The development of multiple competencies is central to an outstanding education – anyone can be a polymath

30 years ago, the developmental psychologist Howard Gardner proposed the existence of multiple intelligences, and for quite some time, this attractive notion that we have a diverse range of modalities, musical – rhythmic, visual – spatial, verbal – linguistic, logical – mathematical, bodily – kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic, sent educators on a hunt for a way of identifying students by way of their learning style so that they could adjust their teaching that best fitted the learners. We were involved in a sports development project 15 years ago, during which we were asked to approve the separation of PE classes into those who learned by auditory, kinesthetic or visual means to test this theory. As I was the superviser at the time I declined, as the suggestion that foot or net ball players could learn better by hearing and looking rather than by practice was clearly arrant nonsense.  Pretty soon afterwards, we sought out any elements of the National Curriculum that promoted the introduction of learning styles into the classroom and ensured the same were buried without ceremony too.

This is not to say that I don’t understand that learning preferences exist, because they do. Any survey of a timetable adult education classes will highlight the diverse choices we are given for choice, as indeed does the list of many thousand of University courses.  These both have developed over the years to cater both for preference as well as for onward employment vocation. For example, I couldn’t begin to learn to play the guitar without have an interest and temporal preference for picking up a 12 string and giving it a good pluck. Indeed, the family mouth-organ has just turned up behind a wardrobe and I have every intention to continuing my 50 year old quest to master the harmonica. I suspect however that it’s not my ‘huff-and-puff’ intelligence that’s at fault here, but my motivation to put in the 10,000 hours that would bring me to expert status.

Thursday 14 November 2013, we hosted an orchestra day at Claires Court, which by current, layered approaches to teaching should not have worked. We had 86 musicians of diverse abilities and ages (8-18) from 7 different schools come together with a range of teachers who had never worked together, with a focus to produce a celebratory concert for parents, friends and family at the end. For my part, I had little knowledge of the other schools’ pupils nor involvement in the day itself (my musical talent is kept well hidden), but as I looked at our own instrumentalists taking part, it was quite evident that they had really developed their playing skill (by their age) remarkably well. I suspect we are now rather used now to those advertorial photo-opportunities other schools have created, with fiddlers wearing cricket helmets, in a lab coat with a stethoscope and such like. My personal snap-shot was to see our gold-medalling national rowing champion playing a lead saxophone line whilst the Orchestra ensemble played ‘Bring him home‘ as background, knowing full well that all his other area of activity also engage him with similar passion and involvement.  All of the other older musicians seemingly sported similar cvs, also highlighting their burgeoning Renaissance wo/man credentials. You can see and read more here – http://goo.gl/kTy6R1.

Much is said and written in school brochures about the attention available to ensure the development of the whole child, and this includes all aspects of their development, emotional, physical, practical as well as intellectual. Actually this has been so for far more years that Gardner’s words on Multiple intelligence have been around. It is my central belief that it’s not just enough to wrap up a school’s offer with these words, but that you have to set out to provide for multiple competencies in a strategic way. That means at junior school level, you need to offer diverse languages, opportunities to understand subject knowledge and skills and so forth, and the oomph to work at them! Gone are the days when parents will accept the statement that ‘there’s not much there’, and they’ll support with tigerish intensity any channel of interest their child exposes. In my view, this modern parenting interest does not (for the most part) deprive the child of their childhood, and many cases actually expands the child’s opportunities to play and explore what’s possible quite significantly. We can’t roll back the relentless tide of progress, and societal concerns about emerging technologies have been with us since the time of the ancients. Parents and schools need to be balanced in their approach; given the school has a responsibility for all of its children in equal measure then it should seek to be strategic in its deployment of resources to ensure that multiple competencies can be developed by all.

A word of caution is needed. It’s one thing for a school to provide opportunities for children to engage, quite another to cause compulsion.  A firm steer is sometimes required to ensure that a child discovers their writer’s voice lying dormant, or experiences the joy of singing, striking a cymbal, blowing a note or plucking a string. I do remember vividly in my own childhood longing to weave baskets from cane and willow. There was good support for the slow learner (just starting the project most of the time) and for the child that saw no purpose in finishing, a physical demonstration that ‘quitting’ was not a learning characteristic we wished be encouraged. Unintelligent compulsion is foolish, such as seen in the Dickensian workhouse, though I do believe that ‘stuff’ needs to get done to a child’s best ability, and they won’t find out what ‘that’ means unless they try.  Perhaps by way of example, try remembering learning to ride a bicycle. You did not learn by instruction manual, but by repeated practice. My learning was not aided by the presence of stabilizer wheels, so the process was later (in age) and more painful than that enjoyed by my sons. In the way that they knew about guns even before they had seen one, they also understood by some strange lore of nature whenthe time had come to ride without those extra wheels. Both chose to have the wheels removed at a very early stage, and to insist at the point of transition that at no time should my hand be under the saddle’ to support. That, it has turned out, has been an allegory for all my teaching and learning moments, whether for my children or my students. Their best moments have arisen when they achieve by their own just desserts and cognition, not because their teacher has ‘bought’ them the time or opportunity with their hand still under the saddle.

Multiple competencies firmly established in the young adult as they emerge from school into University or the world of work give them so many more opportunities to enjoy life, employed or otherwise. I am very certain that many of our best athletes depart school for their next stage, ready to leave sport behind for a time, not because it has worn them out, but because they want to take their learning to new and different places, not just more of the same. I am a great advocate of the Pareto principle, by which most of the time you should only strive for the 80%.  The push to achieve the last 20% is fundamentally flawed; your sighting of that final effort needed actually often opens up another set of levels…everyone says it is easier to go from starting golf to a scratch handicap than ever it is to go from scratch to successful playing professional status. In short, unless you know otherwise, don’t try too hard.

By the way, this is why I believe in recent years those that run education have been misguided to establish benchmarks where 90% is the pass mark to achieve the top grade. In reality, the exam/assessment has had its bar set too low to start with, or that which had been set was a competency test, in which case students clearing the 80% bar had demonstrated that competency had been proven. The certificating of which should not then have been so rationed.

Through our school I see children on the path to multiple competency acquisition, little polymaths being nurtured by the bucket load. The process is both geared for age and opportunity, and the children themselves open up really rather more of the opportunities than the adults might suspect. Our breadth and diversity of provision for children is central to our development plan, as are the many and varied trips and outings that are engineered to enhance the curriculum questions we pose. Fitting it all in within the working week/month/year may be a challenge, and that’s why children must be allowed to spend enough time in one place of learning to get good enough, to explore and extend their understanding when the opportunity arises. Hence the joy of the orchestra day; something we can’t necessarily do more than once a year, though something that buys the musician sufficient space in the day to have a transformational experience. Oh, and by the way, the audience have had one too – blown away by the outrageous joy and enthusiasm of our musical team for the day!

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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