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Recognizing the web of developmental pathways suggests new ways of learning through connections

Gardner (2006) argues that using a uniform approach to learning might seem fair by treating every individual the same, but is ultimately unfair because a universal approach does not meet the needs of individual learners with different needs and abilities. To Gardner, the traditional definition of intelligence is especially limiting because (a) it measures an individual&rsquo's ability to answer questions on a test, and (b) it assumes the individual’s inherent intelligence remains relatively unchanged throughout life. Such a limited definition restricts educational programs to developing logical and linguistic skills of learners, while essentially ignoring arrays of human ability.

Applying lessons learned from cognitive science and neuroscience, Gardner (2006) proposed a theory of multiple intelligences, which sees intelligence as a “set of abilities, talents, or mental skills” (p. 6) that dynamically interact and develop as an individual matures. Gardner proposes that individuals have eight different intelligences that account for a broad range of capacity, as follows:

  1. Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence reflects the ability to communicate through language.
  2. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence reflects the ability to understand logic and solve problems.
  3. Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence reflects the ability to use skillfully the body and to absorb knowledge through sensation.
  4. Visual-Spatial Intelligence reflects the ability to understand spatial relationships and perceive and create images.
  5. Interpersonal Intelligence reflects the ability to relate to others, noticing their moods, motivations, and feelings.
  6. Intrapersonal Intelligence reflects the ability to understand one’s own behavior and feelings.
  7. Musical Intelligence reflects the ability to comprehend and create meaningful sound and recognize patterns.
  8. Naturalist Intelligence reflects the human tendency to relate information to natural surroundings.

Gardner (2006)  is considering adding Existential Intelligence, in recognition of the “human ability to ponder the most fundamental questions of existence” (p. 20).

By acknowledging the different cognitive strengths and styles of individual learners, learning environments can better serve learners by using an “individual-centered” (Gardner, 2006, p. 5) approach that matches methodology to the individual needs and abilities of the learners, Gardner argues. Gardner’s MI vision is a radical departure from traditional learning models that attempt to mold the individual to the objectives of the institution, organization, or instructor. In reality, however, a key difference between Gardner’s vision and traditional methodologies is the necessary resources for implementing a unique program to meet individual needs rather than a single program to accommodate the objectives of the institution or society.

In practice, educators use MI theory to provide developmental opportunities for all intelligences, not only those that seem to come naturally for the student. This approach can help students tap inherent gifts to develop other intelligences. Fischer’s dynamic skills theory helps to demonstrate how this works. Fischer (2008) uses a developmental web as a metaphor to show how developmental change occurs on multiple parallel strands rather than through linear stages. Separate strands of the web represent an individual 's different developmental pathways. A strand can start, branch, stop, or intersect with other strands depending on the individual, context, and environment.

Applying Fisher’s dynamic skills theory to MI, a child develops different intellectual domains for language, logic and math, music, physical coordination, pattern recognition, interpersonal relations, intrapersonal relations, and natural awareness. Within each of these domains, the child constructs new skills, with each new skill represented by a new strand. Each new skill branches to form an increasingly complex skill set that may branch and connect with other strands to form an increasingly complex developmental web (Yan & Fischer, 2002, p. 142). In short, multiple factors continuously interact in multilevel contexts across multilevel time scales to generate different levels of development in each domain.

Skills develop at varied levels. For example, a person who is highly skilled at math may be moderately skilled at art. As a person matures, skills can combine to create novel skills. For example, an individual with high Mathematical-Logical Intelligence may apply his math skills to calculate and draw angles to create a new art form. Likewise, a child with a gift for music may find that gift further enhanced as he develops reading skills that helps him to explore more deeply the stories behind the songs. The dynamic skills framework analyzes the individual ;s cognitive development as a dynamic system in which factors of varying importance continuously interact in multiple contexts that unfold over multiple time scales to create change (Yan & Fischer, 2002).

Joyce Bishop’s (2007) Multiple Pathways to Learning Assessment is a practical tool learners can use to determine the degree to which specific intelligences are developed in order to identify learning strategies for optimizing developed intelligences and for building less-developed intelligences (Carter, Bishop, & Kravits, 2007). For example, an individual with high Interpersonal Intelligence may learn more effectively in a social setting where he or she can discuss information with someone else. Likewise, an individual who scores high in Intrapersonal Intelligence may learn more effectively in a solitary environment where he or she can quietly reflect on information.


