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Biology 202
1999 Third Web Reports
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Connections Between Neuroscience and the Theory of Multiple Intelligences: Implications for Education

Lacey Tucker

The old paradigm of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge has given way to the constructivist belief that students continuously build understandings based on their prior experiences and information. The idea of a fixed intelligence has given way to a more flexible perception of gradual intellectual development dependent on external stimulation (6)

Our intelligence, therefore, is our singular, collective ability to act and react in an everchanging world (1)

In my first two web papers I researched two defined disorders, ADHD and Autism, following a train of thought which began with a question: given that the apparent bottom line concerning the human nervous system is that each of us is unique in our neural patterns, where do we draw the line between defining something as a disorder versus simply a difference? This has led me to think more generally about the notion of human variability, particularly with regards to learning abilities and intellectual achievement. I believe that our society has too narrowly defined these phrases, with the negative result that people who do not learn or achieve within these proscribed boundaries are considered lacking. This is true even with regards to the earliest days of schooling, and is reflected in traditional methods used to teach children. The ultimate, destructive result is that children who fall outside our educational protocols are at risk for feeling useless, worthless and unappreciated.

Recent decades have seen a dramatic rise in our understanding of the neurobiology behind the way the brain works. The common denominator in brain research is variability. We intuitively know-we can observe- that everyone is unique in her interpretation of inputs, her subsequent behavioral outputs, and in all the neural signals occurring in between. This notion is well surmised by the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior, according to which, “under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damn well pleases (5).” This points to the often uncomfortable result of neurological studies: there is no predictable pattern to behavior. Instead of believing that the studies need better controls, some researchers now believe that this unpredictability is itself significant. Biologically speaking, “diversity is as fundamental to life as is order. It is neither accidental nor detrimental. It is instead essential to the success of any biological entity (8).” A body of research now exists that corroborates externally discernible human variability with an improved understanding of the internal variability present in human nervous systems. Therefore, a more accurate reflection of differences in learning abilities and the resultant perceived intellectual capacity of children is better captured with the phrase “learning styles,” which connotes not a disability, but a difference. An important and potentially far-reaching result of this enhanced understanding of the nervous system is to use it to inform ideas about what constitutes an optimal learning environment for children. Accepting that macrocosmic, visible variability has an associated molecular microcosm lends it greater credibility, and gives educators a solid foundation on which to construct new paradigms for education.

There is a growing body of research documenting the way in which undifferentiated neural pathways present at birth make connections during the early years of a child’s life. The resulting concept of cognitive development has therefore changed, and the traditional nature versus nurture debate has given way to the idea that genetics and the environment influence each other and work together. Remarks one researcher, “The more we understand about development and behavior, the more obvious it becomes that nature and nurture are similarly influences rather than determinants, not only singly but also in combination (11).” Basically, the paradigm for how people end up with their own unique intellectual personalities- their thoughts, idea, modes of processing, strengths and weaknesses- is dependent not only on their genome, but also on their environment. A concise summary of the current body of research is that, while most neuroscientists believe that the human brain possesses all of its neurons from birth, only those connections which control autonomic functions such as breathing and heartbeat are fully established at birth. The balance of neural connections form after birth, the result of environmental input (6). This notion has been variously described as the refining of a blueprint (4), a “fever of creation” in which neural cells continue to migrate and position themselves throughout the brain after birth (10), and a waiting orchestra, whose musicians (the neurons), are waiting to play a “complex musical composition” (3).

The second part of this currently popular theory is that, at a certain age, many of the early neural connections formed are subsequently destroyed in what is described as a Darwinian process, or a pruning off of synaptic connections that are not repeatedly used ((3),(4),(9). Dr. Peter Huttenlocher has studied this abundance of neural connections at the University of Chicago. Through autopsies of young children, he has shown that the highest average density of neurons in the brain is about 15,000 synapses per neuron. According to him, this high density is achieved by the age of 2 and lasts until age 10 or 11 (4). It appears that the typical pattern for a child’s cognitive development is that an overabundance of synaptic connections are formed early on, only later to be refined on the basis of which are used most often, that is, which are most consistently fired in response to environmental stimulus. The end result of this is “a mind whose patterns of emotion and thought are, for better or worse, unique (4).”

