Common Miracles
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Summary

"Correspondents Peter Jennings and Bill Blakemore attempted to reveal how educators, administrators, communities and parents can help students realize their unique talents and learning abilities in an ABC News Special entitled "Common Miracles: The New American Revolution in Learning. The documentary features interviews with instructors, principals, psychologists, parents and students and focuses on methods and schools which provide their students with freedom and options through education. Jennings and Blakemore go on location to schools across the nation. They find that traditional education - including tracking, factory model schools, and IQ-based assessment-is being replaced with cooperative learning, the use of computers, apprenticeships, parent and community involvement, and the philosophy that every child is gifted and all children will learn. "Common Miracles" "exposes" the ultimate goal of educational revolution: to "liberate the human potential in all Americans." "- Academic Innovations

Critique

According to the documentary "Common Miracles" as we learn our brains are continually changing, expanding dendrite connections and increasing our innate potential and ability to acquire new knowledge. Hence the acquisition of knowledge and mental skills itself is a key factor in the development of our innate intelligence throughout our life.

The "concept" of IQ (Intelligence Quotient) is rejected in favor of a more "holistic" view of intelligence that addresses skills or "multiple intelligences" in the following areas:

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Interpersonal/Introspective: The ability to perceive and make distinctions in the moods, intentions, motivations and feelings of other people. The ability to interact with others, understand them and interpret their behavior. Interpersonal intelligence and intrapersonal intelligence are "inextricably" interconnected since true self knowledge requires a sensitivity to others and vice versa. Interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences are often found strongly developed in politicians, religious leaders, therapists, shamans, etc.

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Visual/Spatial: The ability to comprehend shapes and images in three dimensions. Spatial intelligence is often relied upon by designers, architects, sculptors, engineers, etc.. It is also the "more abstract intelligence of a chess master, a battlefield commander or a theoretical physicist", as well as the familiar ability to recognize objects, faces and details. A sharp distinction can be seen between visual acuity and spatial ability. For example, a blind person may feel and identify a shape with ease, but be unable to see it. Males typically score more highly than females in this category of intelligence.

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Bodily/Kinesthetic: Expertise in using one’s body to express ideas and feelings as well as the facility to handle objects skillfully. Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence involves the control of movement to exhibit fine motor control and characteristics such as grace, balance and agility. It involves a natural sense of how one’s body should act and react in a demanding physical situation, including a sense of timing, a clear sense of goal and the ability to train responses so they become "automatic". Often dancers and actors will talk about a "feeling in their bodies"- an intelligence unto itself yet integrated with one’s entire being.

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Musical: The capacity to perceive, compose, discriminate, transform and express musical forms (rhythm, pitch, harmony, timbre, etc.). Musical ability functions according to Gardner like an intelligence- what composers call logical musical thinking- thinking involving both left and right hemispheres.

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Verbal/Linguistic: The capacity to use words effectively, either orally or in writing. A well developed linguistic intelligence shows itself in attention to word, syntax and style. Linguistic intelligence embodies both left and right hemispheric processing of language- both language in a linear sense and language in the enfolded, holistic sense. Students with a high degree of linguistic intelligence think in words, learn by listening, reading and verbalizing. They enjoy writing, reading, telling stories, poetry, books, records, tapes, etc. They learn best by saying, hearing and seeing words.

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Logical/Mathematical: The ability to mentally process logical problems and mathematical equations. Examples of such reasoning might include a mathematician working through the implications of a theorem or a reader unraveling a mystery story. According to Gardner, the most successful application of logical-mathematical intelligence is the scientific method as applied for example, in the work of Newton, Einstein and other great scientists. Logical /mathematical intelligence often does not require verbal articulation. However, mathematicians, for example, must be able to not only reason precisely, but also write down their proofs with precision. Piaget stages of mental development- from handling objects, thinking concretely about objects and then understanding formal abstract relations and operations- document the growth of this intelligence in children. Whatever their walk of life and academic background, people gifted with this intelligence will enjoy intellectual puzzles and intellectual discovery- whether they are chess players, mechanics, CPA’s or scientists at the frontiers of new knowledge.

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Naturalist Intelligence:  It recognizes those who thrive on identifying patterns (Barkman, 1999) and classifying things in nature. Naturalists identify and classify birds, plants, stars. Kids who love dinosaurs know all the long names and descriptions. This is the intelligence that helped our ancestors decide what to eat and what to run away from, and led Charles Darwin to envision The Origin of Species (Meyer, 1999).

In the past schools have placed emphasis on the verbal/analytical/mathematical aspects of intelligence and have either ignored, denigrated or simply placed greatly reduced emphasis on the other aspects of intelligence. By teaching to multiple intelligences, students should show, among other things:

bullet Increased independence, responsibility and self direction.
bullet Reduced behavioral problems at school and home.
bullet Improved cooperative skills.
bullet Increased ability to work "multimodally" (use multiple intelligences), when doing school reports, multimedia projects, etc.
bullet Improved leadership skills.
bullet Retain information better.

