Sunday, April 27, 2008

Multiple Intelligences Theory in the Composition Classroom: A Review of Literature

Jamie Feltner

In 1983, Dr. Howard Gardner, researcher and Harvard lecturer of Psychology and Education, published a book that explored the potentialities and wide range of human intelligences. Frames of Mind asserted that human intelligence was much more multifaceted than society had previously assumed, and introduced Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory in which he states that there are multiple intelligences humans are capable of cultivating, not just the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences typically valued in education. Gardner went on to claim that society’s traditional standards of measuring intelligence were seriously flawed, and through his research he formulated a list of seven possible intelligences: Linguistic, Logical-Mathematical, Musical, Bodily-Kinesthetic, Spatial, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal.

Researchers have continued to investigate Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory in order to examine its validity and to study methods of implementing MIT into our education system. This research is especially vital in the field of composition, a key field in which educators have had to battle the deeply help beliefs of what intelligence consists of and how to measure it. In order for composition educators to abandon the traditional beliefs concerning intelligence and the methods of measuring it, research connecting MIT to the field of composition (including possible benefits, consequences, and methods of application) must continue to be conducted. And though the research surrounding the topic has been mostly relegated to the sidelines of the field, there have been some important breakthroughs and conclusive findings, three of which I will highlight in this review: (1) There is an inherent connection between composition and all other intelligences; (2) By encouraging students to explore these connections there are benefits and, likewise, by prohibiting students from exploring these connections there are negative consequences; (3) Teachers could use MIT to help “unskilled” writers find their niche.

In Frames of Mind Gardner declares connections between all seven types of intelligences he outlines, and asserts that in order to appropriately express oneself in writing and accurately decide upon the right framework for expressing words and ideas, other intelligences, in addition to linguistic, are required. Since writing is a blend of several distinct human intelligences, composition students, as multifaceted individuals, should be provided with assignments and activities that activate and develop all of their intelligences (Etim, Grow, Sword). As researcher Peter Smagorinsky mentions in his article “Constructing Meaning in the Disciplines: Reconceptualizing Writing across the Curriculum as Composing across the Curriculum,” most human activity in general (in our daily, academic, and professional lives) involves some combination of Gardner’s intelligences. To disregard this truth in terms of writing assignments and assessments only puts composition students at a disadvantage. By acknowledging that there is an inherent connection between composition and all other intelligences, it is acknowledged that there is not one standard way of learning and, therefore, there should not be one standard way of assessing (Abhorn).

By encouraging students to explore these connections, composition teachers will soon see the benefits. For starters, by having a conscious awareness of their intellectual strengths and personal intelligences, (which vary between students) students might be able to implement behaviors and habits better suited to improving their own personal composition process (Abhorn). By having the freedom to identify their own “right” ways of learning and demonstrating their skills, students will begin to show more promise for possibility as they individually interpret assignments and respond in their own intelligent way (Hearne & Stone, Sword). Since MIT forces students to abandon their habitual linguistic mode and write (and read) for different purposes, “MI-inspired teaching can facilitate the kind of critical-creative thinking that will allow… students to flourish in an increasingly multidisciplinary social and intellectual environment” (Sword, 248). One of the composition teachers’ responsibilities is to prepare their students for the world outside of academia. As Hearne and Stone state in their article “Multiple Intelligences and Underachievement: Lessons from Individuals with Learning Disabilities,” “a good language arts program is one that expands the communication potential of all learners through the orchestration and use of multiple ways of knowing for purposes of ongoing interpretation and inquiry into the world” (447).

By either denying the existence of the connections between multiple intelligences and composition, or by denying students the opportunity to explore these connections, negative consequences arise. If most school writing is either strictly informational or analytic and refuse to incorporate other intelligences, there are inherently many limitations of what schools treat as legitimate ways of writing and thinking (Smagorinsky). And by focusing on reading and writing in a strictly traditional sense, what Gardner refers to as “cognitive revolutions” associated with the other learning intelligences may not occur (Gardner, “Frames”).

Lastly, through research with “unskilled” writers, it has also been hypothesized that Multiple Intelligences Theory could be used to help such writers find their niche. “Unskilled” writers, along with At Risk Children, Exceptional Children, The Academically Gifted, and ESL students, need appropriate lesson planning and assessments that touch on their needs and highlight their abilities. This could best be accomplished by incorporating multiple intelligences in writing, not only the “standard” linguistic intelligence (Etim). Those students having difficulty writing could turn to other intelligences for inspiration. In fact, research by Hearne and Stone has shown that focusing on creativity in a more nontraditional sense can prompt better writing samples from students labeled with a Learning Disability.

There seems to be plenty of research supporting the importance of integrating MIT into the composition class. The gap in research seems to stem from the question of how to integrate MIT into the composition programs on a large scale. For instance, books with individual MIT lesson plans are easy to find, but the route to take in order to create a large scale change in the education system has yet to be suggested.

For works cited, see annotated bib.

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