students do not arrive in the classroom with blank slates for minds nor can they be measured by a single axis of intellectual accomplishment. They are the sum total of their experiences to that moment and they apprehend and comprehend the world through multiple intelligences. The problem for the educator is how to effectively teach students who learn in very different ways. Gardner believes it’s complicated but not impossible. On the contrary, MI offers the teacher various ways to reach all students.

He holds that every person should master a core set of ideas, although he’s not going to dictate the canon. But to penetrate to those ideas—and to fully understand them—we need to provide students with an opening to the cave. Gardner’s begins with entry points, six of them, that correspond to his multiple intelligences.

Narrative, quantitative/numerical, foundational/existential, aesthetic, hands-on, and social—there’s something here for everyone. An entry point to the idea of evolution for the hands-on approach might be the breeding of generations of fruit flies while for the students who ponder the foundational ‘bottom-line’ questions, what evolution implies about human nature is what draws them across the threshold. The entry point ushers students into the disciplinary arena, arousing their interests, and forming commitments to thinking—the phase that Alfred North Whitehead called the ‘romance’ of learning.

But while the entry point draws in the student it does not specifically help with understanding the idea. For that Gardner uses analogies, the second step in the process. Analogies help us link the unknown with the known; we learn about the new by making connections to what we already understand. We can see an analogy to evolution in the way that a character matures in a book or changes in the course of a film. The way a river adapts over time to its changing landscape is another analogy that can easily be understood. There is a caution to using analogies, however, in that not all the parallels are helpful or even true.

Now we come to the crucial educational question: How can knowledge of individual differences (MI) be used to convey the core ideas in a reliable and thorough manner? How can we tailor multiple approaches to a common core so that each student understands the material in the way best suited for that person?

Gardner puts it this way: “The key step to approaching the core is the recognition that a concept can only be well understood . . . . if an individual is capable of representing that core in more than one way, indeed in several ways (Gardner, 1999, p. 163).” We know a thing well if we can explain it several different ways.

What would it take for a learner to grasp a core idea in this way? First, it takes a significant amount of time (think depth rather than coverage). Second, the teacher needs to portray the topic in a variety of ways—hands-on, social, aesthetic—so all facets can be enjoyed and understood. There are multiple ways in to the cave for those coming to the entrance from different locations. And finally, it’s helpful if the students have a number of ways to express their understanding and application of the ideas. For one it might be an essay exam, for another a presentation, and for still another a demonstration in front of the class. We learn by doing, said Dewey, and Gardner would agree.

As attractive as this may be, one can hear the sighs. How would you teach this way to 80 or 100 students? Who could keep up with the grading? Who has time to individualize a course for each student? Gardner makes reference to technologies that can help tremendously, but he’s not naïve about the effort involved. Yet, educators are constantly tinkering with the process, he says, because they fervently believe—as he does—that education must ultimately enhance human understanding and help to ‘chart the human possibilities.’ Wouldn’t that be worth working for? Maybe, just maybe, an understanding of core ideas in this way could mean a more intelligent and humane commentary after the news of the day.

You think?

Gardner, Howard (1999) in Reigeluth, Charles M. (Editor). Instructional-Design Theories and Models, Vol. 2. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
General information and a synopsis of Gardner’s work can be found at Smith, Mark K. (2002, 2008) 'Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences', The Encyclopedia of Informal Education,

July 2, 2009

Knowledge Base


“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” somebody once said. I was reminded of this one Thanksgiving when I was 16 and my college-age cousin came over for dinner. What he had learned in one semester of General Psychology and Intro to Political Science was astonishing. It overturned all our cherished notions of human development and social organization. It rewrote the history of Western Civilization and set Hegel, Freud, and Rousseau on their collective little ears.

I learned so much that day, not the least of which was the intoxicating lure of knowledge pursued for its own sake. What my cousin lacked in perspective he more than made up for in enthusiasm. Some years later, doggedly but joyfully trying to swim through a sea of Greek verbs and nouns, I learned that the ‘enthusiastic’ were those who were ‘in God,’ caught up, as it were, to the heavens.

Confucius, master teacher that he was, believed this is the kind of energy necessary to learning. He declared that if he held up one corner of a handkerchief and a prospective student didn’t come back with the other three corners, he couldn’t teach that person anything. Now that’s an entrance requirement.

By the time first-year students arrive on campus they have already endured 12 years of noble experimentation in building a knowledge base. Much as in the world of corporate finance some of this knowledge has come through mergers (biology and chemistry), some through hostile takeovers (addition, division, multiplication), some as a result of downsizing (this is all you need to know for the test), and some through acquisition (this is good for you).

And now they are in college where the possibilities for increasing that knowledge base may seem both daunting and exciting. And perhaps for the first time as working learners they will be asked to focus, narrow, limit and direct their knowledge acquisition. People will ask them, by way of conversation openers, “What’s your major?” or “What are you planning to do with that?”

Those questions come from a desire to know them, to add to someone’s knowledge base the equivalents of name, rank, and serial number. They begin to be defined by what they know—and don’t know—a curious rite of passage into adulthood that seeks to categorize by the lowest common denominator. What we don’t know can be seen as a weakness and so we try to deny, cover up, and otherwise bluff our way through life. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Confucius counseled humility. Come to knowledge acquisition with a humble spirit, an open mind, and boundless enthusiasm. Better yet, realize (make real) that knowledge is the beginning of wisdom, the tempering that comes through experience applied with humor and compassion. The author of Ecclesiastes, his constant tone one of irony and rueful skepticism, does not sneer, however, when he urges us to ‘get wisdom.’

The role that teachers are called to play in all this is simple. As Robert Grudin says in The Grace of Great Things, “The fundamental motive of true teaching is the love that seeks and studies and performs. True teachers not only impart knowledge and method but awaken the love of learning by virtue of their own reflected love.”

We might, as teachers and learners ourselves, feel caught up to the third heaven of the joy of learning. Rejoice in that feeling! On the other hand, we may find ourselves, like Dante, feeling our way through a dark wood with no idea where in Hell we are. We may rejoice in that feeling too, for we are not lost. We are on the brink of discovering how boundless the world is and how rich the experience of those who enter into it with joy and humility.