New Delhi/Hyderabad: Howard Gardner, the proponent of the theory of multiple intelligences, challenges the belief that people possess a uniform intellectual capacity that can be measured by standardized tests. People have many different intelligences, argues Gardner, the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, currently visiting India.
He said in an interview that standardized testing is a product of Anglo-American “hyper-marketization” and a country such as India needs to ensure that the nation’s islands of excellence don’t just remain that. Edited excerpts:
Learning curve: Gardner says the most important idea that he subscribes to is that people only understand things if they have a chance to act on them. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
You have said that standardized testing to compare learning levels across countries may not be a great example to follow. How should one assemble a portfolio to measure learning levels or education outcomes?
If you believe that standardized testing and international comparison were an essential part of the landscape, then we have to conclude that before 1990 nobody knew anything about how any country was doing. That would be ridiculous. My feeling is that it’s perfectly fine to do testing of many areas, and to do it around the world—I have no problem with that. But I have a lot of problems with giving it too much importance.
Harvard professor, Howard Gardner,talks about making India’s workforce more employable and the crucial challenge of assessment.
The distorting effect of these examinations is well known, namely if there is reward and punishment attached to the test, then people will narrow the curriculum in order to improve their performance on the test. I would be very happy to suspend my criticism of tests if you change the format each year so you couldn’t prep.
Here is the bottom line: A good test is the one that students will do well on if they really understand the material. And it’s ironic that Finland, which is now considered to be the best education system in the world, does not do lot of testing. Why can they do well if they are not sitting down like millions of Chinese and millions of Indians and learning by rote?
When do you think standardized testing emerged as the favoured way to measure learning?
I think it is a product of Anglo-American hyper marketization, which dates back to the 1970s and 1980s. The belief is that everything that can be counted and ranked should be—the way you run a business... I fear greatly that even more than China, India is going to fall into that trap and I find that lamentable.
Do you think that age-appropriate learning is an excuse for the poor teaching standards that we follow?
There’s a difference between age and development. There are 16-year-olds who are developing at a six-year-old level and six-year-olds who are thinking like a 10-year-old...so age-specific learning is a pretty weak treatment.
How should one go about it then?
I begin with a bunch of different premises. The first one is human beings develop at different rates, and so it is much more important that you learn in a way that suits your own developmental level than your age.
The second thing is that people don’t all learn in the same way. One person may learn by listening to stuff at night, another person learns best by role play. And good teaching recognizes that people learn in different ways and show what they have understood in different kinds of ways. The most important idea that I subscribe to is that people only understand things if they have a chance to act out on them. You need performance-based education where you have to show that you know how to use what you’ve learnt in a new situation.
The secret is, two kinds of people have always got the kind of education that I just described. One are very wealthy people because they can hire tutors. Second, students who go to the most elite schools—public or private, whether they are in India or Singapore, Finland or New York. They get individualized education.
The big challenge that perhaps underlies this is how to do it on a mass level. There are two answers—digital media, which is now becoming more and more affordable, and educators who are just not teachers who teach, but ministers and sub-ministers who understand the things that we are talking about.
One thing that India and the US have in common is a huge disparity across the country in terms of the quality of education. Even though the US is very developed and India is developing, many other countries around the world have less disparity. The challenge in the lower class is literacy, you have to get everyone up to snuff, the challenge in the middle class is engagement—people don’t use their knowledge. And the challenge in the elites is ethics—people are very selfish. I didn’t arrange to come here at a time when corruption in India is a front-page issue, but we shouldn’t want to have a country in the world where corruption is the order of the day.
You have spoken about the virtue of linguistic learning and the disruptive potential of digital media in two of your books. Do you think the theories hold any meaning today, when boundaries are blurring in a globalized world?
Certainly, I believe in linguistic intelligence...language is important, but it’s not all important. That’s a separate question that whether you need to know multiple languages. I do believe that digital revolution is very disruptive. That’s what I am trying to understand..., but we have to see in which ways it complicates educational goals and practices, and in which ways it’s quite helpful. There is one Khan Academy where a person called Salman Khan teaches mathematics through YouTube. It may be disruptive for me if I am not a good lecturer, but it’s good that some people are learning. Initially, digital media made it much more difficult to figure out what’s really going on because there is so much stuff out there. But I argue we have a better chance to figure out what’s really going on...we can evaluate the evidence behind what people say...what I am working on is what digital media has done to ethics?
