Individuation in Education: How Tech Companies Might Play a Role

As one who has long urged a more personalized form of education, I’m very pleased to see that Facebook plans to create platforms that will address each learner specifically (rather than relying on generic approaches, the so called ‘one size fits all’ model).

I understand that other technology companies like Apple have similar aspirations. Even if there were such an entity as the ‘average person,’ it’s clear that many of us are not average; a generic approach to education will only suit a small minority of learners. The rest of us, with more jagged profiles or idiosyncratic strengths and weaknesses, are left to fend for ourselves.

Yet a commitment to individualization or personalization is but the first step (and all too often, it is only a rhetorical step). One then has to determine on what basis the individualization takes place. I can envision at least three possibilities:

l. A Single Learning Path, but the pace of advancement is adjusted to the learner. In this simplest form, one still assumes that there is only one way to learn, but that individuals differ in how quickly they advance along that single path. This was the rationale of teaching machines, originally designed by psychologist B. F. Skinner in the middle of the twentieth century, and still the most popular version of individual differences.

2. Favored Content. Even at young ages, individuals have quite different preferences. Five year olds may be fascinated by numbers, by dinosaurs, by foods, or by certain kinds of animals. Many ideas can be presented via different ‘vehicles,’ and quite possibly, strong interests and deep knowledge combine to help with learning those ideas.

3. Different Learning Styles. The assumption here is that individuals differ in how they approach learning; the delivery of materials and collection of responses depends on the so-called preferred style of the learner. The styles could be related to sensory systems (visual learner, auditory learner, etc.) or to cognitive styles (focused or wide-ranging; playful or planful; rational or intuitive, etc.). As I’ve frequently noted, ‘learning styles’ are not the same as ‘intelligences’.

4. Different Intelligences. Here one assumes that all human beings have the same set of intelligences, but that individuals differ in which of the intelligences are stronger, and thus presumably constitute privileged ways of mastering educational materials. And so, when taking a course in history or in mathematics, some learners gain from a linguistic approach, others from a spatial approach, still others from a logical or bodily approach. On this version of personalization, Facebook would teach individuals using methods consistent with their intellectual profiles. The profiles could be inferred from personal testimony, observations by parents or teachers, or simple computer-presented measurements.

Of course, one would not have to approach individuals through their area of intellectual strength. One might even try to bolster a weak intelligence—but such an approach should be adopted intentionally and not by accident.

There are many other types and approaches to individual differences—for example, through personality or through membership in cultural or social groups. They are not mutually exclusive—for instance, one could look both at favored contents and at profiles of intelligences. I look forward to seeing which facets of individual differences are chosen by Facebook (and other providers) and whether educational successes are thereby achieved.

-Howard Gardner

The Teaching Intelligence: Clues from the Brain

In defining the original intelligences, I laid out a set of eight criteria, deliberately drawn from several research traditions. I evaluated intelligence candidates on the extent to which they fulfilled these eight criteria. Originally, I delineated seven intelligences that became the components of MI theory. Some years later, I became convinced that an eighth intelligence, a naturalist intelligence, warranted inclusion in the list, and I spoke and wrote somewhat whimsically of a possible ninth intelligence—existential intelligence: the intelligence of big questions.

Unless the situation changes, I am no longer in the process of identifying and evaluating candidate intelligences. It is more important that the plurality of intelligences be established than that I put forth the ultimate or final list.

That said, I have been speaking informally about the possibility of an additional intelligence. I’ve termed it the ‘pedagogical intelligence’ or, less formally, the ‘teaching intelligence.’ We all know that two individuals can be equally skilled or knowledgeable in an area, but only one of them proves able to teach it effectively to others. Probing a bit more deeply, we can classify individuals in terms of what they can teach, how they can teach it, and how flexibly they can deploy their pedagogical tricks, depending on the nature and degree of success of a particular occasion of learning.

But there are two factors that I find more compelling. First of all, there is the recent discovery that even very young children are able to teach. The demonstrations are quite compelling. An apparatus or game is presented to the child, and he is given the chance to master that entity. He is then asked to ‘teach’ that game or apparatus to children of two ages: one clearly younger, the other clearly older. Contrary to what many of us would have predicted, even a toddler is aware of the core requirements of teaching: adjusting your pedagogy to the knowledge and skill of the learner(s). We know this to be true because the toddler—say, a child of three or four—will provide far more detail and explanation to a younger child (say, a two year old) than to an older child (say, a five year old). This demonstration fulfills one of the requirements of an intelligence: its existence across all humans, and its variable strength across the human species.

The second factor, even more recent, are brain studies of individuals involved in the act of teaching/learning. This is work described by Lisa Holper and colleagues in their article “The Teaching and the Learning Brain.” Not only does teaching activate quite specific brain structures. More importantly, you can gain evidence on whether teaching is effective by noting the amount of activity in the pre-frontal regions of the cortex and, intriguingly, the consistency of neural patterns between the designated teacher and the designated learner (or, as the authors put it, “dancing at the same pace”). Presumably, an individual with high pedagogical intelligence will more readily adjust her teaching strategies, in light of the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the current teaching strategy. In the future, the teacher may be able to draw on neural as well as behavioral evidence. To read this article in its entirety, click here.

-Howard Gardner

Reference: Holper, L. et al. (2013). The teaching and the learning brain: A cortical hemodynamic marker of teacher-student interactions in the Socratic dialog. International Journal of Educational Research (59), pp. 1-10.