jeudi 27 octobre 2011

The Understanding Pathway: A Conversation with Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner reflects on how students who learn in many different ways might grapple with their deepest questions about life.

"When I first heard him describe his theory of multiple intelligences . . . I felt as if I had stumbled into a room in my own home that I had never noticed before." So writes Jane Healy about the impact that Howard Gardner's insights had on her thinking back in 1983 when he wrote Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.1
Feeling that same shock of recognition toward an idea that squares with their own teaching and learning experiences, many educators this past decade have implemented a version of MI theory in their own classrooms.

In Gardner's new book, The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand,2 he elaborates on applications of MI theory and on the importance of the disciplines, and he advocates schools where students delve into deep epistemological questions. He calls that approach to education "the understanding pathway." Here he talks with EL readers about what that classroom would be like.

What is the difference between a classroom that focuses on understanding—a constructivist classroom, if you agree with that use of the term—and a behaviorist classroom?

In a classroom that focuses on understanding, teachers are clear about the understandings that they value and the understandings that they want students to exhibit. In general, these understandings focus on important topics and reveal disciplinary ways of thinking.

In a class on American history, for example, a student who understands the Bill of Rights is able to show how specific amendments do, or do not, apply to controversial issues of the day or to those drawn from the past. In a class on biology, a student who understands the theory of evolution is able to discuss what might happen to an island if all wildlife were removed and if animals from a few species were then transported there. In carrying out such "performances of understanding," students show whether they can think historically or scientifically about concrete events or topics.

I am happy to use the term constructivist to apply to such a classroom. The crucial tension between "constructivism" and "behaviorism" has to do with the view of learning that is embraced. In a behaviorist class, one focuses on the answers desired and tries to shape responses until they resemble a prototype. What goes on inside the head, if anything, is irrelevant. In a constructivist classroom, students continually try out ideas and practices for themselves and see where they work and where they prove inadequate. The models that an individual constructs in his or her mind are crucial to understanding or nonunderstanding.

Some people use the word behaviorist to describe a regimen based on rewards and punishment. I'm not one of those individuals who avoids rewards or punishments in all cases; but grounding one's teaching in such "schedules of reinforcement" can't work in the long run. Students (and ex-students) must come to learn because they have a desire to learn, not because someone is giving them an A or an M&M.

In your new book, you introduce the idea of teaching the "essential concerns of human beings." In an age of standards and standardized testing, how would you suggest that teachers balance teaching about truth, beauty, and morality (unmeasurable concepts) with the increasing pressures to help students perform well on tests? Are the two movements incompatible?

I don't actually advocate teaching directly about truth, beauty, and morality; that sounds like a graduate philosophy course. I advocate teaching those disciplines—history, science, the arts, and literature—that will present to students their culture's image of what is true (and not true), beautiful (and not beautiful), ethical (and immoral). Education should prize students who act morally and give students a chance to produce as well as to appreciate natural and man-made beauty.

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