‘Parents should avoid positive and negative narcissism. The challenge is to watch your children very carefully, see what interests them, and find ways to help them.'
After challenging certain conventional notions of education with his ‘Theory of Multiple Intelligences', renowned developmental psychologist Howard Gardner, John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has been involved in areas such as design of performance-based assessments, education for understanding and the quality of interdisciplinary efforts in education over the past two decades.
Speaking on some current trends and contemporary challenges in the sphere of education in an e-mail interview to The Hindu, Prof. Gardner says the best educational systems in the world are the ones that make heroic efforts to provide a quality education for every child...
World over, there seems to be a lot of concern about students' “learning outcomes”. Findings of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have been evoking varied reactions in different countries. Do you think the emphasis on “learning outcomes” is justified? What, in your opinion, is a useful indicator of quality in teaching and effectiveness in learning?
In this era of global connectedness and competition, I suppose it is inevitable that we will have international comparisons. These comparisons are useful so long as they are not treated as being very important, let alone all-determining. Unfortunately, the comparisons and rankings have become so important that they dominate the thinking of Ministers, and distort what is taught and how it is taught in many countries. (I joke that France would rather be #23 if Germany were #24, than #2 if Germany were #1!) Indeed, I sometimes think that the international comparisons have become so dominant in mainstream educational thinking that we'd be better off without them altogether.
If we are going to have such measures, I think that they should differ significantly from one test administration to another; each year they should use different kinds of problems, prompts, etc; In that way, it will not be possible to ‘teach to the test' except in the most general way.
I have written a great deal about my own educational goals. If I were the international ‘czar' of education, I would focus the assessments on two areas: l) Can the student demonstrate understanding in and across the major disciplines —that is, scientific understanding, historical understanding, artistic/humanistic understanding, and mathematical understanding? This is best done by providing new unfamiliar examples/problems/concepts, and have the students explicate them; 2) Are the young people becoming moral and ethical citizens? This cannot be determined by standardised tests; it requires inspection of representative campuses as well as the collecting of statistics about voting patterns, crime rates, engagement in social service and other indices of good citizenship.
In Truth, Beauty and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the Virtues of the Twenty-First Century, you speak about challenges faced by traditional education in the light of the “disruptive potentials of the new digital media”. Could you elaborate? How do you think parents or teachers should step in?
The new digital media challenge nearly all of our traditional virtues. How do you determine what is true, when there are millions of postings, sites, blogs which can be changed at will? What is beautiful at a time when any image (or sound or poem) can be altered at any moment? How do we determine what is good when we are connecting societies from all over the world with their own history, ethical codes, legal systems, etc.?
It takes me a whole book to provide answers but here are some important headlines. Truth is about propositions. When it comes to determining truth, it is vital to understand the methods used by individuals in asserting propositions.
Beauty is about experiences. Each us of can and should ascertain what we find to be beautiful — in my terms, experiences that are interesting, memorable in form, and worthy of revisiting. And then we should assemble portfolios that track our changing (as well as our enduring) examples of beauty.
Good is about the relations among people — both the people that we see all the time and those with whom we have only professional or civic relationships. If we want to have good workers and good citizens, we need to create common spaces in which individuals can talk about the moral and ethical dilemmas that they have faced and how they resolve them. School is probably the place where these activities are most likely to take place. But certainly parents, the community, religion, organisations, and the media should participate, if we value and want to preserve the ancient but still important values.
Your Theory of Multiple intelligences identifies Linguistic abilities as one. In India, there is an ongoing debate on mother tongue education versus English medium education. What really should drive decisions on the medium in which a child learns?
In the United States, I think it is very important that young persons learn English, because it is so important both in the U.S. and around the world. Also, we know that young persons learn languages easily. If the family wants to maintain the second (or third) language, that is fine. I have to say that my position is not popular among American educators, though most ordinary citizens would agree with me.
I don't have an informed opinion about what should be done in India. It may well depend on the region, the religion, the family options and dynamics.
What I can say, in direct response to your question, is that the decisions about language need to be made in terms of what is in the best interest of the child in the long run. That requires thinking ahead and not confusing the child's interest with that of the family or the larger community. Of course, that is also a very American perspective.
The Right To Education Act that has come into effect in India and certain other movements are campaigning for a Uniform System of School Education. Then, there is the question of resources. How do you think the education system can address such issues in the given, complex context? Where does the individual learner figure?
Every child needs to become literate in one or more languages and every child should become comfortable in the major scholarly disciplines — historical, scientific, mathematical, and artistic-humanistic thinking. Beyond that, I am not in favour of a uniform system, I think there should be some choices. In a large country like the United States or India, families differ significantly on their own education values and I don't believe it is necessary to put everyone through the same curricula and assessments. Again, I am in the minority here.
The best educational systems in the world, like Finland, make heroic efforts to provide quality education for every child. That means spending more resources for disadvantaged children, and I support that decision. In both the United States and India, there are vast differences in resources and, in the long run, that does not make for a healthy society.
Individual learners are not all the same and they should not be treated as if they are. That is where my theory of multiple intelligences figures in educational design. The two most important implications of the theory are Individuation and Pluralisation. Individuation means presenting lessons in ways that are compatible with the child's ways of learning and giving the child the opportunity to show what he/she has learned and understood. Pluralisation means presenting important content in a variety of ways, not just via lecture or reading. If we pluralise our means of presentation, we reach more students and we also demonstrate what it is like really to understand materials — to be able to think of them in multiple ways.
On the one hand, rote learning is being criticised severely. On the other, schools are having to “compete” in order to produce rank holders and high achievers. In today's competitive scenario, how can schools ensure adequate rigour in the teaching-learning process? Is there an undue burden on the teacher?
You are right. There is a collision course between a more flexible, creative style of teaching and learning, on the one hand, and the struggle to do well on a single test instrument which valorises having lots of information and being able to give it back on demand. You can be very rigorous using a more flexible approach, so long as you have clear educational goals and a clear means of assessing whether those goals are being met. Unfortunately, most of the testing instruments being used around the world value quite specific forms of information, rather than more flexible problem solving and problem finding skills.
Teachers are indeed put in a very difficult position: how to balance the desire for individualised, flexible, creative, forward-looking education, on the one hand, with ‘on demand' mastery of information, on the other. Like other professionals, teachers have to be able to balance these demands, to be fair to the students, the broader society, and the teacher's own value system — and to do so while still being able to have a family, relax, listen to music and, yes, even sleep 7-8 hours a night. A tall order!
Are today's parents being unreasonable in expecting their children to excel in many areas? What would you term the single, biggest challenge faced by a) students, b) teachers and c) parents?
Parents need to avoid positive and negative narcissism. Positive narcissism says “The one thing that I could do is play the violin. Therefore you must play the violin.” Negative narcissism says “The one thing that I could not do is play the violin. Therefore, you must play the violin.” The challenge is to watch your children very carefully, see what interests and excites them, and find ways to help them follow that talent/passion/curiosity. This does not mean ignoring what is important in school, but it does mean realising that life is more than school, and that finding one's passion can make the difference between a fulfilled life and a frustrating life.
I've talked about the challenges facing the teacher (balancing too many demands) and the parent (avoiding various forms of narcissism and attending instead to the child's own interests and passions). As for challenges facing the child, realising that in the end it is your life, to be lived for decades in the future, and if no one else is taking your welfare into account, you have to seize that responsibility for yourself.