What about censorship?
I think people should be able to say in words whatever they want, but they should not use inflammatory images which are designed to irritate certain sensibilities. We need to have a responsible press which actually thinks about what impact it will have.
In India, there is a problem with employability. What can be done to change that?
I would divide the problem into three areas. One is obtaining basic literacy, the second one is acquiring what I call disciplinary ways of thinking and the third is can you get and keep a job. It’s not a good idea to collapse those three because they are fundamentally different issues.
We know how to help people become literate, there is always going to be a small number of people who have dyslexia or some kind of difficulty, but having a population that is universally literate should not be a problem. We’ve seen it in China, we’ve seen it in Cuba, we’ve seen it in developed countries, and I would say if that is not yet achieved in India then it has to be a primary goal and certainly the best place to do is in the schools.
“Understanding the disciplines” means knowing how to think like an educated person, knowing the difference between a statement that has evidence, as opposed to a statement that is just belief, or a statement that’s just something that you made up because you felt like it. That requires more time and frankly it requires teachers who are better educated.
One of the differences we have now for the first time in human history, some of that disciplinary education can occur via television, via YouTube, via digital media, via the Khan Academy—it isn’t all falling in the teacher’s lap. But to be frank, these alternative approaches to learning aren’t going to work unless teachers have that kind of understanding.
The issue of employability, I don’t think should be primarily a job of the schools. I think that is a burden that’s too great. I think that’s where your business sector and your public sector, and public-minded people should come.
At my own school in the US, about half the people who go to Harvard end up either going into investment banking or to management consultancy. I think that if Goldman Sachs or Citibank want to have Harvard people, they should have their own universities. I’m interested in people who have a first-class education, whether it’s in Delhi or in Bangalore, learning to think in that sophisticated way.
Often the curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep. What kind of fundamentals need to be changed in school curricula to enable learning with understanding?
We live in the first time in human history that if you want to know something, you can just look it up. So it’s a complete waste of time to try to do quantity. All of the premium should come on deciding what’s really important in every area and not only teaching the person that material, but giving them all kinds of opportunity to use it in all sorts of different ways, so it really becomes part of their neural networks, their DNA. Once you have learnt to understand any topic thoroughly and been able to use it in lots of ways, you then have a sense of how to do that with other topics.
If we say well this week it’s the French Revolution, next week it’s the Russian Revolution, next week it’s the Chinese Revolution, I can guarantee you that the good students will get the high grade on the exam and three weeks later nobody will remember anything.
But if you go into one revolution very, very deeply people will begin to understand. And then, when they look at other revolutions they can say, “Well, the Chinese Revolution was a little bit different because of such and such and the Indian revolution, which may not have happened yet, will probably have these kinds of features.”
Similarly, it’s much better to take one novel, whether it’s an Indian novel or a French novel or a British novel, and go into it very deeply and really learn to discuss it, to analyse it, to see what it’s trying to do, than to try to read 10 novels and have a very thin kind of understanding. So in one book I just took three topics, the theory of evolution, the Holocaust and the music of Mozart, and showed how you could spend a year going deeply into those things and then you could apply that method of study to almost anything else.
CBSE has done away with class X board examinations, and another Act by the Indian Parliament has scrapped the practice of failing students till class VIII. Do you think this will help in any way?
I make a very strong distinction between testing and assessment. Testing is something that is proclaimed from outside. We need to do it for some purposes, but it’s basically useless for most people, meaning students, teachers and parents, because they get a score and they don’t know what to do with it.
Assessment means “what is the person’s understanding at this time, what is he or she not understanding, what can I do to help them understand better?” Assessment needs to take place every moment, and the goal of education is to take assessment from outside and make it inside.
In any good school, the teachers know what they want the students to learn and they are assessing all the time. When I go to speak to an audience, whether it’s five people or 500, I look at who’s falling asleep, who’s laughing, who’s taking notes, who seems to have a question, who’s eyes are brightening, I’m assessing. I don’t need a test to do that. So, assessment: hooray, three cheers. Standardized testing from the outside: when necessary, but not just to drive people crazy.