It doesn’t take a veteran teacher to recognize that each child – and adult – is unique. And what works with one person won’t necessary work with another; we each have our own talents, and we each find joy in different ways. Being able to tap into these differing abilities can really transform your approach to religious education– whether in a classroom setting, a presentation to a group of adults, or even a homeschooling setup.
My favorite way to think about this is based on Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. Back in MY day, he’d only identified seven. Now he’s up to eight, but the overall point remains the same: individuals display intelligence in different areas, which can be roughly categorized as follows:
- Linguistic: learning through reading and writing
- Logical-mathematical: Reasoning, patterns, and numbers
- Spatial: Visualizing with the mind’s eye
- Musical: sensitive to sounds, rhythm, tone, and music
- Bodily-kinesthetic: Learning best by “doing” and physical activity
- Interpersonal: Learn best by working with others; enjoy cooperative learning; comfortable with leadership
- Intrapersonal: Deep understanding of the self; strengths and weaknesses
Since my time in the trenches (a.k.a., grad school), he’s added:
- Naturalistic: Relate to the natural world and observe their surroundings
- Existential/spiritual: Contemplate the deeper meaning of experiences and life
- Moral: Ability to apply reasoning to moral decision-making, particularly in terms of the sanctity of life
In catechesis, we’re about the business of expanding folks’ existential/moral intelligence, or at least tapping into that, right? So I’m going to focus on how the other eight can be useful in coming up with different lessons, etc. that can grab students’ attention in new ways.
I’m going to start with Musical, because that’s my favorite. Well, not really, but it would be boring to start with Linguistic or Logical-Mathematical, wouldn’t it? Because that’s what we usually think of when we think of “teaching.” Talk at students, they write things down, they take a multiple-choice test with maybe an essay tacked onto the end, and presto: teaching. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
But before you say “I can’t carry a tune to save my life*,” I ask you: Can you say the Our Father?
You can, can’t you?
Let’s say it together;
Father, Who Art
In Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy
NameThyKINGDOMCome…what? Isn’t that how you say it? No?
Right – we all say it in the same cadences, don’t we? Our liturgy is full of cadences; we chant the Psalms in rhythm, we teach our children their prayers to a certain meter, we’re all about music even if we are afflicted with tin ears.
I find that most kids, especially adolescent boys, respond very well to activities that incorporate music. Take advantage of this by including activities like:
- Listening to hymns and talking about what the words mean
- Memorizing a prayer by breaking it down into phrases
- Learning to chant parts of the Mass
- Write a song – or change the words to a popular song – to teach someone about a basic concept you’ve learned in class.
- Listen to different settings of parts of the Mass and think about how the music reflects the meaning of the words – this is an activity I really enjoy doing with students, because there are so many beautiful orchestral settings of the Mass.
I don’t believe because there are eight intelligences we have to teach things eight ways. I think that’s silly. But we always ought to be asking ourselves, “Are we reaching every child, and, if not, are there other ways in which we can do it?”
And so I’m not saying “out with books, in with Rap!” But supplementing what you discuss in class with an activity that allows musically-inclined…or musically-enthusiastic – students to shine is a great way to get them engaged in what you’re teaching.
If you’d like to learn more about the theory – pros and cons – check out:
- Gardner, Howard. Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice.
- Nuzzi, Rev. Ronald. Gifts of the Spirit: Multiple Intelligences in Religious Education, 2nd Edition. First edition is available as a PDF download: https://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED439073.pdf.
- — A Multiple Intelligence Approach. https://www.smp.org/resourcepage.cfm?article=108
- Jared Dees – The Religion Teacher. Video tutorial: “Determine the Lesson Assessment.”
- Willingham, Daniel. Multiple Intelligences: The Making of a Modern Myth – Willingham is critical of Multiple Intelligence Theory and the research behind it. I don’t think his criticism is entirely without merit, but in practice I’ve found that thinking about teaching in terms of multiple intelligences really enhances my classroom and reaches a wider selection of kids. Your mileage may vary.
*Essay: Can you describe a situation in which your life would literally depend upon your ability to carry a tune? What would you do in said situation?
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