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A collection of helpful articles on teachers and teaching

Time to Revisit Gardner

The catch phrase in education today is to “close or narrow the achievement gap”.  Consultants are brought in from various educational professional organizations; educators are steeped in professional development and programs are implemented all with the same goal — to increase performance in underperforming students.  Unfortunately, the indicator that most schools use to determine whether or not there is a significant increase is state standardized tests.

Using such assessments, the results will always fall along a normal bell curve with some students performing exceptionally, some under performing and most performing in the average range.  It would seem to me that if we continue to use this model to assess student performance we are always going to have a group of students who are underperforming!  If educational reformists really want to narrow or eliminate the achievement gap, they would look to Howard Gardner and his timeless theory of multiple intelligences.  

In 1983 Howard Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at Harvard ‘s graduate school of education, wrote “Frames of Mind” in which he outlined his theory on cognition and learning.  He introduced the idea that the human mind is far more complex regarding learning than previously understood.  Gardner presented his theories of multiple intelligences which described domains of cognition including; linguistic/verbal; logical/mathematical; musical; bodily/kinesthetic; visual/ spatial; interpersonal and intrapersonal.  Gardner believed that to limit the measurement of intelligence to only verbal and mathematical skill was to deny these other areas and result in a false determination of intelligence.

While many schools and districts believe that they address Gardner ‘s theories, in reality, they only rely on classroom teachers to use differentiated instruction to meet students ‘ needs. Using Gardner ‘s theory, Woodrow Wilson Integrated Arts School has crafted a program that levels the playing field for all students.  Located in Union City New Jersey, a town with the lowest median income in the state, the school has instituted a multi faceted system founded on MAID (Multiple Intelligence Arts Domain). The school provides a rigorous program where instruction in the core curriculum is enhanced by the integration of the visual and performing arts.  Only teachers with backgrounds in both the arts and single subject specialties are hired to teach.  The student population at Wilson is ninety percent Hispanic and eighty-four percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Yet, in the last four years the reading and math proficiency scores have increased by ninety percent. Partnerships have been cultivated with the New Jersey Council of the Arts, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera.  

With Wilson School ‘s success as an example, educators who are truly interested in narrowing the achievement gap can redesign their educational programs to address all intelligences and decrease the emphasis that is currently placed on language arts and math skills.  District administrators and state legislators need to end the need for quantification of student achievement and instead focus on the wholistic quality of student achievement.  In “Five Minds for the Future”, published in 2007, Gardner discusses five cognitive qualities that he believes educators should be cultivating in today ‘s students.  A disciplined mind- one that can master information; a synthesizing mind- one that can decipher and prioritize information; a creative mind — which employs innovation and meaningful change in problem solving; a respectful mind and an ethical mind.

Using the arts to meet the needs of the whole student and address multiple intelligences is not new.  But with today ‘s push for increased test scores and leaving no child left behind while we race to the top, we have lost focus on creating self-actualized, capable and productive students.  We are making single test performance the sole determining factor of educational success and in effect disqualifying proficiency and exemplary skill in other essential areas.  Gardner ‘s premise is that in life we use a multitude of skills to succeed and survive, not just verbal and mathematical.  Do we need to create proficiency in students in these areas?  Of course, but they should not be the only yardstick to determine achievement if we are truly sincere about narrowing any gaps.


Tere Barbella is an arts educator in the East Side Union High School District of San Jose, California. Visit her blog at


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