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Multiple intelligences guru’s wake-up call

During his three-week tour of India’s premier cities, this education savant and mind-bender who has authored 25 global bestsellers including the path-breaking Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983), took Indian academia by storm, attracting widespread media coverage and enthusiastic audiences. Dilip Thakore reports

He came, he saw and he conquered the minds — and hearts — of the small but growing minority of genuine champions of education in the subcontinent which grudgingly hosts the world’s largest child population. It’s highly unlikely that any of the estimated 8,000 education leaders, principals, teachers and academics who thronged the lectures of Dr. Howard Gardner, the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and adjunct professor of psychology at Harvard University, during his India Tour 2012 will view the processes and purposes of education through the conventional prism again. And the multiplier effect on Indian education — a low priority item on the national development agenda — could be huge.

During his three-week tour of India’s premier cities, this education savant and mind-bender who has authored 25 global bestsellers including the path-breaking Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983); Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons (1993); Five Minds for the Future (2007); Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues in the Twenty-First Century (2011), took Indian academia — particularly educators focused on primary-secondary education — by storm, attracting widespread media coverage and enthu-siastic audiences. Gardner’s lectures-cum-workshops tour which started in Chennai and encompassed Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi, attracted top educationists and business leaders apart from 3,500 fees-paying delegates including school trustees, principals, teachers and educators.

Ashish Rajpal, an alum of XLRI, Jamshedpur and the Harvard School of Education and currently the Gurgaon-based promoter-managing director of iDiscoveri Education Pvt. Ltd (estb. 2002) — a 21st century school reform and development company which provides a range of services including curriculum-based teacher training, institutional development advice and its XSEED content and curriculum to pre and K-12 schools countrywide — which organised the India tour of Dr. Gardner and his wife and professional colla-borator Dr. Ellen Winner, an expert on gifted children — is very satisfied with the impact it has made on India’s academic and educators community.

“Dr. Gardner’s four-decades of research, writing and teaching — on the human brain, nature of intelligence and ‘good work’ — have placed him in a unique position to offer alternatives to the industrial age schooling model characterised by information gathering, one-size-fits all, rote learning and imposed discipline. Unarguably the world’s most famous and influential educator, best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, Dr. Gardner is an inspiration to progressive child-centred educators and teachers around the world. We wanted to bring his message and words — first hand — not only to Indian teachers and researchers, but to parents and ordinary citizens. In iDiscoveri Education, we want to spread the word on what the world’s best educators have to say on learning, education and ethics,” says Rajpal, explaining the motivation which inspired the carefully planned India lecture tour of this globally respected psychologist, neuroscientist and education seer.

The enthusiastic reception accorded to Prof. Gardner’s first-ever visit to the subcontinent, which has undoubtedly expanded the minds of Indian educators and teachers cut off from new developments in brain research (neurosciences) and mind research (cognitive science) and struggling to keep up within a government-dominated education system driven by generalist bureaucrats rather than expert educ-ators, is hardly surprising. Because over the past almost 40 years since he graduated with a degree in developmental psychology from the prestigious Harvard University, Gardner has deeply researched the human brain and cognitive learning. To synthesise his research work in development psychology (focused upon cognitive and symbol-using capacities of normal and gifted children) and neuropsychology (focused on brain damage in adults), he developed his theory of multiple intelligences in his path-breaking book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1983) which has had a profound influence on modern education practice and delivery.

In Frames of Mind, Gardner challenged the traditional IQ (intelligence quotient) test developed by French psychologist Alfred Binet and its subsequent variations, including SAT (scholastic assessment test), on the ground that they measure only the linguistic and mathematical capabilities of students to rate them according to a single intellectual dimension — i.e the IQ and SAT scores. In this path breaking book, he argued that the species homo sapiens is gifted with seven “intelligences” in various degrees and combinations. They are the musical, bodily-kinesthetic (relating to dance, sports abilities), logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial (navigation, visual arts), interpersonal (understanding people) and intrapersonal (self-study, self-awareness) intelligences.

For over a decade after he wrote Frames of Mind, Gardner resisted suggestions to add new intelligences including humour, cooking and sexual intelligences on the reasoning that they don’t pass empirical tests of problem-solving or are insignificant for survival or development of the indiv-idual or the species. However in 1995 while shortlisting and rejecting spiri-tualism, he added one more intelligence to his original seven — naturalist intelligence. “Persons with a high degree of naturalist intelligences are keenly aware of how to distinguish diverse plants, animals, mountains or cloud configurations in their ecological niche,” he explained in Multiple Intelligences — New Horizons (2006), admitting he had naturalist scientist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) in mind.

