Saturday, May 02, 2009

Brain, Mind, and Education - Attention and Multiple Intelligences Theory

Interesting post, though I am not sure I like Gardner's theories.

Attention and Multiple Intelligences Theory

I've endeavored over the past few months to exercise my "network literacy" (Will Richardson) and build a personal learning network with other educators using Twitter. Twitter is a micro-blogging tool that allows users to post 140 character messages ("tweets"). Twitter users can follow each other and grow a personally-tuned information stream. Notably, each user's stream of tweets also gets an RSS feed, and Twitter also provides RSS feeds for searches - this is very powerful! Howard Rheingold recently posted a tweet seeking feedback on his blog post entitled "Attentional Literacy", a subject important to educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists alike. A debate ensued as to whether "literacy" was the appropriate word to describe attention, which prompted me to do some thinking (which is exactly why a personal learning network is so valuable).

Recently I've been reading about Howard Gardner's theory on Multiple Intelligences (MI). Gardner defines an intelligence as "a biopsychological potential of our species to process certain kinds of information in certain kinds of ways." There are a variety of reasons I find his work captivating:
  • it fits with the modular model of the brain-mind
  • it defines intelligence as a brain-based capacity
  • it provides a model for instruction and assessment
Below are a few links to read through to get a sense of the past, present, and future of MI theory, as well as to see how it is being incorporated into education:
In what I've read so far (only a small sample of Gardner's work, let alone all the related studies and critiques), it appears that the 8 intelligences he's identified so far do not exhibit a hierarchical pattern. Although this is valuable in terms of maintaining equity among the many ways of demonstrating intelligence (vs. the more traditional assessments that focus almost completely on verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical), a lack of such organization would be unusual if there is a strong relationship between the organization of the brain and the intelligences.

I jumped into the debate and suggested that, per Gardner's definition, that attention might be better labeled an "intelligence" than a "literacy". There is a lot of brain research happening to improve our understanding of the nature of attention, but there is no question that it is a biopsychological potential, and that it is related to information processing. Here are but a few examples of current literature on the neuroscience of attention:As I thought more, I wonder if, in fact, attention may not be just an intelligence, but an example of a heirarchichal intelligence. I don't know if "meta" is the appropriate word to use here - is attention "above" and providing top-down influence on other intelligences, or is attention more of a foundation, lower-order intelligence which other intelligences must gain in order to activate? Perhaps as neuroscience research improves our understanding of the brain-based nature of intelligence, a clear picture of the intelligence heirarchy will emerge based on the brain structures involved and their relationship to information input / output patterns. However, whether the location is "above" or "below", it seems clear that attentional intelligence is on a different level than the others already identified.

I'm also now realizing that Will Richardson's "network literacy" could also be thought of as an example of Gardner's "interpersonal intelligence", though with the context shifted to the digital realm. What's also been on my mind as I learn more about MI theory is how it might be similar or different to other cognitive theories I've learned about in the past, particularly p-prims, facets, and cognitive resources. It's clear that educational systems have room for improvement with regard to instruction and assessment of all 8 intelligences. Thinking of attention as an intelligence within the MI theory also helped me to realize that we educators - except Howard! - tend not to provide direct instruction on how to develop and use intelligence. Regardless of whether it is accurate that attention is an intelligence or a literacy, Howard's point is well made that our increasingly multi-tasking and digital students will benefit greatly from direct instruction on how to pay attention.

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