Despite the current focus on a child’s early years, most researchers agree that the brain can continue to form new neural pathways throughout life in response to environmental stimulants. This concept is referred to as plasticity, the brain’s ability to grow in response to environmental stimuli (2). In other words, the electrical activity of the cells themselves is actually responsible for the changes that take place in the brain (4). This idea makes up the other half of the reafferent loop, by which an output informs the next input, or “sensory signals that an animal receives as a consequence of its own movements (Delcomyn, 1998). Putting these two ideas together, we are given a picture of the brain that is constantly shifting in response to environmental input, and further shifting in response to its own response. This makes for an organ that has an almost unlimited potential for change and redirection. Regardless of whether the details of the growth and pruning theory at a young age have been oversold, there is a more basic truth at the bottom of it: “no two brains are physically alike, and the complex wiring of each brain is so unique that it is unlikely that any two people perceive the world in quite the same way (10).”

One result of this neurological research has been that many people are now focusing on the importance of better early education. Many articles on the web devote space to lamenting the quality of day care and pre-school, since science is now telling us that these early years are the ones to watch for. This may very well be the case, and superior educational experiences at any age can only improve a child’s capacity for learning and increase his joy at the process of knowing things. As one author comments, “Deprived of a stimulating environment, a child’s brain suffers. Rich experiences, in other words, really do produce rich brains (4).” However, since it also seems clear that new experiences continue to forge neural connections throughout a person’s life, I think that are deeper truths to be gained from insights into how the mind establishes connections.

Another neurological concept that can be used to inform educational processes and the methods by which the mind learns is that of intrinsic variability. This concept approaches the nervous system as a large input-output box, inside of which are varying layers, all of which are composed of input-output boxes, the smallest of which is a single neuron. Neurobiologist Paul Grobstein writes that, “under normal circumstances, the outputs of these neurons reflect not only their inputs but also the membrane potential variations intrinsic to the neuron. To put the matter slightly differently, the Harvard Law of Animal behavior holds for neurons (5).” Since this theory posits variability within a single neuron, it therefore concludes that the result of this is overall intrinsic variability of the entire nervous system: “Given intrinsic variability in neurons, there is every reason to expect its existence in the assemblies of neurons which make up both intermediate size boxes and the nervous system as a whole (5).” The implication of intrinsic variability with regards to education is that it is a further layering of uniqueness over the already described uniqueness of neural pathways. Not only are children’s brains connected up in entirely unique ways to begin with, a process which begins at birth and, by some accounts, is relatively complete by the time children begin serious education. On top of this, an educator can never be sure that an input given to a student will result in the expected or desired output, because, according to the Harvard Law, the child will behave (or react, or think) “as it damn well pleases.”

Given all of this, it seems clear that traditional methods of teaching, described in the opening quote of this paper as students being “empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge,” hits far from the mark. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences seems to me to be a strong springboard from which to develop a better way not only of teaching children throughout their school years, but a better way of approaching human intelligence in general. His paradigm of seven different intelligences, which are discrete entities and yet work together, offers a gripping way in which to apply scientific understandings of how the brain actually works. There are many theories out there that attempt to address this growing understanding of the inherent uniqueness of people’s learning habits, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Kolb’s Learning Style Model, and the Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model (15). However, these models do not approach the problem in the same way as MI theory. As Thomas Armstrong, author of Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom points out: “MI theory is a cognitive model that seeks to describe how individuals use their intelligences to solve problems and fashion products. Unlike other models that are primarily process oriented, Gardner’s approach is particularly geared to how the human mind operates on the contents of the world (Armstrong, 1994).”

