Faculty Development Center

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, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gardner.htm.

Comments (1)

Dr. Bernice Alston:

I agree with the concept of portraying multiple approaches to a common core of knowledge. We may not be able to individualize a course for a student but by working in teams and groups, individual students will have opportunities to select their mode of expressing understanding. Quite often, members of the team become acutely aware of each others strengths (writing, presenting, demonstrating). Study groups and collaborative pedagogy have been identified as integral components for UMBC successful scholars programs, i.e. Meyerhoff and Honors College. It may not be as hard as we think it is to provide an opportunity for individual differences.

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