Making the Connections, and Closing the Gaps - Is it really that hard? (page 3)
While debate continues at the political level about exactly who it is policies should be targeted towards, the reality remains that there are significant gaps across a range of indicators between different groups in New Zealand. A failure to close these gaps has severe implications for New Zealand politically, socially and economically.
A recent Department of Corrections census reports that approximately 75% of all prison inmates, male and female, have no school qualifications. The question is, of course, to what degree there is a causal link. What is clear is that a failed learner is more likely to end up in prison.
Michael Resnick of the University of Minnesota has pulled together extensive research which shows that if you connect young [and not so young] people to learning, negative behaviours such as violence, use of drugs and alcohol etc. which are so costly to individuals, families and society are markedly reduced, levels of learning achievement improve, and as a result life's consequences are enhanced. We don't need research to tell us that; we can all tell stories of people whose lives have turned around when they switch on to learning.
In spite of the fact that concern about the kind of statistics highlighted in the Department of Corrections report has been expressed, in my personal experience, for at least 30 years numerous initiatives have failed, for example, to close the gaps between Maori and non-Maori educational achievement. One can't help but wonder therefore whether policy advisors and political decision makers have failed to come to grips with the real issues, and have instead focused on treating symptoms, rather than causes; have lacked the willingness or ability to make the necessary connections, and have failed to capitalise on what we now know on how to bring about improved learning for all children.
This article is about the connections, or more accurately the lack of connections, between national policy directions and what extensive international research is telling us about the nature of intelligence, how the brain works, and how people learn best.
The brain and the nature of intelligence
Advances in understanding of how the brain works have been dramatic in recent years, much arising from medical research and the advent of brain scanning techniques. Contemporary educational research now recognises that every child is a learner, and that the human brain has enormous capacity and potential that is largely undeveloped. Work in cognitive science [how people learn] shows that intelligence is not fixed genetically, and that it can be significantly enhanced. What is now recognised is that all children respond well in a loving, nourishing, challenging and stimulating learning environment.
Howard Gardner’s work on intelligences is now widely accepted. In his book Frames of Mind he outlines seven distinct intelligences:
- Linguistic Intelligence. The ability to read, write and communicate with words.
- Logical - Mathematical Intelligence. The ability to reason and calculate, to think things through in a logical, systematic manner.
- Visual - Spatial Intelligence. The ability to think in pictures, visualise a future result. You use it when you have a sense of direction, when you navigate or draw.
- Musical Intelligence. The ability to make or compose music, to sing well, or understand and appreciate music. To keep rhythm.
- Bodily-kinesthetic Intelligence. The ability to use your body skilfully to solve problems, create products, or present ideas and emotions.
- Interpersonal [Social] Intelligence. The ability to work effectively with others, to relate to other people and display empathy and understanding, to notice their motivations and goals.
- Intrapersonal Intelligence. The ability for self-analysis and reflection - to be able to assess one’s accomplishments, to review one’s behaviour, to make plans and set goals, to know oneself.
Traditional forms of assessment including IQ tests basically measure ability with words and numbers. Students naturally strong in linguistic and logical- mathematical intelligences do well. IQ tests are reasonably good predictors of success at school [and formal institutional learning] because the way teachers teach and the materials used in the classroom depend heavily on these two intelligences. However results from IQ tests and similar assessments, such as written pen and paper examinations, are not good predictors of economic success, of success in relationships, or of success in life. In modern society linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities are important but it is now recognised that successful learning and success in life depends on the ability to develop and utilise the full range of intelligences.
There is some evidence to suggest that Maori and other disadvantaged groups are more likely to show strength in intelligences other than those recognised as important in both teaching and assessment. That is not surprising given that the nature of the environment in which the child is brought up has a significant impact on the development of individual intelligences. Children raised in an economically and socially advantaged environment are more likely to display those very intelligences [i.e. the ability to use words and figures] which are likely to ensure success in schooling. Those children raised in different cultural and socio-economic environments are much less likely to have developed these intelligences to the same degree, and therefore are immediately disadvantaged in the traditional school environment. It does not mean that they are less intelligent, or less capable of learning. What it does mean is that unless these differences are recognised in the school environment they are less likely to succeed in their learning.