Gardner’s seven intelligences are Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Visual/Spatial, Musical, Bodily/Kinesthetic, Interpersonal and Intrapersonal (Gardner, 1983 and (14). Gardner chose these seven categories according to a defined set of criteria based upon much of the same scientific knowledge described above. In the background section of his seminal work Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, he criticizes other theories of the mind, such as “Information-Processing,” for “making little contact with what is known about the operation of the nervous system (Gardner, 1983).” He concludes that both genetics and experience play a role in the development of the mind, and he uses this as the basis for his seven intelligences and how they work, commenting, “Owing to heredity, early training, or, in all probability, a constant interaction between these two factors, some individuals will develop certain intelligences far more than others; but every normal individual should develop each intelligence to some extent, given but a modest opportunity to do so (Gardner, 1983).” J. Keith Rogers offers a condensation of Gardner’s theory in 12 steps, which include the following: ? Intelligence is not singular; intelligences are multiple. ? All intelligences are dynamic. ? Every person is a unique blend of dynamic intelligences ? Intelligences vary in development, both within and among individuals. ? Developmental theory applies to the theory of multiple intelligences. In looking at this list, one can draw parallels between the neurological research described above and the way in which Gardner approaches the problem of the variability of the human mind.

If environmental exposure at early ages is integral for maximum development of neural connections in a child, which then decline after age 10, then multiple intelligences seems the logical next step for how to formally educate children who, by scientific proof, arrive in schools with different neural pathways already set. Applications of MI Theory are improvements over the traditional system because “in contrast to IQ scores and labels such as smart, average, or dumb, the Theory of Multiple Intelligences enables educators to look at the diverse ways children problem solve and apply what they have learned (7).” While traditional schooling tends only to focus on Linguistic and Mathematical/Logical intelligences, the notion that all seven intelligences, though considered separate entities, can work together “in concert” implies that expanding teaching modalities could result in an overall improvement in children’s intellectual output (14). The encouragement of many ways of thinking or approaching a problem would enable children to engage the other facets of their brain (according to Gardner we all have all 7 intelligences), with the result that any area in which they have a natural ability will be able to be expressed, and potentially inform all their other learning and problem-solving skills.

There are further implications for MI theory and its excellent relationship to neuroscience. For instance, research has also shown that stress and fear can also etch neural pathways (3), (4),(6). Studies like those by Joseph LeDoux at the Center for Neuroscience at NYU show that the amygdala, which is the part of the brain just above the brain stem, and is responsible for strong emotions such as fear and rage, will be triggered-thus triggering these emotions, before the cortex, or “rational, thinking” part of the brain is triggered (3). Like any other neural pathway, the more it is used, the more engrained it becomes and the more easily it can be triggered, to the point where it is capable of literally blocking higher level, more rational thinking. This has strong implications for children living in stressful, intensely emotional environments. It implies that emotional health is “closely linked to the ability to think and learn effectively (6).” With regards to MI theory, this idea has relevance because children who are being schooled traditionally whose intellectual strengths may lie outside the traditional language and math tracks could be at risk for this kind of emotional blockage to their rational thought processes. A child constantly made to feel that he doesn’t “get it,” or that he is less advanced, talented, or bright than his peers is clearly in a stressful and emotional environment, which may only compound his problem. Regarding this problem one web site writes that “recommended educational approaches, then, consist primarily of trying to maintain a relaxed, focused atmosphere that offers options for learning in individually satisfying ways (6).” Teaching through MI theory can not only erase the cause of his stress, but also the effect. In this manner, a child’s ability to learn may be doubly strengthened.

Another learning principle which has relevance to both neurobiological brain research and Gardner’s MI theory is that of meaning. Writes Susan Kovalik: “the brain stores information based on functionality. We’re a species that has been around four million years. Our species hasn’t survived by taking in a lot of stuff that doesn’t have meaning to us. So it has to have meaning to the students, and has to have functionality (2).” This idea is also supported by the 21st Century Learning Initiative, whose web site includes 12 “Mind/Brain Learning Principles (12).” Principle Three is “The Search for Meaning is Innate.” This idea is expanded upon with regards to education by the assertion that “the brain/mind is both scientist and artist. It resists having meaninglessness imposed on it. By meaninglessness we mean isolated pieces of information unrelated to what makes sense to a particular learner. Really effective education must give learners an opportunity to formulate their own patterns of understanding.” Here again, this is a sound educational principle which corroborates MI theory. Children are better able to find their own meaning in a topic being discussed if given the opportunity to approach it in such a way that meaning exists for them. An outside source, like a teacher, cannot determine only one way for an educational topic to have meaning to every child in the classroom, and the implication of this is that some portion of the children will therefore not learn a topic that is devoid of meaning.

