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Traditional School Expectations vs. Theory of Multiple Intelligences: A Student’s Perspective

Stacy Rosenblum

In my work as a learning specialist, I meet many students who are described as “non-traditional” learners, or learning disabled (LD). These are kids whose IQ tests show them demonstrating strengths in areas of intelligence that are not reflected in school performance. In 1983, Howard Gardner, the renowned author and professor at Harvard University, bestowed a wonderful gift upon non-traditional learners when he introduced his Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Gardner confirmed what many students with LDs and their families knew all along: many students have strengths in cognitive areas that are not valued in traditional school settings, but are valued highly in adult life.  Gardner describes seven distinct “intelligences”: logical-mathematical, linguistic, musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Of these, only two—linguistic and logical-mathematical—make up the majority of assessment of academic performance in a typical, traditional school setting.  So what are those brilliant spatial-thinking, musically apt, interpersonally-gifted students to do?  How can they demonstrate their strength in schools and classrooms that value only a narrow definition of “intelligence”?

In order to explore this question further, I sought out one of the most bright, “non-traditionally gifted” kids I know: 16-year-old Mylo. Mylo is the creator of MyloWrites, a supportive writing technology which helps students learn and master the writing process. Mylo is an incredible kid.  He is an accomplished filmmaker, sculptor, soccer and track star, parkour instructor, technology whiz, popular friend, and excellent math student. Yet, Mylo has struggled mightily since kindergarten with dyslexia and dysgraphia. I knew Mylo would be the perfect student to explore the question of diverse intelligences and school expectations, given his profile of intelligences. I interviewed Mylo in early February this year, midway through his junior year in high school.

Using Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences as a model, how would you describe your areas of strength?

For me, it’s definitely visual-spatial and bodily kinesthetic. I like to build things, use film, and I love sports. I tend to think in pictures and form, instead of using words to describe my ideas. If I can draw or construct something then I can explain it much more clearly than if I can only use words.

So you are a junior in high school.  By now you’ve had many teachers in many subject areas.  What do you think the “intelligences” are that are most highly valued in school?

Linguistic, for sure. We are always being asked to read, and respond in writing or during class discussion.  That’s all linguistic. Also, I think interpersonal intelligence is important in being able to work in groups and interact with teachers. I also think musical intelligence is valued, or at least it is at my school.

Again, considering Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, what do you think are your weaknesses?

I think my main weakness is linguistic. I’m dyslexic, so reading has always been hard for me.  I use audiobooks or readers for most of the school reading that I have to do. Writing has been really difficult for me too, and is definitely not my favorite thing to do. Because my linguistic area is weaker, I also think that another one of my weaker areas is interpersonal because I’m not that outgoing. I’d rather play sports, do parkour, or watch a movie with my friends, instead of having a long conversation.

Have you ever felt like your strengths are a mismatch for what is valued in school?

Yes! Especially linguistic, they [the teachers] think I can think in words, but I am dyslexic, so I’m more likely to imagine my ideas in pictures or diagrams. When I read, or listen to books, the setting and character descriptions are really important to me because in my head, I’m making a movie. If I can’t picture the setting in my head, it’s really hard for me to understand what is going on in a book.  Also, when I have to write an essay, it’s hard for me to translate the pictures in my head into written words. I often think, “I know what I want to say, but I don’t know how to say it.” My teachers always say that I need to participate more in class discussions so they can get a better idea of what I understand, but that also involves words and a linguistic intelligence strength.

How do you cope with the mismatch between your strengths and the ways in which you are expected to demonstrate your understanding?  What advice would you give other kids who share this experience?

I would suggest trying to find a middle ground with your teachers. Make an appointment to speak with them and try to express your concerns and explain your weaknesses, as well as your strengths. Make a plan with your teachers to use strengths in order to do better in class. For example, recently in my History class, I was supposed to make a timeline on a piece of paper.  I proposed to teacher that I show the timeline in more visual way that integrated technology. I created bullet points of the important events, and I used stop motion animation to show visually the same information that my classmates had described in writing.

How do you best show your teachers that you understand the material?  What’s your favorite “medium?”

Film!  I merge my knowledge with film to show the same understanding as other students do in writing. First, I identify key points, themes, and ideas. Then I create pictures that came into my mind during my reading and class discussions about the book or topic we are studying.

What is an assignment on which you really surprised a teacher with the depth and quality of your response?

My Industrial Revolution project in 10th grade. I used stop motion Lego animation, created a set of a factory, and animated a typical day in the life of a factory worker who made car wheels. I was able to show living conditions, work conditions, the relationship between the employee and the boss, and the oppression of factory workers in U.K. and U.S. during the Industrial Revolution. My teacher was shocked at what I was able to express using Legos and stop motion animation. It took me such a long time, but I didn’t mind because it was the type of project work that I love doing. My teacher liked it so much, that he ended up using my film as part of his curriculum this year.  He showed it to the whole grade.

Another project that I used film for was a response to The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. The assignment was to identify motifs in the book and explain their significance to the characters and the story. I built the visual scene out of Legos, animated the character interaction and showed the motifs using color, camera angles, and special effects. My English teacher thought it was great and my final grade in the class went up!

What is a project that you feel most proud of?

I’m most proud of MyloWrites, my writing app.  In 7th grade, my English teacher assigned an independent project.  We could do anything we wanted, as long as it related in some way to English.  I had such a hard time writing essays, and had been learning writing strategies to help. So I taught myself a coding program called X-Code and I created an app that taught other kids the strategies that had helped me. My teacher didn’t understand the technology that I used to make the app, but he loved what it did.  Then my parents got really excited about the idea and hired a prototyper and developer to make it available online. It’s called MyloWrites, and it’s being used in schools and by kids all over the world.

Why is it important for teachers to recognize multiple intelligences and allow students to demonstrate knowledge in a range of ways?

If teachers knew more about multiple intelligences, it would give everyone a fair chance to show what they know in a comfortable space. Only a portion of people are able to show their knowledge in a traditional way.  If you allow for everyone to choose how they demonstrate understanding, then you give more kids a chance to succeed.

I’m sure that we all know a student like Mylo, as teachers or parents. While Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences reminds us that student learners are unique and diverse in their learning profiles, catering to a diverse class of students can be a huge challenge for teachers. Mylo’s strategy of establishing an open dialogue with his teachers about the ways in which he is best able to demonstrate his knowledge is a great start. His approach is a huge step forward for students and parents who are experiencing a mismatch between the expectations of the school curriculum and the non-traditional strengths of the student. The real world of adulthood celebrates a wide variety of strengths and successes across all of Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, which manifests in our respect for the great orators, actors, sculptors, athletes, scientists, mathematicians, and musicians of each generation. It’s our job as teachers and parents to attend to these future greats during their school years, making sure that their unique gifts are fostered through opportunities to demonstrate their strengths.

Read more about Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences here.

Read more about MyloWrites here, and sign up to get a free 14 day trial of the writing app.