Sunday, March 18, 2007

About intelligences and learning styles

A couple decades ago, Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, developed the theory of multiple intelligences. In a nutshell, he proposed that there is not a single "intelligence" but seven. Those are:

Visual/spatial intelligence
Musical intelligence
Verbal/linguistic intelligence
Logical/mathematical intelligence
Interpersonal intelligence
Intrapersonal intelligence
Bodily/kinesthetic intelligence

More recently, he added an eighth intelligence to the list, naturalistic. For decent descriptions of these intelligences, see the list here. His theory has been accepted through most of the educational community and is taught to many aspiring teachers, but it has been put in practice in only a very few schools around the world. Instead, most schools continue to value and reward verbal and logical intelligences and are geared toward those.

With unschooling, kids aren't all expected to have the same sort of intelligence. Verbal and logical intelligences aren't valued more, so kids with other intelligences aren't at risk as they are in school. For example, a boy with kinesthetic intelligence might be a discipline case in school, or labeled with dyslexia or ADD, or simply made to feel stupid. As an unschooler, that same boy might learn his ABC's while jumping on the trampoline, start reading while playing video games, or simply and beautifully excel in some physical pursuit. Most importantly, he will never be made to feel he's less for being who he is.

Learning styles go hand in hand with multiple intelligences. Gardner says, "Styles refer to the customary way in which an individual approaches a range of materials—for example, a playful or a planful style." With unschooling, we are able to honor our children's learning styles as well as their intelligences.

For example, the verbal intelligence of both of our girls is indisputable, but Chloe's learning style is playful and verbal, while MJ's is more thoughtful and internal. What I think of as their "secondary intelligences" are different, too, with Chloe's logical and intrapersonal leanings and MJ's musical, visual, and interpersonal ones.

So, what does honoring their learning styles and intelligences look like? In Chloe's case, it often looks like conversation! She lights up when we talk, and her experience of anything, whether it's a book or a dream or a trip to the grocery store, isn't complete until it's discussed and, usually, laughed over. She has always been this way. I remember hiring a nanny years ago, long before unschooling, and telling the nanny that Chloe needed to be listened to. We made it a job requirement.

Then there's her sensitivity. She feels hurts very strongly and has had periods of intense awareness of cruelty, hypocrisy, ageism, and, repeatedly, her own isolation from others. (This last is not about social isolation but an understanding that she is alone in her own brain, if that makes sense.) Honoring her intrapersonal processes and periods of grief has required patience, gentleness, and a certain creativity in finding ways to comfort her.

In MJ's case, the honoring often means butting out, something that can be especially challenging for me! She is very independent and very skilled at telling us what she needs, so we really can take our cues from her. Her goals tend to be thought through and well defined, and her pursuit of those goals is deliberate and self-monitored. She's more disciplined than I am, but she never nags, so I too often find myself in the position of holding up her progress because I've procrastinated and then forgotten something she needs me to do. In other words, honoring MJ's intelligence and learning style means daily work on my own faults!

Her study of music and interpersonal relationships has also presented some challenges. As you may have gathered, I hold strong opinions. As MJ has explored the offerings of the music world, I have had to repeatedly reexamine those opinions and tap into my trust of her. Eminem presents one good example. She was about 10 when she wanted to buy her first Eminem CD. "Absolutely not" was my first response, but I had to check that. We had conversations about his lyrics, their potential encouragement of violence against women, and my fears that her listening to his music would change her in negative ways. Then she got her CD. We had more conversations about specific lyrics, but I learned to appreciate some of his music; I didn't see any change in her language, behavior, or self-esteem; and, with all parental disapproval removed, he proved to be just one stop in a long and varied musical journey.

Another example was a TV show she started watching not long after we started unschooling. Its title was something like "I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Outta Here," and it involved plopping several B celebrities into a primitive camp in the jungle to see who lasted the longest. I found it loathsome, especially the flirtatious antics of one "blonde bimbo" on the show, but I was encouraged by other unschooling parents to watch it with MJ and try to see what she found so interesting. That was when her fascination with interpersonal relationships became clear to me, and it wasn't long before I was as hooked on the show as she was. And the blonde turned out to be a sweet young woman, so I got to confront another of my own prejudices.

Because their strengths coincide with strengths valued by the schools, I have little doubt that MJ and Chloe would have excelled and been reasonably content had they stayed in school, and they'll be able to slide back in easily if they ever choose to return. But the thing is, they haven't needed school to develop the skills valued by school. Their interests, inclinations, and abilities have led them to a natural expertise.

Think about that. The kids who do best in school, who have the types of intelligences that schools are geared toward, are going to excel in those areas without ever setting foot in a classroom. So all they really get from school is gold stars and A grades for doing what comes naturally.

And what about the kids who struggle in school? They spend all those years feeling inadequate. Yes, some of them learn to write well, or to enjoy reading, or to do some higher math. But can the schools take the credit for it? After four years of unschooling, I'm not convinced they can. Maybe it's another case of a natural process coinciding with an artificial one. And for every one of those kids who is able to adapt himself and get the rewards of school, there is one (five? twenty? a hundred?) who comes out of school with nothing but a self-esteem problem. It's thirteen wasted years, years he could have spent in an environment that valued the strengths he possesses, developing real skills to build a life on.

Well, I've digressed into a critique of school, which wasn't my intent. I suppose my hope when I started writing this was to encourage people to recognize that we don't all fit into the school mold. For those who don't fit the mold, consider unschooling or other customized education as an alternative to criticism, shame, and prescription drugs. The academic results might be equivalent or better, and the psychological benefits, immeasurable. For those who do fit the mold, school offers little but validation.


lynellex said...

there needs to be a "like" button here!

i know kids who flourish in school, maintain their curiosity and love of learning and who don't seem to be negatively impacted by the social or academic aspects of school. and even though i've seen that, i've valued and *loved* the flexibility of our unschooling life.

and for us, talks about tv shows, music, video games, guns, sex, violence, drugs, politics, values, work, play, living, loving, romance, love styles, and, and, and *every*thing has been a huge part of our path, as we knew it would be. there simply wasn't going to be enough time to live and talk and play to the levels we wanted if our kids were spending hours of their days in school.

the flexibility and *time* that we've had together are have been so precious to us. i love this journey.

~Karen said...

It took me many years of homeschooling to really learn and understand what you are writing about in this post but I finally did.