However useful MI theory is as a way of considering the concept of human variability and intelligence, there is some cautionary advice. For instance, it is interesting to note that Project Zero, the group within Harvard’s Graduate School of Education with which Gardner is affiliated, is conducting a study to see the impact of applying MI theory in schools. Although educators have used the ideas associated with MI theory, the author ’s original intent was to present this theory to psychologists (7). The initial findings of the study suggest that MI is indeed useful in a number of ways within schools. According to Project Zero ’s web site, it “offers a vocabulary for teachers to use in discussing children’s strengths and in developing curriculum,” as well as justifying arts education and team teaching (7). There are many books in circulation which apply MI theory to actual lesson plans and activities, though Gardner himself seems a bit cautious about such literal interpretations. In an interview published on the web he comments, “MI cannot be an educational end in itself. The intelligences are categories that help us to discover difference in forms of mental representation; they are not good characterizations of what people are (or are not) like. My fear is that individual educators will remain mired at this superficial level rather than use the system as a way to discover what is special about each child (16).”

The growing body of evidence regarding brain research shows that people are inherently individuals. The neural pathways that they develop, and those that remain developed and don’t atrophy are completely dependent on that individual’s experience and genetics. Children arrive at school age already unique. If this is the case, doesn’t it make sense to be presenting learning opportunities in various modalities so that brains possessing different neural pathways can achieve optimal results with the material? As the second quote at the top of this paper points out, intelligence is not one thing, it is a “singular,” yet “collective” ability to “act and react in an everchanging world.” Intelligence is singular in the sense that every person’s intelligence is uniquely expressed, but it is collective in that we as a species possess it as part of our physiology. Lastly, this quote reminds us that intelligence is simply the ability to respond to changing stimuli and continue to forge connections through them. What is the effect of this definition of intelligence of education? One author sums it up: ” The task before educators and neuroscientists is to take what is known about brain development and apply it to the policies and strategies we use to educate the nation’s children. Until that occurs, education will continue to be out of step, and some students will continue to miss out on certain opportunities to expand their learning capacity (9).” For myself, I take pride in knowing that I can learn whatever I choose to, and this knowledge has informed my sense of self-worth from an early age. I happened to be lucky though, because my intelligences happened to correlate with traditional schooling methods. Every child deserves to have a sense of self-worth based on her ability to gain knowledge and use it to the best of her ability. We will all stand to gain if every child moves into adulthood with his capacity to create and form ideas as highly developed as possible.

WWW Sources

1)Traditional Intelligence Theories

2)Understanding the Brain by Phillip Cohen

3)Brain Trust by Debra Viadero

4)Fertile Minds from Time Magazine, by J. Madeline Nash

5)Variability in Brain Function and Behavior by Paul Grobstein

6)How Can Research on the Brain Inform Education?

7)Multiple Intelligences Schools, from Project Zero site

8)Diversity and Deviance: A Biological Perspective, by Paul Grobstein

9)Brain Research and Education: Neuroscience Research Has Impact for Education Policy

10)Deciphering the Miracles of the Mind, from the La Times by Robert Lee Hotz

11) Genes, Environments and Individual Choice, by Paul Grobstein

12)Mind/Brain Learning Principles from the 21st Century Learning Initiative

13)Principles of Multiple Intelligence Theory by J. Keith Rogers

14)The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

15)Matters of Style by Richard M. Felder

16)An Interview with Howard Gardner by Ronnie Durie

Other Sources: Armstrong, Thomas. Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom. Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1994.

Delcomyn, Fred. Foundations of Neurobiology. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1998.

Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983.




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