Schools can better adapt to real human beings by designing education to accord with some of the best theories about who people are.
Someone quipped that after Howard Gardner defined various kinds of intelligence, the question shifted from whether your child was smart to how your child was smart. Gardner writes and talks to these different ways that people learn, think, and create careers and change communities and lists 8 kinds of intelligence.
His list of intelligences:
§ Spatial- the artist or architect with the ability to conceive of and manipulate objects in three-dimensions,
§ Linguistic – Poets and speakers who use words and language as their tools.
§ Logical-mathematical – the computer programmer or math professor who can reason and manipulate numbers.
§ Bodily-kinesthetic – the dancers and athletes whose control over their body lets them do with precision and strength what others are left to admire.
§ Musical – performers, song writers, and composers.
§ Interpersonal – the leaders, salespeople, and politicians who sense what others are feeling and know how to influence their emotions, reasoning, and actions.
§ Intrapersonal – the psychologists and theologians who are introspective enough to understand the inner life.
§ Naturalistic – the farmers and ecologists who understand and work with the rhythms and dynamics of nature.
Additionally, fairly popular notions of learning suggests that people have at least three kinds of learning styles: some are visual, some auditory, and some kinesthetic learners. If we assume that anyone of the 8 kinds of intelligences could mix with one of the three kinds of learning styles, we have a fairly complex menu of minds. In theory, we’d have 3 X 8, or 24 different kinds of minds. This suggests that in a time of entrepreneurship and social invention, we might create at least 24 kinds of learning experiences, if not even 24 different learning institutions. This customization of learning for different types of students would be just one example of how institutions could be made into tools for the individual.
In this context, thinking of developing an educational system that would work best for a particular kind of learner, one gets a better appreciation of W. Edwards Deming disdain for grades. Imagine grading a visual learner whose potential intelligence was intrapersonal – a person who might be brilliant at reading facial expressions, gestures, and body language for clues about another’s emotions and thoughts. Now imagine that this person was struggling to learn within a school designed for auditory learners where the intelligences that are emphasized are language and math. This child would get a low grade. In this system, they would be made to (unfairly) look stupid or inept or lazy. This would almost be excusable if it were really the case that the only way to make a living was to be good at math or language. In fact, a person who can read and influence others might make more money in sales or management than anyone using literature or algebra.
Deming said that if we know a student got a 92, say, or a 58, we know nothing about the student. The amount of learning a student gains is a function of an equation of X * Y = student score. X is the system and Y is the student. You can’t solve for Y – the student’s ability – without knowing X, the system’s contribution. And of course, for one child the system is a perfect complement to her potential whereas for another it is a miserable clash. For one student, the system works. For another, it does not. For the intrapersonal, visual learner, the interaction of the educational system and the student produces a 58. A grade of D. For the logical – mathematical, auditory learner, the interaction of the system and student produces a 92, or an A. (And it is worth noting that these grades, the A, B, C ‘s that are so ubiquitous, are remnants of a time before the information economy. They were first used by cotton buyers to communicate back to England on the quality of cotton. This was a time when information was very expensive and a single letter grade was so much cheaper to send across the Atlantic than a description of the particulars of the cotton. Even in an information age where every high school kid seems to have the equivalent of a telegraph in his pocket, the now ubiquitous cell phone for texting, we still distill the child’s academic performance into a single letter.)
The question is not whether the student is smart but how. In a time of rampant social invention, there is no reason that new systems can’t be created that better suit the individual. School should be a means for a student to discover and develop his own potential, not be ranked against other students on criteria that may or may not have anything to do with his future.
In the end, the child’s GPA is a distraction from the real task of creating a life and career. GPA tells us how well the child performed within the school system, a vague approximation of the child’s subsequent performance with the larger social system. (Although, of course, a child convinced that the grade really is a good indication of who she is would be more likely to let this become a prediction of their behavior if it is a poor grade. Sadly, a school’s label of failure is more likely to predict life after school than the label of success. Subject matter is not all that children learn in school; they also learn who they are.)