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Updated: March 22, 2012 10:10 IST

Teachers have to balance demands from various quarters: Howard Gardner

Meera Srinivasan
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Howard Gardner: 'Individual learners are not all the same and they
should not be treated as if they are.' Photo: Special Arrangement
Howard Gardner: 'Individual learners are not all the same and they should not be treated as if they are.' Photo: Special Arrangement

‘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.

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Truly, this was a very insightfu reading.We need massive reforms in the education sector. Right for education is a major step towards that but how it is executed is going to be more important. We have other issues to tackle such as malnutrition, infant mortality and so on but the root cause of all these pressing issues is lack of awarenessw which can only be brought through education. Also, there is a need for parents to think differently rather than treating their kids as marks earning machines. 3 idiots is a classic example of the current education system. One must learn as many languages as possible as it enhances the easthetic sense of an individual but when it comes to discipline, there should be a choice rather than persuing all disciplines with no command on anything. "Jack of all trades, master of none"- still holds good you see!!

from:  B Chandrasekhar
Posted on: Feb 25, 2012 at 16:44 IST

Good interview and very lofty ideas. From a practical side, one needs to start from where we are right now and make stepwise changes. At the very early levels, it is difficult to give individual attention and hence tailor make teaching to the needs of the individual. Also there is a need for a level of proficiency in certain basic aspects like reading, writing, mensuration and the like which are essential. How these are to be taught is open for discussion. At the secondary level, students can be given the option to choose what they want to specialise in. I believe this option is available in India. It is at the college level that the student really starts appreciating what HE/SHE really likes - the aptitude. This is where the parents have to support their wards and give them the freedom to progress in life at their pace in their chosen speciality. As individuals, let us start in our homes to offer that choice to our children - 'Freedom begins at home'.

from:  R.VENKATARAMAN
Posted on: Jan 30, 2012 at 16:40 IST

It is a relevant interview with Mr.Howard Gardner.No doubt,every point he draws our attention to is no exception to acceptance. I liked It very much.

from:  Mr.Nagaraj Naik
Posted on: Jan 30, 2012 at 06:39 IST

As long as Education is success oriented we can expect little improvement in the quality of education.Education to be meaningful has to be holistic and not merely to equip the child to make money!I believe true education can be only imparted at home by the parents themselves. The parents have to be role models for their children. They should encourage the child to dream big, read more and think for himself.They should teach the child to be brave and fearless.

from:  umesh bhagwat
Posted on: Jan 27, 2012 at 11:30 IST

"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" 'Are the young people becoming moral and ethical citizens? " I admire Mr Gardner for the above two points,alone.This is what, education is about.

from:  Sadasivan
Posted on: Jan 26, 2012 at 02:28 IST

Our education system is career oriental and not developmental oriental.We imposed on our kids get highest marks in school and collage.We never paid attendant his natural aptitude.That one is greatest drawback of our education.That one based on British motto.When British introduced education system they want obedient civil servant to run the country.That system is now out of date we must now introduce new education system which make new generation responsible citizens,creative entrepreneurs,and devoted to welfare to nation

from:  Ramesh Raghuvanshi
Posted on: Jan 25, 2012 at 16:48 IST

The write up is the best one on how we could change our education policy.
The students should be able to relish whatever is taught . Only when the usefulness of whatever is being taught is understood then theyu students might enjoy the subject.The more one understands the subject the better it is to retain. The practical application makes learning process easier,Hope some at least put these tips in their school or college syllabus.

from:  Rev. John. F. Texeira
Posted on: Jan 23, 2012 at 12:21 IST

Indian society unfortunately did not paid much attention to schools and universities since Independence. Some of the schools and universities were much older than IITs and were doing pretty well during British rule. However, these shools and institutions reduced to simple structures due to lack of quality education which in turn due to lack of good academic staff. Poor salaries to academics staff forced many to run tutoring and training classes for JEE across countries, especially by science faculty. Thus reducing many colleges have become irrelevant. If India wants to take advantage of its population in the next two decades, the first thing it should do is to impart high quality education and conduct significant research & development work which will only possible if the salaries or on par with industry pay check. Education has become a business and thus quality teaching and research demands salaries on par with the industry! Else, India will produce actors than scientists.

from:  M V Chilukuri
Posted on: Jan 23, 2012 at 08:08 IST

Good article.There are so many things to change in our educational systems in India. 1. Depoliticise and give individual powers to educational managers/policy makers( They should stay away from political influence). 2. Teachers should be revalidated every few years. 3. Teachers should introduce interactive way of teaching and stop age old blackboard facing types. 4. Children should be encouraged to ask questions and their doubts cleared in a very simple but thoughtful way. 5. Teaching and learning courses for teachers should be brought mandatory to update their teaching skills and apply to local needs.6. Assessments should be based on concepts and not on digesting pages and vomiting.7. Practical learning should be introduced by increasing educational tours, allowing students to take decisions whilst camping but supporting and supervising them. 8. Voluntary work should be must and schools must contribute towards this. We can improve but we have to change people's 18th century mindset.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Jan 23, 2012 at 01:16 IST

Thanks to THE HINDU for publishing such an interview. Wish all parents and educators read this article and try to implement at least a few so that our future generations will benefit . Our education system needs to look beyond just numbers and ranks....

from:  Padmalatha V
Posted on: Jan 19, 2012 at 15:19 IST

Good interview. Howard gave realistic answers. Questions context is Indian. Governments need to attend to feasibles. Ministers are not great psychologists or educators so they shall remain at respectable distances on Education planning. You need to educate most disadvantaged but see health of child too is also important.In main areas like any single language /maths/history/(unadulterated)/sciences.. should be given uniform.
Parents definitely need to be careful not to make child a psychic just because of parents rigor on child/ Teachers to give a balanced treats on subjects as per need but not overly punishing way. Child shall have a happy schooling so too parents need to give attention to child to a level it can understand the information what is is expected to learn. child can learn 2or3 languages. Ensure their shall have long life to carry on and help build good health, then objectives may one reach do not put all the world over its head, after all a lot other children
are there ..

