Discover Multiple Intelligences
Teaching and Learning 1
Have we become too focused on pupils’ weaknesses instead of their strengths?

I recently found myself speaking readily about ‘slow learners’, as this was how these particular teachers referred to some of the children they taught. It was not a term I had used previously. On another occasion I listened to teachers talking about all the things that can ‘prevent a child from learning’, but none was able to say ‘how a child learns’.

Over the last few years I have been very conscious that what, in good faith, has been meant to help pupils in schools, such as identifying their special needs, be they a range of ‘disorders’ or ‘challenges’ or the fact that they are gifted and talented, is not always serving the desired purpose. In fact, I wonder if it is making some children live up to the expectations labelled on them, rather than developing what is positive in them. Could this be why so many young people are disillusioned in the inner cities and turn to making a name for themselves in anti-social ways? “This is what they think I am, so this is what I shall be,” syndrome.

Once labelled as having ‘special needs’ a child becomes aware that they special because something is ‘wrong’ rather than something is ‘right’. The taunt, “You are only special because you are thick”, is not unknown. Other children, in order to become ‘special’ have to have something ‘wrong’ with them too, unless they are gifted or talented which, if highly developed, may also be thought to be ‘wrong’.

When I taught, and later led a school in inner-city London, I found that it was the teachers who channelled pupils’ energies and strengths into positive directions that succeeded, where as those who came to the area with a deficit view of the children, soon found they could not keep order or succeed in the classroom and soon left. The enormous energy and vitality of many children who ‘cause problems’ in class is not always harnessed and directed in ways that are exciting to these pupils, who often have amazing ideas and are highly creative.

It was at a time that I was questioning our whole approach to education that I started looking on the internet to find out what other teachers were interested in. I found that an enormous number of teachers, in various different countries, wanted to know more about multiple intelligences.

Whilst the result of the original research by Howard Gardner was published as far back as 1984, few teachers in the UK appear to have much knowledge of it. Many teachers now know about different teaching and learning styles, but the fact that these should be linked to the scientific research on the functions of different parts of the brain appears not to be widely known here. It is better understood in the US, where some schools have been set up as multiple intelligences schools. Whilst the background of Howard Gardner is that of a developmental psychologist and not an educationalist, there is much in his research, his latest book was published in 2006, that educationalists should note. This is why I prefer to promote knowledge of Gardner’s multiple intelligences rather than different learning styles: note again the emphasis on an arguably negative word ‘different’ rather than the positive word ‘multiple’.

I have taught in primary, secondary and special schools, and in all of them have found talents waiting to be developed. In all of them there have been children unhappy with their lives and showing this in a number of ways. Should we not, as teachers, find what these children are interested in and good at, and build from there, rather than always be emphasising what they are not good at or find difficult. In my experience children who have come to me unable to read at 11 year old have been taught to read, by me, through their strengths. “Why did a teacher not do this before they were eleven?” I always wondered. Becoming later a secondary teacher, it amazed me to find pupils unable to read and write properly after over six years of primary education. No wonder the pupils had low self esteem. Had no one told them what they were good at, and found ways to teach them through these? Later, as a special school teacher and then as an inspector, I found that each pupil, however severe his or her ‘needs’, had a strength that could be channelled and developed. Not every child needs a personal education plan, as many ‘ride the system’ well and succeed, maybe in spite of it, and anyway such plans would be at too great a cost for many countries. However, for those children who are not making the progress hoped for, teachers need to focus on the positive aspects of their character, abilities, intelligences and lives and build on those. Only then will they and their talents be recognised and of benefit to all.

Margaret Warner
© MAW Education

Biographical summary ,
Margaret Warner was educated in an independent school. She worked for seventeen years in inner-city London schools, where she was headteacher for ten years. She has also taught in Oxfordshire and in Australia. She is a performance management consultant, a HLTA assessor and led inspections of schools in a wide variety of contexts across England for almost eight years. She is an international education consultant and has trained teachers in government independent schools Qatar and in private independent schools in India.