These conclusions are supported by the work of another noted researcher, Robert Sternberg of Yale University. Sternberg has developed his own triarchic theory of human intelligence. This theory holds that intelligence has three major aspects: analytical, creative, and practical. The parallels with Gardner's seven intelligences are clear especially when 'practical' intelligence is described by Sternberg as "common sense," the ability to relate effectively with others and to self-evaluate.
Sternberg is also quite clear that:
a] Conventional good test takers and ‘good’ students tend to excel in
analytical intelligence but not necessarily in the creative and practical
aspects of intelligence.
b] The reason conventional testing predicts school achievement is that
schools, like the tests, tend to emphasise analytical skills far more
than they emphasise creative and practical skills. In fact, the latter
kinds of skills may even be punished, for example, when students
depart from teacher expectations or points of view.
Sternberg also found that there was little correlation between scores on conventional tests and the success of a graduate group of students across a range of the more important measures of graduate performance [i.e. ratings of analytical, creative, practical, research and teaching abilities, and dissertation quality].
More importantly other studies showed that students who were identified as high-analytic "looked like a typical group of ‘good students’: mostly white, and from economically and socially privileged backgrounds. But students chosen for high scores in creative and practical skills looked quite different, in that they were much more diverse racially, ethnically and economically." [Sternberg 1996]
Gardner, Sternberg and many others have come to similar conclusions:
a] That the most important contribution schooling can make to a young person's learning is to help identify and nurture their natural competencies and gifts.
b] That "social" intelligence is both distinct from academic abilities and a key part of what makes people successful in the practicalities of life.
We can all think of people who are intelligent in the traditional sense, with high IQs, who work for people who had little success in schooling, including as measured by IQ and other tests. The reason is that these people have other intelligence strengths, especially intrapersonal; they have high levels of emotional intelligence.
There is increasing recognition that academic intelligence on its own provides "virtually no preparation for the turmoil - or opportunity - life's vicissitudes bring" [Daniel Goleman 1995]. We have in fact two brains - and two different kinds of intelligence: rational and emotional. How we do in life is determined by both - it is not just intelligence as measured by IQ or other tests, but emotional intelligence that also matters.
Emotional intelligence is about how well we work with our emotions. These include self-control, zeal and persistence and ability to motivate. The links with the interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences of Gardner and the practical intelligences of Sternberg are again evident. Self-awareness, and the ability to work with others are aspects of emotional intelligence, critical to success in life. Emotional intelligence also plays a critical role in determining how well or how poorly people are able to use their other mental capacities.
While emotional aptitudes are increasingly recognised as essential business skills in the rapidly changing workplace, in schools we still have a fixation on academic abilities - at a considerable cost to particular groups of students, and to society.
Students who are anxious, angry or depressed don't learn for the simple reason that negative emotions interfere with any attempt to focus elsewhere. Large numbers of children live in stressful situations particularly those arising from unemployment and poverty.
Research studies show the critical importance of the emotions of hope and optimism - positive beliefs in one's own abilities, including the ability to overcome difficulties - in learning achievement and success in life.
Whereas traditional tests show little difference in levels of IQ between Asian students and other ethnic groups in New Zealand and in other countries these students always do well in external examinations. Numerous studies suggest that the key factor is the belief that all children can succeed in their learning with the right effort. In contrast our own 'western' culture, as a result of national assessment systems which have automatically failed 50 percent of our children, holds the strong belief that a high proportion of children cannot learn, and therefore must fail.
The result is that for the children of particular groups in our society - low socio-economic, Maori and Pacific Island in particular - we have built the expectation of failure. The system has taken away hope and optimism. Those expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. What is the point of working hard if you know you are going to fail anyway?
That is why the National Qualifications Framework has been so successful for those for whom the traditional system has not worked. Competing against standards, rather than being ranked against others, provides both hope and optimism - the expectations of failure are removed. In other words, effort brings success and reward.
In addition to each of us having a unique blend of different intelligences, including emotional, we also have a unique combination of learning styles : visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile.