Merriam (2001) points to a key limitation of situational models, saying they have a “blinding focus on the individual learner while ignoring the socio-historical context in which [learning] occurs" (p. 11). Groups rarely exhibit functional homogeneity among members; student groups are typically composed of individuals with varying degrees of skills, abilities, and motivations. Fortunately, learning team models, such as those implemented in University of Phoenix classrooms, offer a strategy for implementing contingency approaches that meet individual student needs, while aligning classroom activities to developing the needs of all students (Duncan, 2008). For example, in building lifelong learning competencies in its students, University of Phoenix uses a collaborative learning model that organizes individuals into formal learning teams who take responsibility for developing each individual and the other learning teams in a class by mutually exploring resources for solving problems. The team then contributes to developing the entire class, which in turn contributes to developing the members of each team in the class (University of Phoenix, 2004). Using an interdependent process that actively engages people at individual, group, and classroom levels actively engages groups of diverse learners in mutual development (Duncan, 2008). This same type of collaboration works well in helping learning organizations capture and distribute worker knowledge and experience (Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner, 2007).

Integrating contingency approaches with a collaborative learning model may help faculty build high-performance learning environments through which they can apply "multi-gogical" (Duncan & Genin, 2008) teaching methods that allow all students to engage in individual and collaborative learning to accelerate academic development toward self-direction. The learning team model also allows opportunities for learners to build a social network of students with similar skills, allowing faculty an opportunity to deliver simultaneously personalized teaching methods to smaller groups within the classroom (Duncan, 2008).

Another important consideration of contingency approaches in learning applications is that individual needs tend to be dynamic; needs adjust depending on factors both internal and external to the learner (Maslow, 1987). For example, adult students who are self-directed in a management course may find themselves struggling to grasp a math course, requiring that the teacher in the math course practice a more directive teaching style than the style used by the teacher in the management course. The self-directed student may also simply not have the patience to deal with the slow pace at which learning can unfold in a facilitated learning environment, preferring that faculty "just get to the point rather than play games all night," as one student expressed in a recent survey about teaching practices in a facilitated classroom (Duncan, 2008).

Taylor, Marienau, and Morris (2000) offer an additional caveat for faculty who want to act as pure delegators in an adult-learning environment, saying that self-directed learners "may feel shortchanged when an educator explains that she intends to be less a source of answers than a resource for learning" (Ch. 3 para. 8). Experienced learners may want their instructors to deliver value, not just delegate teaching to the learners.

In short, dynamic and diverse student needs require that the instructor build a flexible leadership style and a versatile toolkit for building a dynamic learning environment in which learners can recognize value, regardless of their learning stage.

Works Cited

Carter, C., Bishop, J., & Kravits, S. L. (2007). Keys to college studying: Becoming an active thinker (2 ed.). New York: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Duncan, B. (2008). Accepting classroom leader role provides faculty with a powerful tool for developing students in a functionally diverse classroom. University of Phoenix, Undergraduate Business and Management. Pleasanton: University of Phoenix.

Duncan, B., & Genin, V. (2008). Exploring faculty connections to student persistence. (N. G. Khayrulina, Ed.) Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation News from Higher Education Institutions , 3 (18), 80-83.

Fischer, K. W. (2008). Dynamic cycles of cognitive and brain development: Measuring growth in mind, brain, and education. In K. W. A. M. Battro (Ed.), The educated brain (pp. 137-145). Cambridge, U. K. : Cambridge University Press.

Gardner, H. (2006). Multiple intelligences: New horizons (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.

Maslow, A. H. (1987). Motivation and personality (3rd ed. ed.). (R. Frager, J. Fadiman, C. McReynolds, & R. Cox, Eds.) New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Merriam, S. B. (2001). Andragogy and self-directed learning: Pillars of adult learning theory. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education (89).

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, R. S. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Taylor, K., Marienau, C., & Morris, F. (2000). Developing adult learners. John Wiley & Sons.

University of Phoenix. (2004). Learning team handbook. Retrieved October 7, 2008, from

Yan, Z., & Fischer, K. (2002). Always under construction: Dynamic variations in adult cognitive microdevelopment. Human Development , 45, 141-160.