12/06/2012 06:09 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

Teach to Each Child's Intelligence

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Colleges and universities teach to their students' intelligence. Those students who have musical intelligence gravitate to the music school, bodily-kinesthetic intelligence to the dance department or intercollegiate sports, spatial intelligence to the art school or design college, and so on. While these diverse departments in universities convey a lot of specialized knowledge and technical skill, they also do something equally profound: they recognize that people have "multiple intelligences," as educational psychologist Howard Gardner has argued, and that we often learn best when content gets conveyed in ways that match our intellectual strengths.

To understand the difference this makes, talk to almost any college student. Most will tell you how dreary so much of their primary and secondary school education felt to them, with too much rote learning and too few opportunities for creativity, too many academic exercises with too little relevance to the world around them. Higher education has some of the same problems, especially in large lecture classes taken by non-majors to fulfill distribution requirements. But once most college students find the major that suits them, you can see in their faces and hear in their voices the excitement that comes from learning things that interest them and that play to their strengths.

Critics of the theory of multiple intelligences have objected to its apparent lack of objective criteria, empirical evidence, and measurability, but if this has no merit, why do we sort students according to their intelligences in college? - Thomas Fisher

Why do we make so many students wait until the last couple of years of college to finally find pleasure in learning? Why can't primary and secondary schools follow the model of colleges and teach to the intelligence of their students? Charter schools have tried to do this, with curriculums that appeal to one of the eight intelligences that Gardner has identified -- language immersion schools for linguistically intelligent students, for example, or outdoor-oriented pedagogies for students with a nature intelligence. Still, these schools remain few in number and reach relatively few students.

Most public and private schools still march students through standard curriculums, sorted by their age group rather than by one of the eight intelligences. While that standardization may make it easier to test and measure, it comes at too high of a price, making too many bright kids feel stupid in the process. As I hear from the talented students in my college, their visual and spatial intelligence and their natural creativity often went unappreciated and sometimes completely stifled in grade school and high school. And they will tell you how hard it was to watch those students with either linguistic or logical-mathematical intelligence -- the two forms of intelligence most valued in schools -- get held up as the smart ones.

Critics of the theory of multiple intelligences have objected to its apparent lack of objective criteria, empirical evidence, and measurability, but if this has no merit, why do we sort students according to their intelligences in college? At the same time, some supporters of Gardner's ideas want every school to address all eight intelligences, which may seem like an admirable goal, but will almost guarantees that every student feels equally frustrated, since very few are equally intelligent in every way.

Instead, we should consider expanding what works so well in higher education to primary and secondary schools. In my design college, for example, our students learn a wide range of subject matter -- science and social science, art and philosophy, math and technology -- via their predominantly visual and spatial intelligence, and they apply that knowledge to projects in a hands-on way, making it immediately useful and relevant. Imagine grade schools and high schools doing the same, with students grouped not by grade, but by intellectual strength, learning a diversity of content via a linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, or naturalist lens.

This would make K-12 teaching as creative and challenging as college teaching, and it would probably better prepare students for continuing their education in college. But, most importantly, it would help students see that they are not dumb, but just intelligent in different ways and that school need not be such a drag, but instead -- as college is for most students -- a place that makes learning fun. Imagine that!

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

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