Because traditional schooling emphasises two intelligences - linguistic [the ability to speak, read and write], and logical - mathematical [the type we use in logic, maths and science] - it inevitably favours students who learn best through visual and auditory processes. This emphasis is compounded by the fact that studies suggest 75 percent of teachers are sequential, analytic presenters. However it is also estimated that 70 percent of students do not learn in this way.
Kinesthetic learners learn best by physically doing, by participating in real experiences that have direct application to their lives. Tactile learners need to handle materials, to write and to draw, and to be involved with concrete experiences. Both kinds of learners need to move, to feel, to touch and to do. In the traditional classroom they can be 'fidgety,' bored, find difficulty working to the 'rules,' and therefore frequently get into trouble. It is not surprising therefore that such learners make up the majority of suspended, and drop-out, students.
The fact that particular groups of students, including Maori, feature large in these negative statistics by itself suggests differences in learning styles. Special tests seem to support this conclusion. However there is no research in New Zealand to test its validity, as there is no research to determine whether these same groups of students are more predisposed to strengths in those intelligences neglected in the traditional classroom. Until such research is carried out, and that research is translated into action, gaps in learning achievement will inevitably continue into the distant future.
Contemporary research suggests that the traditional model of schooling stacks the odds against particular groups of students.
While this research is now recognised internationally and is being utilised in an increasing number of countries in New Zealand it is noticeably absent in educational policies and nationally led strategies. Instead policies and school practice continue to reflect false assumptions and beliefs that have no place in a world in which there is so much new knowledge and understanding. It is very difficult [other than for purely political reasons] to understand this neglect, "for there is more material now about the nature of human learning than at any other time. It's found in books … in cognitive science, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, information sciences, management studies, economics as well as philosophy, pedagogy and religion." [John Abbott 2000]
However it is only through the utilisation of this research that the gaps in educational achievement, for example, between Maori and non-Maori will be effectively reduced. Continuation of current policies and practices, or the introduction of 'new initiatives' based on historical and outdated paradigms will simply ensure that the gaps remain. The problem will not be solved by the introduction of truancy officers, Alternative Education Centres, or new rules for the suspension of students. These are reactions to the problem, treating the symptoms not the cause. The answer to closing the gap is to change the learning environment for all students.
What is needed is a model of schooling which:
a] provides a learning environment which is responsive to the different intelligences [including emotional] and learning styles of students;
b] deliberately seeks to identify and to nurture individual talents and competences, and through this to strengthen weaknesses;
c] places much more emphasis on learning in context, rather than on the abstract or theoretical;
d] uses assessment systems which recognise and reward individual achievement;
e] includes as an integral part of the curriculum learning about the brain, the nature of intelligence including emotional, and learning styles;
f] emphasises the importance of the new "basics" - communication, co-operation, computation, computer literacy, creativity and critical - which are essential to individual, business and national success in the knowledge society, rather than on an over-full curriculum composed of unconnected subjects or disciplines;
g] is informed and supported by research.
All of these strategies could be introduced at relatively low cost. What is required is a primary focus on improving teaching and learning rather than on a range of "reforms" targeted to particular symptoms, which history and new understandings show are unlikely to solve the real problem. In other words, we know how to close the gaps; we simply need to have the will to make it happen.
Resnick, Michael D. Protective factors, Resiliency and Healthy Youth Development. Adolescent Medicine : State of the
Art Reviews. February 2000 Issue.
Hartwell, Ash and Vargas-Baron, Emily. Learning for All : Policy Dialogue for Achieving Educational Quality. Prepared for the International Working Group on Education. Munich 23-26 June 1998.
Sternberg, Robert J. "What Should We Ask About Intelligence." The American Scholar. Volume 65 No.2 1996.
Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind : Theory of Multiple Intelligence. Basic Books. New York 1992 [10th Ed].
Rose, Colin and Nicholl, Malcolm. Accelerated Learning for the 21st Century. Delacorte Press. New York 1998.
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence : Why it can matter more than IQ. Bloomsbury Publishing, London 1995.
Abbott, John A. Note from the President of the 21st Century Learning Initiative > http://www.21learn.org< Feb.2000.
Reprinted with the permission of the 21st Century Learning Initiative.
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