from:  dr. g. balakrishnan
Posted on: Jan 19, 2012 at 08:59 IST

The last statement undermines the impact and influence of pedagogical skills of imparting education in tertiary education for the simple fact that many students study because their parents want them to study but at the same time pursue their own desires and goals. Finally, this ends up in fooling the parents and blaming the teachers/academicians for the institutions failure. How many institutions in this world have systems in place where a student choses his own field and excels while not blaming either teacher or institutions for their failure? Certainly, they can's blame their parents hence they blame institutions or staff for their own vested interests.
This will be a major disaster looming around academic institutions in the present world. The times has passed that Gardner theory can work on the present generation.

from:  M V Chilukuri
Posted on: Jan 19, 2012 at 07:25 IST

It is the exact dilemma as expressed by you in your artcle that I quit teaching after nearly 15 years.It has become a business these days.We as parents find it difficult to teach our 5 year old kid as she has to unlearn wrong things taught by her teacher.For example Tr: All leaves are green .Shouldn't it be "Most of the leaves are green in color".
No point in telling the same to the school authorities(These are the same people who will say a lot in praise of the school when you go for admission) as the reply we get is they are not able to get good teachers.Great teachers are an endangered species now.I don't know whom to point my fingers at...... the whole system /boards/teachers/institutes churning teachers....the list is endless.There needs to be a revolution for things to become need based /child friendly in reality(and not on paper).

from:  C.Soudhamini
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 23:26 IST

The answer on Truth,beauty and goodness is very general.It is also
clear about what the author expects from school teachers and parents
and also the students themselves.The school or college environment
is only upto 21 or 22 yrs of the children.The author should spell out what these along with others should do,in the rest of their lives(which is prolonged now a days)to recognize beauty,truth and goodness.

from:  doodu
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 18:23 IST

very good article. childs interest in learning should be given high importance.In Present days parents are always forcing the children to study but they are not focussing on how the child is understanding the concepts and applying them in practical life.

from:  jakief
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 13:26 IST

Our education is failing because it is not able to make the child the best human being to live on this planet.He should be taught not only what to think but how to think and why to think.Edcation is a word derived from educure i.e to lead to train.He should be taught about his relationship with the Creator and with the creatures like himself the society the environment the plant kingdom the animal kingdom and his duties and responsibilities towards all.If these values and ethical standards are not inculcated along with the mannerism and art of life skill all the educational technologies and resources employed will be a sheer waste,our education will not only be illogical but pathological. Todays education is reduced to information which has a little validity, because of the enormous availability of the sensless data.
we should revert to the basics.After numeracy and literacy the basic values should be taught to make them more professional and humane to serve for the greater good.

from:  Dr.Israrul Haque
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 12:39 IST

Wonderful question and marvelous answer.
Intellectual and moral development of children is inevitable and our central and state government are recruiting the teachers on fast track to upraise education system. Golden words said by Dr. Howard Gardner is not going to work under this hurried recruitment which is hiring without considering overall development of the candidate. And consideration of individual kid will require another decade or more for India. Recently India has participated in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) organized by OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and stood second last position which clearly shows ineffectiveness in entire process.
Actually we always try to act in quick fix way. Our aviation sector is under severe problem so we allowed FDI in that but we are not looking at root or pillar of country, which is education. Globalization and privatization with standard guideline would be best under current scenario.

from:  Gaurav Rai
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 12:31 IST

It was really a significant interview since the education scene is getting murkier. Todays Children are the future of tomorrow, in such a situation the article is timely and i wish The Hindu for this service.

from:  seran
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 10:17 IST

It's nice to read an interview such as this, but sadly for a lot of people education is still about competition, and trying to understand the difficulties of an individual child struggling to cope in an archaic educational paradigm is not seen as valid. The blame is always put on the student and no one dares to even question if at all we need to revamp the way our schools are modelled.

from:  vishwajeeth rai
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 06:46 IST

Dear Meera srinivasan,: My compliments for the excellent interview with Howard Gardner.Very thought provoking and insightful questions and meaningful responses from Howard Gardner! I think the essence of the interview should send the right message to the system managers!

from:  G Balasubramanian
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 06:45 IST

I would like ask Ms Nilakeni if she had read this interview, if so can she teach at schools for the current salary, and ofcourse how many would like to do it for the currant wages. Mind you, this effort is nothing short to effort by IT emloyees at Infosys and BPO. Perhaps, she must be immature to expect quality education needs quality salary. Moreover, the same applies to higher education.
Indian Higher Education continues to suffer until the quality salaries are paid which are on par with International standards. In fact, quality salaries alone provide quality education but also quality amenities. In India, the academic profession is the least respected across the industry and it certainly has influence on quality. Is it not strange that India movie makers have large funds than institutions for research? The other day, Infosys awarded R & D excellence award to emminent scholars, but how much? perhaps it is lessthan what Shahrukh Khan or Priyanka Chopra gets paid for a stage dance.

from:  M V Chilukuri
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 06:43 IST

This is an enlightening interview. we have to get out of the uniform and over competitive educational system and make it child oriented and life oriented. International comparisons and race for rankings would only cause frustrating rather than fulfilling lives. New digital media has been changing the world of ideas too fast but is it towards better thinking or action? Why primacy to speed but not to truth or beauty or even to goodness?

from:  J.Ravindranath
Posted on: Jan 18, 2012 at 01:26 IST
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