By ignoring the full potential of the human brain, schools have denied students the ability to utilize all of their aptitudes and innate abilities, often resulting in reduced student satisfaction, learning frustration and even discipline problems. In addition, failing to recognize a student’s full potential may result in an escalating cycle of sub-par student performance and lessened self esteem.

The documentary spends some time examining the Key School, a school where every child is recognized as being gifted. This school emphasizes learning how to learn and think (metacognition), development of concentration skills (flow) and a multi-disciplinary approach to learning where skills learned in one area are readily transferred to another area. All aspects of human intelligence, as outlined above, are emphasized and all are tapped into in the learning experience. Children, for example, with skills in music and art are actively encouraged to develop those skills further and transfer their success approaches in music to other areas. Children with spatial abilities are similarly encouraged and challenged. Games are made an active part of the learning process and students are encouraged to use the skills acquired in mastering games to more "traditional" academic areas. High student expectations and standards are considered critical to student success.

The Daniel Webster School is an example of a school for economically disadvantaged students that uses the techniques found in the so-called gifted/accelerated programs. Results have been extremely encouraging and belie the approach that tracks students, especially disadvantaged youth in programs that set low expectations and limit their potential to grow and learn.

The emphasis of schools should be in the development of HOT skills (Higher Order Thinking Skills). Teaching should be "incomplete" and in some sense "Socratic"-allowing the students to discover their own truths and actively participate in the learning experience. Students should be allowed to fail- controlled floundering if you will. Cooperative problem solving and joint learning experiences should be encouraged in the classroom. Computer based instruction, while by no means replacing the teacher, can be a valuable tool in individualized, controlled instruction.

In today’s rapidly changing world, "learning how to learn" is one of the key skills schools can impart to students. Instruction in core moral and ethnic values are still important in school and include integrity, respect for cultural and ethnic differences, the desire to act wisely and feel deeply, good citizenship, etc. Teachers and parents as role models instill values as much by their day to day actions and words than by direct instruction in what is right and wrong.

Great teachers, principals and involved communities are important to creating successful school environments. Parent Power is important if students are to succeed in the classroom. Studies have shown that involved parents make a big difference in their child’s performance in the classroom. Increasingly, as in Lowell, Mass., parents are being offered the choice of which public school their children may attend. Schools can be selected based on their child’s abilities and interest. Businesses that offer apprenticeship programs and "real life" business experiences can be invaluable to students for acquiring new skills and motivation to complete their education.

To revamp American schools and free them from traditional, outdated models that do not reflect how children really learn will require persistence, the willingness to explore new ideas and community involvement. The pay off, greatly improving our children’s life chances and options is more than worth the fight.

Reform

The views expressed below are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the producers or writers of the "Common Miracles" documentary. My views are shaped by my teaching experiences, both in regular and special education.

Practical Reform. Four other reforms are critical if American education is to be truly revamped. First, the number of Charter Schools must be significantly increased and allowed greater independence from the school bureaucracies. Second, parents should be given a free choice on how their education tax monies are spent. This will bring competition to what is now a "protected monopoly." Finally, further efforts will be needed to dismantle tenured school system bureaucracies at all levels- bureaucracies that stifle innovation and all to often crush students and teachers alike. Attendant with these reforms should be teacher salaries comparable to other professionals, schools that become healthy communities that serve as models for the larger society, better funded schools that are permeated with applied technology and true student centered learning. It is also important that elementary, middle and high schools attract professionals, both male and female, from teaching and other fields- proven professionals who can awaken young minds and help children imagine what they CAN do, not what they CAN'T.

Further, we must not forget the needs of our children with learning disabilities and severe handicaps. Their needs demand: (1) Significantly higher teacher to student ratios; (2) State of the art computer, voice and information technology; (3) A strong team of allied professionals, including speech pathologists, school psychologists, educational therapists, occupational therapists and mental health professionals who have a holistic view of the child; (4) Comfortable, creative and stimulating learning environments and (5) Caring volunteers that provide individualized support and care. Strong parent support and interest is crucial if the child is to retain his or her self esteem in the classroom and at home.

Finally, quality education does require adequate funding and strong community support. Decaying physical plants, grossly overworked and underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, outdated technology, parent and community indifference, poor school health and nutrition programs, etc. do not make happy or productive schools. All of these adverse conditions are particularly hard on our learning disabled students, see: "Silence is Not Golden." 

There has been much local, state and federal discussion of accountability in education. I strongly disagree with the mindset that de-emphasizes the importance of raising standardized test scores in schools with poorer students (Title 1 Schools). However, we must strenuously avoid "teaching to the test," thereby diminishing its' validity and disturbing the balance in a child's education. Further, when assessing the academic progress of a child with a learning disability, the effect of that disability on his or her standardized test results must carefully weighed along with other factors. Yet, for any learner- a positive, creative and academically challenging classroom environment coupled with strong parental support and meaningful efforts to bolster self-esteem can produce significant improvements, not only in test scores, but, far more importantly, in their self-worth and confidence as a lifetime learner.   

 

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