At the time, although acclamation of Gardner’s theory of multiple intellig-ences (MI) was not unanimous, its basic premise that children who don’t excel academically are likely to possess other compensating intelligences, struck a resonant chord among educators, and parents in particular. It confirmed the commonplace observation that class-room backbenchers written off as ne’er do wells tend to excel in sports, are often good team leaders (inter-personal intelligence) and well aware of them-selves, their capabilities and career paths (intrapersonal intelligence). MI theory also to a significant extent explains the puzzling phenomenon of classroom mediocrities often blossoming into political, industry and professional leaders.

Gardner himself confesses surprise about the longevity of MI theory and the global acclaim it has received. “What has surprised me as much as the continuing attention has been the fact that the theory has taken on a life of its own. In large part that is because scholars and practitioners have taken it in directions that I could never have anticipated. Scholars have raised questions that I would never have considered and carried out studies that I could never have envisioned… I have gained considerable satisfaction from the fact that the theory has disclosed a depth and richness that I never suspected in my early work,” he writes in the introduction of the revised (2006) edition of Multiple Intelligences — New Horizons.

His reputation as an education innovator established with the wide-spread adaptation and implementation of MI theory, during the past decade Prof. Gardner’s research studies have expanded beyond education and learning into the philosophy and purpose of education, and into investigation of how education can prompt people to do “good work” in the broader development interest of their societies. This interest prompted Five Minds for the Future (2007) — in which he writes about the role of education in developing the types of minds which will help to ensure the harmonious and peaceful progress of all humankind within a rapidly globalising world.

The five minds — the disciplined (which understands “what it means to become truly expert in an area”); synthesising mind (which “puts things together which are disparate, which don’t necessarily immediately call themselves to be combined”); the creative mind (“thinks outside the box, that comes up with new ideas, with new practices”); the respectful mind (“recognises that we have tremendous diversity in any community of any size” and respects it), and the ethical mind (which “thinks a great deal about what it means to be a responsible worker and responsible citizen”). “People can be very smart on any definition but if they don’t use their abilities for the good, for trying to bring people together, for trying to work toward peace, to trying to eradicate poverty, disease and hostility, then the use of all that intellect is really for naught,” said Gardner in a special pre-India visit message from Cambridge, Massachusetts to the readers of EducationWorld (EW January p.79).

Even as educators, parents, and principals were bowled over by the sheer depth of research and erudition invested by the Gardners (including Dr. Ellen Winner’s research of gifted children — see interview p.48) into education, given their great respect and admiration of Mahatma Gandhi whose ideals are practiced more in the breach than observance in this nation which he led to political independence — “I believe Gandhi is the most important human being of the past 1,000 years” (see interview p.46) — Prof. Gardner in particular was “very excited” about his first visit to India. This explains the great enthusiasm he exhibited despite the punishing schedule of school visits, 90-minute lectures, followed by further 90-minute expert and audience interactions, punctuated with press conferences and one-on-one interviews throughout his 21-day lecture tour.

Comments Anustup Nayak, promoter and vice-president of iDiscoveri Education who together with Ashish Rajpal (both former students of Dr. Gardner at the Harvard School of Education) prevailed upon this globally respected Harvard don to undertake his maiden India lecture tour: “I was truly impressed by Dr. Gardner’s enthusiasm and energy during his packed three-week tour which covered seven cities, visits to education institutions and deliberations with public intellectuals. On every occasion, he not only shared his vast knowledge of education and cognitive learning, but was always willing to absorb and question what he experienced in India. I believe he communicated three very important messages to Indian educators. One, of the need to discover the unique talent and gifts of every child. Second, he recommended multiple approaches to teaching to reach all types of children; and thirdly, he highlighted the importance of teachers helping students to genuinely understand their subjects and develop disciplined thinking rather than encourage rote learning for standardised testing,” says Nayak, an alumnus of Georgia Institute of Technology, and the Harvard School of Education who co-promoted iDiscoveri Education in 2002.

If on their first visit to the chaos of contemporary India, the Gardners experienced dismay and culture shock as most foreign visitors do, they were diplomatic and didn’t let it show. On the contrary, as testified by Nayak among numerous others, they exhibited great enthusiasm for learning more about the education system in India which was once the envy of the Western world. “What is most inspiring in India is the great interest in education, the tremendous aspiration across society and the amount of experimentation that is being done in the country,” Dr. Gardner told your correspondent in a hasty one-on-one interview in Bangalore which was supplemented with subsequent e-mail inputs from Harvard (see interview).

Within the community of Indian educators long accustomed to shallow, generalist bureaucrats in the education ministries at the Centre and the states delivering homilies on teaching and learning even as academics tend to maintain a discreet low profile, the nationwide lecture tour of the Gardner duo aroused dormant emotions and created lasting impact. “Dr. Gardner’s lecture on the Five Kinds of Minds for the Future which I attended in Mumbai on January 31, really got my grey cells working and prompted me to reflect deeply on ways and means to improve the education system and my school curriculum in particular. Dr. Gardner’s observations about developing respectful and ethical minds were of special interest to me. What I took home from the stimulating lecture was a renewed awareness that as teachers and mentors, we have a crucial role to play beyond academics in helping our students to develop respectful and ethical minds and take pride in maturing into good, responsible citizens. In CJCS we  have an optional programme of the Global Education and Leadership Foundation. It will now receive the school management’s focused atten-tion,” says Meera Isaacs, principal of Mumbai’s vintage Cathedral & John Connon School (estb. 1860), ranked second in the day schools league table of India’s Most Respected Schools Survey 2011 published annually by EducationWorld (see EW September 2011).

