CPI Talks to Mara Krechevsky About Putting “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” (TMI) Into Play

Mara Krechevsky Harvard School of Education

CPI Talks to Mara Krechevsky About Putting “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” (TMI) Into Play

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To Understand and Nurture Human Potential

Mara Krechevsky is a Senior Researcher of Harvard’s Project Zero and a member of CPI’s Advisory Board. Project Zero’s mission is to understand and nurture human potential – e.g., learning, thinking, ethics, intelligence, and creativity.  Its research examines the nature of such potentials, the conditions under which they develop, and the practices that support their flourishing.

Project Zero is housed in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and has long been home to Professor Howard Gardner, the MacArthur grant recipient who originated the Theory of Multiple Intelligences (TMI). As schools around the world have adopted TMI, Mara has helped to adapt it to a variety of educational settings. 

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (TMI)

In an educational context, TMI describes all the different ways that children learn. 

Each mode of learning is an “intelligence” – from linguistic, logical-mathematical, artistic, and musical, to less recognized and even softer skills such as kinesthetic, social interaction, introspection, and awareness of the natural world. Children learn through these means, so that one might learn by doing math, while another (equally bright in their own way) might learn through drawing and painting. Kids express themselves through various forms of intelligence. The measure of each child’s ability is how well they do by pursuing knowledge in the way (or ways) that best suits them.

When TMI first burst on the scene over forty years ago, it decentered long-standing notions that kids’ “intelligence” (and hence their capacity to learn) is reflected in their IQ, as shown on standardized tests measuring everyone by the same criteria.  Suddenly, kids were individualized.  A kid who was poor in math, and hence likely to fare poorly on standardized tests, might be a stand-out artist, or gymnast, or operative in a social setting.  These kids were just as smart, but in different ways (though society still had to learn how to value these different forms of intelligence). 

Based on this new awareness of how to define intelligence, school systems all over the country and, indeed, the world, rushed to refocus their educational modalities towards educating the “whole” child, and eliciting from each perhaps a latent skill that would lead them towards fulfilling their highest potential.  The theory of multiple intelligences has thus vastly expanded the pool of recognizably talented kids, and has helped open doors for them as adults. From its inception, CPI has sought to apply TMI, giving all kids a chance to express themselves through different modes of play – for example, storytelling, song and dance, artwork, and traditional games.  

With the Theory of Multiple Intelligences in mind, we queried Mara on our own work, and on the wider potential of a multi-dimensional approach to kids’ education.

Our Conversation with Mara

CPI: Maybe children could act things out or use more variety in interpreting a story?

Mara: There is an approach called storytelling/story acting. This comes out of the work of a kindergarten teacher in Chicago, Vivian Paley. She was the only kindergarten teacher who got a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and she’s written several books about how and what children learn from the stories they tell. 

There are many beautiful things about this practice, but one of them is that you really don’t need many materials except something to write with and a pad. It’s simple – a child dictates a story to her teacher. The teacher writes it down so that the child sees how the teacher arranges the words with sentences, periods, and more. The teacher then reads the story back to the child to see if she wants to change anything. The author gets to choose which character, prop, or part of the scenery she wants to be. Then other children can choose, e.g., who wants to be the trees, or other characters or props in the story. Then they act it out. There is often a taped area to define the acting zone. You don’t even need books because the children are invited to tell their own stories.

Girls in Sri Lanka interpret a story through dance.
Girls in Sri Lanka interpret a story through dance.

Storytelling / Story Acting in Action

Mara: A project I worked on years ago about Multiple Intelligences was called Project Spectrum, where we developed assessments for young children. One of the language assessments was a storytelling board with some relatively generic figures, maybe a cave, a vehicle, and other suggestive components that could inspire different kinds of stories. We modeled a brief example of a story and then asked children to tell their own stories. We looked at capacities like use of dialogue or narration, richness of vocabulary, variety of sentence structure, etc.  We also designed a related activity where children created storyboards based on familiar books to help develop storytelling skills. Children recreated characters, props, and the setting from the original story, and then retold or acted out the story themselves. 

Another way to think about assessment is to use the tool of documentation, developed by educators in the world-renowned schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. A fundamental assumption underlying documentation is that you do not need to wait until the end of a learning experience to know that learning has taken place. At Project Zero, we define documentation as “the practice of observing, recording, interpreting, and sharing, in different media, the processes and products of learning in order to deepen learning.” (Krechevsky et al., 2013)

Documentation provides an artifact that makes children’s (or adults’) thinking and learning processes visible. It should ground people’s claims about whether learning is taking place, so that you don’t have to take someone else’s word for it. The artifact should be something that somebody else could point to and say, “I don’t agree with your interpretation and here’s why.” If you want to learn more about the powerful practice of documentation, see this interview.

Multiple Intelligences Is a Theory About the Way the Mind Works, Not Something That You “Do”

CPI: It sounds like a Multiple Intelligences kind of evaluation of core abilities. Is that accurate?

Mara: Multiple intelligences is a theory about the way the mind works, not something that you “do.” It’s a way to think about children and their strengths. Even the assessment handbook in Project Spectrum, where we identified particular activities with scoring sheets, is only intended to be one part of a range of assessments based on everything else you know about the child.On another project about developing global competence in Portland, Maine (a refugee resettlement community), we created a unit based on a TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie that had been very inspiring for us called “The Danger of a Single Story.” We began by sharing excerpts from Adichie’s talk with fifth grade students. We then asked children to tell stories about themselves or their families by choosing one or more perspectives, and telling the story from those perspectives. Students received feedback on their drafts, and then we compiled their stories–reflecting a wide variety of cultural backgrounds–into a book that became part of the school library.

CPI: How do we help make storytelling part of their consciousness, their everyday lives, so that they’re always observing, always thinking and reflecting in a way that’s focused on communication?

Mara: Reggio Emilia educators believe that learning is not just about expressing what you know or learned; it’s also about communicating or sharing what you learned with others. Teachers in Reggio schools often observe young children’s activity with an eye towards “how can we connect what one child is working on to another so that they can learn from and with each other?” One question teachers frequently pose, even before beginning an activity, is “How can we capture what you are learning so you can share it with your friends?” From the very beginning, children are invited into the documentation process. Children working in small groups are often asked to share their learning with the whole class. And all of this is in service of considering what kind of society we want to live in and what kind of people we want in that society. One answer Reggio educators give in response to this question is, “people who can understand other minds.”

Read more about Mara Krechevsky here.


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