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Fashion victims

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The theory of multiple intelligences has changed the way many practitioners approach teaching and learning but, asks David FitzPatrick, should educators be far more sceptical about jumping on this bandwagon?

As you read this article over breakfast, here's a heresy to go with your cornflakes?

Education practitioners are not in a position to evaluate Howard Gardner's theories about multiple intelligences, and we who work in education should be far more cautious about adopting his views as the new orthodoxy.

"We now know how the brain works," say the educationists, referring to Gardner. "We now know how people learn."

Do we? Gardner's theories are very fashionable at the moment but I hear alarm bells.

I can remember distant, dusty days, listening to an ancient academic at university lecturing us on trends in scholarship. "Beware of fashions," he croaked. Bandwagons - not a term Professor Caird would have used - are too often jumped on sans examination.

I am not a psychologist or a scientist of any sort but I do consider myself broadly well educated.

And I know that people who dabble in my subject area often come to utterly erroneous, silly even, conclusions, simply because they don't understand the detail and don't know the counter arguments.

And I am sceptical of fashions.

Gardner's theories sound great. His ideas chime in with our experiences. We have all taught some children who seem to have a low aptitude in some subjects, who are absolutely brilliant at others, or who can grasp in a diagram what they can't understand in print. Well and good.

But is Gardner right about this really showing how the brain works? And do we really have enough understanding of psychology to be able to evaluate his views?

(The answers to the preceding two questions, I suggest, are maybe and no.)

What does seem clear is this: educationists and teachers love Gardner not because we all are experts in his field, but because we care about other people, and this leads us to be egalitarian.

By saying that there are lots of different intelligences, all of those intelligences become equal. No hierarchy. Being emotionally intelligent is as valid as being mathematically or linguistically intelligent.

I can't help being reminded of a wonderful line uttered by the baddie in The Incedibles: "When everyone is special, no one will be."

Thus we will find we will have less need to teach the most able pupils appropriately, because the concept of 'most able' will have no meaning.

And, words like 'academic', 'scholarship' and 'intellectual rigour', little enough used now, heaven knows, will not be concepts we need concern ourselves with.

It's already happening. I despair when I hear educationists saying it doesn't matter what people teach; they're worried only how they teach it. The infatuation with Gardner increases our over-emphasis on the 'how'. The 'what' is irrelevant.

No subject may be deemed more important than any other. Academic qualifications of teachers are of no importance; can they inspire the kids? It doesn't matter what garbage you teach, so long as it's packaged nicely.

But if you plate manure with gold, it is still manure. I have observed countless lessons where it is clear the teacher's subject knowledge is ridiculously poor: English lessons where a teacher simply doesn't understand a poem; RE lessons where a decent GCSE student could drive a coach and horses through half-baked theories presented as fact; history lessons where the teacher clearly hasn't read a book on the subject for 20 years.

Does it matter? No. Not so long as it's packaged nicely, in accordance with the latest educational orthodoxy.

Never mind the bright ones - sorry, a concept we're not allowed to use nowadays - as they'll always cope.

Never mind the less able - sorry, differently intelligenced. If we feed them garbage, but it's well packaged, they won't notice (and why bother giving them intellectually coherent stuff when they wouldn't notice a good argument anyway?).

Drawing together some threads from this rant, here are a few conclusions:

  • People approve of Howard Gardner's theories because they appear to be egalitarian, not because they are qualified to evaluate it - or even have read it. His views may be right, or they may be wrong, but that is a question for psychologists, not educationists, to judge.

  • The concept of different but equal intelligences risks devaluing intelligence per se. This will disadvantage the more able pupils, as there will be less need perceived to cater for their needs. It will certainly disadvantage the 'gifted and talented'.

  • Our emergent educational orthodoxy will lead to yet further devaluing of academic rigour, intellectual integrity and simply getting the facts right.

  • If we have doubts about this particular educational orthodoxy, there'll be another along soon, so don't worry if, like me, you're not convinced.

Beware of fashions.

David Fitzpatrick is a deputy headteacher in the Midlands.

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