Using Multiple Intelligence Theory in Math Teaching

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Mathematics is not a popular subject. Pupils tend to dislike it, especially when they fail to obtain the desired academic results, and it can cause anxiety and even phobia. The difficulties they find are not only due to insufficient knowledge of the elements of maths, but also to the (in)ability to transfer knowledge in order to face different situations successfully. There are high rates of school failure or failure, mostly in the two compulsory years at the secondary level.

In order to overcome these phenomena, it is necessary that teachers discover new teaching activities and procedures, which have to be liberating and promotional, rich, stimulating, challenging, informal, producing participation among the students. The classical approach in teaching Maths creates passive learners; while it’s important to engage pupils in order to have them take an active role (Bednar, Coughlin, Evans, & Sievers, 2002).

Another important aspect is the students’ mindset, as a progress factor. A growth mindset, that is the understanding that the abilities and intelligence can be developed (as opposed to a fixed mindset, the idea that they are fixed and cannot be influenced) has been shown by researchers such as Stanford Carole Dweck to have powerful effects on students’ motivation and learning. In a time when the students’ motivation for studying STEM subjects dramatically needs to be increased all over Europe (only 12% of the European students get a STEM degree, compared to 45%in China), teachers strive to find methods to teach a new, more friendly, enjoyable, useful, a less abstract Mathematics, a subject for each of our students, adapted to their particular skills and competences, a subject that can be more than a tedious hour in the timetable, a vehicle for mutual understanding and for communication.

This can be achieved by teaching with multiple intelligences. The Multiple Intelligences theory is described by the cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner in his well-known book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. In order to help all the students use their full thinking potential, it is necessary not only to teach them what a good mindset is, but to find ways to convince students of the value of using thinking strategies that may seem strange and uncomfortable at first. A good use of this approach includes both the type of activities and the tools that are most suitable for each of our students.

Any educator knows that the mere scientific competence of a teacher offers no guarantee for his/her successful classroom activity. According to Gardner, the author of the Multiple Intelligences theory, the aim of education “should be to develop intelligences and to help people reach vocational and avocational goals that are appropriate to their particular spectrum of intelligences. People who are helped to do so, he believes, feel more engaged and competent and therefore more inclined to serve society in a constructive way.” Gardner states that anyone possesses different kinds of intelligence and therefore can learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways. According to his ideas, “we are all able to know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves. Where individuals differ is in the strength of these intelligences – the so-called profile of intelligences -and in the ways in which such intelligences are invoked and combined to carry out different tasks, solve diverse problems, and progress in various domains.” The theory he proposed in his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences differentiates intelligence into eight specific (primarily sensory) “modalities”: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial-visual, bodily-kinesthetic, musical-rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic, rather than seeing it as dominated by a single general ability.  (In more recent works, a ninth type, the existentialist intelligence, is added.) While all these types are present in any person, one or several are dominant for each of us.  They are located in different parts of the brain and can work together, as well as independently. All of them can be improved throughout our life, provided we have a growth mindset, not a fixed one. This theory explains why some pupils remember best what they have seen, while others are good with words, or at building things, some are very creative but find it hard to remember formulas or work in formal Mathematics. In order to get the best results, a teacher has to meet the learning needs of the students to examine ways of accommodating these individual ways of learning in his/her teaching.

The Multiple Intelligences theory states that pupils will benefit more from a broader vision of education, that would drive teachers to use different methodologies, exercises and activities to reach all students, not just those who excel at linguistic and logical intelligence and challenge them to discover “ways that will work for this student learning this topic” According to Gardner’s theory, students have different types of dominant intelligence and they can be reached more effectively by using a wider array of approaches. “Pupil engagement is a multi-faceted construct that includes affective, behavioral and cognitive dimensions” (Fredricks, Blumenfeld and Paris , 2004).While the teacher can choose the approach used for presenting a certain notion or task, it’s important also that the student learn to understand and value their own approach to successful mathematics learning, to understand the conditions under which they learn best and to broaden their approach to learning. At the same time, this will help them learn to value their peers. Teachers can encourage students to reflect on how they grasp mathematical ideas the best, as well as understand that although students learn in different ways they can still be equally effective as learners and can learn the same ideas. Here are some examples of activities that suit each type of intelligence:

  • for the verbal intelligence: learning math through fiction writing such as graphing stories, creating crosswords, wordclouds, dictionaries, spoken proofs, word problems, speaking avatars, Math poems.
  • for the logical intelligence: encrypting messages, creating/solving logical puzzles, sudoku, magic squares, mindmaps, treasure hunts, programming.
  •  for the visual/spatial intelligence: reading diagrams and maps, solving mazes and jigsaw puzzles, working with movies, pictures, videos, charts, graphs, diagrams, graphic organizers, art activities, doodling, microscopes, computer graphics software and demonstrations using models and props.
  • for the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence: touching, movement, improvisation, “hands-on” activities such as different types of constructions, using mime, teaching Maths through sports, string art, tangram.
  • for the naturalistic intelligence: relate mathematical progressions to how plants grow, relate sets and Venn diagrams to types of flowers and how they share certain characteristics and not share others, point out mathematical influences in nature, such as Pi or the golden ratio, symmetry or the various geometrical patterns in natural formations or studying living organisms with a certain shape (a pentagon, for example), growing a “fractal garden”.
  • for the musical/ rhythmical intelligence:teaching Math using music, making Maths podcasts, using embedded rhythm in Math activities.
  • for the interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence: comparing learning outcomes from a cultural perspective, connect concepts to real life (for example explain how geometry helps create the building students live in), ask them to compare and contrast various ways of solving equations, creating statistic studies about their colleagues’ interests or hobbies, taking interviews about prejudices regarding girls abilities in Math, describing something from a numerical point of view.

How do you spark off your students’ interest in maths when the curriculum looks arid and boring?

Article written by: Irina Vasilescu, Scientix Ambassador

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