Resurrecting Howard Gardner

I had an “aha” moment recently listening to Jonathan Katz, executive director of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies speak to New Jersey funders. I was reminded of the hard work we did in the 90s to get the arts into national and state education standards and the arguments we used to get there. It’s time to revisit those arguments after a long draught of “teaching to math and reading tests” brought on in 2000 by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act dubbed No Child Left Behind.

Jonathan said this (I am paraphrasing). “The arts are not simply like any other subject, they are a foundation for learning, like literacy and numeracy.” So if student learns the alphabet and how letters form words, she can understand how to read and write. If a student learns that numbers are sequential, whole and fractions, he can go on to use numbers to assist him every day. If a student learns music, visual art, theatre and dance, she has a vocabulary that compliments numbers and words, a vocabulary of symbols, sounds and movement. This helps all of us describe what is not easily defined through language and numbers like feelings, senses and values.

I had the great honor early in my career to hear an inspirational speech by Dr. Ernest Boyer. I still have the transcript from that speech. He shared this story that demonstrates how the arts provide a translation for an event that is not easily understood with words and numbers. “Several years ago, in a now forgotten airport, I found in the New York Times an interview with Victor Weisskopf, the world renowned physicist, who was discussing the Big Bang Theory. Near the end of the provocative conversation, Weisskopf said that if you want to understand the Big Bang Theory, and I did, you should listen to the works of Haydn.” A theory so complicated that overwhelming emotions of symphonic music describe it best. I've always loved that quote.

So enter Dr. Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. The research and theory were simply that people learn differently and that there are eight basic ways of learning.

  • Spatial
  • Linguistic
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Bodily-kinesthetic
  • Musical
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Naturalistic

Three of these “intelligences” are directly addressed by arts experiences:  spatial (visual art), musical and bodily-kinesthetic (dance). Garder's work at Harvard was the basis for arts-centric schools, arts charter schools and schools where the arts were integrated into all subject areas. In some states, these schools paved the way for the arts to be considered a tool for school reform, therefore opening up state and federal dollars for the arts.

Dr. Gardner is alive and well at Harvard still building on his research of how people learn and communicate. I heard him speak last year. With great respect, I approached him and asked him how he felt these days about arts education and his work twenty-five years ago? He looked discouraged and simply said, “it’s all about the testing now, not about learning,” and walked away. Wow…depressing. AND he was right of course. In our arts education advocacy efforts, this is an argument that needs to be front and center once again. The perception with most decision-makers is that the arts are just another area of study like civics, foreign language and math. Instead, we need to help superintendents, principals and school board members and other elected officials understand that that arts engage chidlren in learning in ways that can be used by other disciplines as well as giving students a self-expressive voice. And they can be used by other curriculum areas because the arts are actually a means by which people learn.

I remember being an observer in a 4th grade dance class in an A+ school in Raleigh, North Carolina. A+ schools are based on Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, using specialists to development curriculum with generalists, lots of planning time and the entire school buying into the concept that arts are integrated into teaching other subject areas. I felt the energy of the school the minute I walked through the door. Classroom doors were open, it was noisy, artwork all over the walls. Good artwork. The 4th grade class was studying directions and maps. The dance teacher had them choreograph a dance using directions and I watched them perform. Each had a “map” of their dance. “Skip three steps north, spin around and hop four times west.” One thing I know is that if you were a kid that learned by doing, and especially by moving…you finally had a chance to get it!

Arts education advocates need to resurrect the work of Howard Gardner and use it in our efforts now. This “No Child Left Behind” focus on testing math and English and assessing schools based on those tests has failed. The “quick fix mentality” in our political system has determined that more focus on math and reading will, of course, raise test scores in math and reading. That hasn't happened because we've forgotten how children learn and why they stay in school to begin with. Some students, those who learn through music, kinetics, visual or audio senses aren’t engaged in learning math and reading as it is traditionally taught. Exceptional teachers know this and utilize arts learning techniques in their classrooms. Other teachers need help and arts specialists can provide that help. The arts in school are not just about learning to play an instrument or to sing. They are about learning a language of symbols, hearing and movement. They are about learning how to learn and being able to express that knowledge.

Thank you Jonathan for reminding me about this and for resurrecting, at least for me, Howard Gardner.