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The Mentor as Learner:
Lessons Learned from
Howard Gardner and the
TV Remote Control


Voice of ExperienceEach week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Max Fischer's first days in a middle school classroom -- after years at the elementary level -- were eye-openers. Would he ever be able to reach the students whose "deadpan stares, wet-noodle postures, and other lethargic body language screamed 'Go ahead, make me learn! I dare you!'"? Included: How Howard Gardner and thoughts of the TV remote control saved the day!

Max W. Fischer

After 20 years as a self-contained elementary classroom teacher, my initial weeks as a junior-high American history instructor were real eye-openers. Perhaps I had been wrong; maybe I had overestimated the dread of stagnation within my previous position. Unlike the enthusiastic fifth and sixth graders I had been so accustomed to teaching, I was confronted with deadpan stares, wet-noodle postures, and other lethargic body language that just screamed Go ahead, make me learn! I dare you! It was as if I was the last act at a B-grade improv during a blizzard. The silence was deafening.


A catharsis of sorts lay in the works of Howard Gardner. I had been exposed several years earlier to his theory of multiple intelligences. I would discover within Gardners theory a key to unlock the potential of the motivationally impaired early adolescent.

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Education, as an institution, usually fights tooth and nail to oppose change. The concept that each person has as many as nine intelligences -- linguistic, mathematical/logical, visual/spatial, musical, kinesthetic, emotional, natural, interpersonal, and intrapersonal -- seems diametrically opposed to the time-honored teaching styles in which linguistic and mathematical intelligences dominate. Surely, words and numbers must be an integral part of any form of thorough education. It is, however, the near exclusive use of those two identified forms of intelligence that drive so many students into catatonic stupors by seventh or eighth grade.

If Gardners ideas were the treatment for my mid-career challenge, education consultant Roger Taylor was the administering physician. I have attended four of Taylors workshops since my transition out of a self-contained classroom in 1994. I openly confess that I could never duplicate what he does in developing 15 or more strands of higher order thinking skills (the HOTS, as Taylor refers to them) for almost any concept, but Taylor convinced me that the melding of content and critical thinking is the optimum teaching approach.


I, like many veteran middle school teachers, have found that supplying multiple change-ups within a 45-minute class period can keep students involved, even motivated. Molding those change-ups around three or four intelligences interwoven with auditory, visual, and tactile learning styles ensures that each child gets an opportunity to shine in some aspect of my class.

As a social studies instructor with heterogeneous classes, I realize I must present reading comprehension lessons in the guise of covering content. Yet, I will not allow reading comprehension, by itself, to become the ball and chain that stifles interest in my instruction for most of my pupils. Employing a rock song, the lyrics of which tie into an historical event or concept that Im teaching; viewing a movie snippet that accomplishes a similar goal; using a simulation or role-play to get students emotionally involved in a lesson; having students predict outcomes from a photographic image; having students march as if they are part of an ancient Greek phalanx... Those are the ways to reach virtually all students on a most regular basis and keep them tuned in to what Im trying to teach.

Using varied approaches also presents a natural form of differentiation in instruction. While more limited students benefit from those activities that will help them understand the reading, advanced learners are attracted to the variety, the change of style, and pace that accompanies each lesson. Working in cooperative groups provides additional assistance for the slower students while it offers opportunities for high-ability pupils to lead and to express critical thought.


Ive read that television variety shows have become obsolete due to the remote control and the availability of hundreds of channels. Viewers create their own variety instantaneously with the remote. We no longer live in the era of only three or four accessible channels. As an educator, I need to realize that my students respond more favorably when I apply more than two instructional methods.

As Gardner wrote in the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (Bantam Books, 1997), There are hundreds and hundreds of ways to succeed and many, many different abilities that will help you get there. I must remind myself frequently of the fact that there are multiple channels of instruction that will turn on my students cerebral remotes.

A teacher for nearly three decades, Max Fischer currently teaches seventh graders the marvels of ancient history. A National Board certified teacher in the area of early adolescence social studies/history, Max has authored nine resource books for teachers in the fields of social studies, health, and math. You can read a previously published article about Fischer: Simulations Engage Students in Active Learning.

Article by Max Fischer
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Updated 01/12/2010