According to the theory of multiple intelligences, first proposed by psychologist Howard Gardner more than 20 years ago, the brain is not one "computer" that processes information, but eight or nine different "computers," or intelligences, that are fairly independent of one another. While some of these intelligences are fairly obvious – such as linguistic or logical intelligence – others, like musical or bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, are often mislabeled as talents, according to Gardner, professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
"It's prejudice to dismiss Yo-Yo Ma as talented, and say that Philip Roth is really smart," put forth Gardner, speaking Sunday at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park before a sanctuary full of an estimated 1,300 educators.
The Jewish Educators Conference for Congregational/Community Schools and Early Childhood Programs, sponsored by the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, featured a talk by Gardner and focused on how teachers can utilize this theory in the classroom. Virtually all Hebrew schools in the area were closed due to the conference, which drew nearly 1,000 religious-school teachers, as well as an additional 300 people made up of public- and private-school instructors, and parents, of course.
"Most people, for most of their education, feel stupid," claimed Gardner, saying that too often, schools reward linguistic and logical intelligence while ignoring some of the others. In his view, IQ and standardized tests have a limited ability to illustrate student potential: "I've really shaken up the people who worship these tests."
"It's about knowing as much as we can about every child, and giving every child a chance to show what he or she understands in ways that they feel comfortable," said Gardner, who grew up in Scranton, the son of German Jewish immigrants. "You might say, I've got 35 kids in my class; how can I possibly individualize teaching? But you can't be defeated by that economic reality."
Gardner's theory also includes spatial intelligence, interpersonal (knowing others) and intrapersonal (knowing yourself) intelligence, naturalist intelligence, and possibly, existential intelligence – the ability to ask big questions, such as, "Is there a God?"
Ultimately, Gardner admitted that he is a theorist about the ways in which people learn, and it's up to school districts, principals and classroom teachers to put the ideas into practice.
On that note, roughly half of the participants skipped the second half of Gardner's talk to attend one of 27 workshops ranging from "Hello Toes: The Role of Creative Movement in Early-Childhood Education" to "Using Music to Teach Hebrew and Tefillah" and "Ideas for Teaching Israel: Applying Multiple Intelligences Theory."
"You have to have an impact on the child's emotion, mind, heart and spiritual being. That's not easy," said Helene Tigay, ACAJE's executive director, explaining why Gardner's theory was chosen as the focus of the conference. "It gives us the opportunity to focus on a youngster's neshamah ["spirit"] rather than a grade. Gardner talks about knowing the child and teaching the child, rather than simply teaching the subject matter."
A number of educators said that they try as hard as they can to teach an idea or subject in different ways, in order to reach as many students as possible.
"We teach to the many aspects of intelligence by default, because our kids are pre-literate," said 59-year-old Gena Epstein, who teaches preschool at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood. The challenge, she said, is figuring out how to nourish children's multiple intelligences as they move through elementary and middle school.
'Everybody Can Learn'
Melissa Hinspeter, a 31-year-old general-studies teacher at Albert Einstein Academy, a Jewish day school in Wilmington, said she was required to read Gardner's work in college, but hearing him speak validated what she learned back then, as well as what she does in the classroom.
"Everybody can learn, that's my mantra," declared Hinspeter. "[Gardner's talk] helped me confirm that I know what I'm doing – at least, I think I know what I'm doing."
But Jonathan Henner, a 28-year old Orthodox rabbi and law student who also teaches high-schoolers at Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood, wasn't overly impressed.
After all, the Talmud, he claimed, contains similar ideas.
"There is nothing here that I found new," said Henner. "Educate your child on his own level – these are ancient Jewish ideas."