An Unbelievably Bad Book

From Gilbert Sewall, “Lost In Action: Are time-consuming, trivializing activities displacing the cultivation of active minds?,” American Educator (Summer 2000).

Howard Gardner knows that many very silly things are said in his name. But the writings in Thomas Armstrong’s Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (ASCD, second edition, 2000), published with the imprimatur of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, cannot be among them. The book appears with Gardner’s blessing. In a preface, Gardner vouches for the accuracy, clarity, broad range, and the teacher-friendliness of the book. He calls it a “reliable and readable account of my work” that “conveys a vivid idea of what MI classes, teaching moves, curricula, and assessments can be like.”

Armstrong’s guide is a veritable encyclopedia of non-traditional teaching strategies. To tap into interpersonal intelligence, the book extols the construction and use of board games “easily made using manila file folders, magic markers … a pair of dice and miniature cars, people or colored cubes … to serve as game pieces. Topics can include a wide range of subjects, from math facts and phonics skills to rain forest data and history questions.” In Armstrong’s world, animal sounds, plant symbols, class plays, making pictures, and color coding are alternate ways to learn about punctuation.

To engage the naturalist intelligence, another teaching strategy suggests that high school teachers “use a class pet as a kind of ‘alter ego’ for the classroom in posing instructional questions (e.g., ‘How do you think our rabbit Albert would feel about the problem of world hunger?’). Students who relate best to the world through their love of animals might well use Albert’s persona in giving voice to their own thinking on the matter.”

In featured examples in the book’s appendix, for a fifth-grade history lesson on the development of Rhode Island, students—depending on their “smarts”—can choose between traditional approaches such as reading a textbook and creating a timeline, or they can relate the settlement of Rhode Island to their own need or desire to break away from authority, or compare the settlement of Rhode Island with the growth of an amoeba. (It’s hard to know what this last learning exercise means or means to teach.)

But such antic activities will undoubtedly influence some impressionable curriculum specialists, just as they reinforce the false notion that learning should be cheery and blithe. (Learning is often very hard and even tedious work.)

To get a feel for unknowns in basic algebra, Armstrong advises, spatially endowed students in junior high school can draw a version of “x” as a masked outlaw. Students with musical intelligence can chant “x is a mystery” and “accompany their chanting with any available percussion instruments.” To get a feel for Boyle’s Law, high school chemistry students can become “molecules” of gas in a “container” (a clearly defined corner of the classroom). They move at a constant rate (temperature) and cannot leave the container (constant mass).

These activities are at once catchy, dreary, and desperate. This is not the way to learn about “x” or Boyle’s Law. Animal sounds are not the best way for children to learn about punctuation. Teachers should not suffer theory that tells them they are. Don’t have high school students ask Albert the classroom rabbit what he thinks about world hunger, as Armstrong’s guide would suggest. Have them obtain research material from the Population Reference Bureau.

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