In September 2013, England’s new National Curriculum was published. The Prime Minister quickly branded it as ‘rigorous, engaging and tough’ (Coughlan 2013). In the same year, Key Stage Four also underwent significant change. In a speech delivered in the House of Commons (Adams 2013), the then Education Secretary Michael Gove argued that these changes would ensure challenge and rigour, claiming that ‘By making GCSEs more demanding’ we can give our young people the broad, deep and balanced education which will equip them to win in the global race’. The new National Curriculum was first taught in schools from September 2014, and the new Key Stage Four programmes of study in English and mathematics were first taught from September 2015. (The Department of Education 2013) With such radical change taking place in English and other subjects alike, there is arguably no better time to review the extent to which current theories of cognitive development affect the teaching of English. The theories discussed in this paper will be Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. This paper will argue that both theories, when applied correctly, have the potential to make English more accessible to all learners.
Accessibility is something that Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences attempts to address. Gardner (1991a, p.12) argues that everyone possesses seven different types of intelligence:
We are all able to know the world through language, logical-mathematical analysis, spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves. Where individuals differ is in the strength of these intelligences.
Here, Gardner argues for the need for greater inclusivity within each school subject. Students would be better served if teachers tailored their lessons for different intelligence types. To an extent, this is common practice for many teachers, employing the Visual-Auditory-Kinaesthetic model (VAK) to do this. The use of the VAK model recognises that not every student learns in the same way. Yet, it is still too simple a model to properly cater for all learners. As Anne O’Grady and Vanessa Cottle state ‘Not only is the notion of VAK a misconstruction of Gardner’s multiple intelligences, it is likely to teachers labelling pupils as certain types of learner’ (O’Grady and Cottle 2015, p.38). Indeed, just like MI theory, all learners supposedly possess all three learning styles, what differs between learners is the dominance of each style. In much a similar way to teachers, some educational theorists have deeply misunderstood the practical applications of MI theory. David Starbuck makes the case that the theory of multiple intelligences means that students can only ‘excel in subjects more appropriate to their intellectual abilities’ (Starbuck 2015, p.50). Here Starbuck appears to view MI theory as something that limits chances of success in subjects that do not appeal to the student’s dominant intelligence. Thus, the inclusive nature of Gardner’s theory appears to have been forgotten.
Students may excel in subjects that suit their dominant intelligence type, but that does not mean that they cannot excel in subjects that typically do not. A student who primarily possesses logical-mathematical intelligence, for example, would almost certainly excel in mathematics, because of its emphasis on logical thought. Equally, the same student may excel in a science classroom, as the task is centred on independent scientific enquiry. However, that same student can also be catered for within English. In a literature class discussing narrative structure of a literary text, for example, the teacher may find that the student possessing logical-mathematical intelligence outshines the others because of their ability to recognise patterns and understand the narrative sequence. Of course, it would be impossible to cater for all intelligence types in every English lesson and Gardner recognises this. However, if teachers at least attempt to regularly plan for different intelligent types, then English as a subject will become far more inclusive and child-centred.
But of course, no matter what intelligence type a student possesses, they all still are assessed in the same way in English: via a written examination. Gardner has made the case for a wider array of ways to assess students, arguing that ‘the broad spectrum of students’ would be better served if disciplines could be’ assessed through a variety of means’ (Gardner 1991b, p.13). However, variety in assessment for English language and literature no longer exists. The new Key Stage Four programmes of study no longer use coursework as a means of assessment, meaning that, for students, success in the examination is vital. While the application of MI theory into classroom practice can go some way to increasing student attainment, it does not make students aware of the academic standards that are expected of them. This could be addressed by applying Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. In contrast to Gardner, Bandura calls for a more teacher-centred approach, claiming that children learn by mimicking others (Bratcher 2012). If we apply this to a school context, this would translate to children learning by mimicking the teacher. If we take this to be true, then it places far greater emphasis on teacher instruction. Suzanne Bratcher (2012) has cited the importance of modelling when it comes to teaching writing, arguing that it helps students better understand ‘the writer’s process of thinking and questioning and decision making’ (Bratcher 2004, p.177). Taking Bratcher’s findings further, one finds multiple ways to apply Bandura’s theory. When teaching Shakespeare or any piece of performance text, the teacher modelling how to pronounce early modern terminology or how to read lines from a script would be invaluable. Likewise, modelling an exam response for an English GCSE paper would allow pupils to better understand what it is the examiners are looking for in their response. This could equally be subverted: the teacher could produce a poor response to a GCSE style question and have students critique it. When modelling, however, it is important to ensure that the teacher continually questions the students, asking them to explain why their model is either good or bad, so as to check that they understand why an examiner awarded the response the mark they did. Bandura’s theory, therefore, offers clarity: the teacher modelling high quality work would ensure that students have a benchmark to work towards.
There is more to be said on the implications of cognitive development theories. Others may wish to consider one theory in greater depth, or conduct a larger study incorporating all theories. Nevertheless, this paper provides a starting point which others can build on.
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