During their India tour, the Gardners visited selected private schools to get a feel of new developments and innovations in K-12 education. Among the selected schools was the IGCSE (UK) and CISCE (Delhi)-affiliated Inventure Academy, Bangalore (estb. 2005) which within less than a decade has quickly established itself as one of Bangalore’s Top 5 day schools in the EducationWorld annual league tables of India’s most respected schools.

“Right from inception, Inventure Academy has positioned itself as a multiple intelligences nurturing instit-ution. Our goal has always been to encourage students to make indep-endent choices, excel in their chosen fields and develop into contributing and productive citizens. It was a privilege to have the messiah of multiple intelligences visit Inventure and validate our approach to teaching-learning in person,” says Nooraine Fazal, an alumna of Boston University and a former Citibank high flyer, who is the co-founder and managing trustee of Inventure Academy.

For Robindra Subba, promoter-director of the Himali Boarding School (HBS), Kurseong, West Bengal (estb. 1978) who attended the Gardner lecture in Delhi on February 7, the experience was intellectually rewarding. “Dr. Gardner’s lecture was a mind-broadening experience which made me deeply aware of the vital need to reform our archaic school education system, especially our memorisation-based examination systems. We urgently need to switch to evaluation processes which assess the cognitive skills and problem-solving capabilities of our children. It also made me aware that the mindsets of people within school examination boards and universities need to be changed,” says Subba, who has nurtured HBS into one of the top three legacy boarding schools of eastern India.

Although brief, the Gardners’ India lecture tour has not only impacted hearts and minds in Indian academia, but beyond as well. Henceforth enlightened  principals, educators and teachers will be less inclined to write off classroom laggards lacking linguistic and/or mathematical intelligences and attempt to discover other unexplored  intelligences lying dormant in them. Similarly, within the community of educators there will be greater awareness of the five types of minds, genius and good work as well as the loftier superordinate goals of education.

“The message of Dr.Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences to Indian education is radical and simultaneously humane. After his lecture tour and the wide publicity given to his research in education, teachers will hesitate to segregate smart and slow students in their classrooms. Because even the so-called below average students have other latent intelligences. So now the job of teachers — and principals and trustees who supervise them — is to pay attention to each and every child and nurture all her intelligences,” says Sandeep Desmukh, the Mumbai-based chief executive of the Hemendra Kothari Foundation — a philanthropic organisation which supports primary and vocational education in over 100 schools sited on the edges of tiger and wildlife sanctuaries across the country.

Clearly by any yardstick, the India tour 2012 of the Gardner duo — the first by any globally reputed educationists — has blown a gale of fresh air through the ivory towers of Indian academia characterised by locked windows and academics supinely subservient to the opinionated but under-qualified neta-babu (politician-bureaucrat) kleptocracy whose interest in education is less driven by improvement of the woeful learning outcomes of the world’s largest and most short-changed child population, than by control over teacher appointments, transfers, textbooks printing and prescription rackets. Moreover, perhaps for the first time ever, a lecture tour of ‘mere academics’ received sustained media coverage — although precious little from politics and Bollywood-obsessed television channels.

Ashish Rajpal, managing director of iDiscoveri Education who conceptualised and organised Dr. Gardner’s passage to India, believes this historic lecture tour may well prove to be an inflection point for Indian education. “With jam-packed halls crowding and applauding Dr. Gardner in the five major metros he visited, it can no longer be said that Indian academia and the public have low interest in education and education reform. During their tour, Prof. Gardner and Dr. Winner also visited several private, govern-ment and NGO schools, other education institutions and addressed academics, government officials and business leaders. The tour was widely covered in the media and there is nation-wide acknowledgement of the richness of his ideas which he explained with disarming humility. Teachers in particular were thrilled to hear this legend of education, multiple intelligences and cognitive learning in person. We have been flooded with messages thanking us for organising the Gardners’ India Tour 2012,” says Rajpal.

Yet, while the inaugural lecture tour of this globally renowned Harvard-based education guru to India has undoubtedly strongly impacted Indian academia and educators, its success will be determined by the extent to which the country’s policy formulators, principals and the teachers’ community adopt and apply Dr. Gardner’s MI theory and principles of cognitive learning and intellectual development in the country’s classrooms. Unfortunately there’s an omnipresent possibility of even the world’s best ideas and ideals being defeated by subcontinental inertia and indifference.

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