Education is in focus these days with much talk on revamping the existing practices with a futuristic outlook, amidst the debate of tablets vs. toilets for the schools. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the family movie, Thaala, the other day. Though it has not yet received wider publicity that it deserves, the theme is really appealing with a harsh critique of traditional education, introducing innovative and impactful approaches for learning. Today’s column is a reflection of the movie in the context of educational reforms highlighting the need to develop multiple intelligences.
Thaala is a Sinhala movie directed by Paalitha Perera and produced by Nilan Weerasinghe, with Hemal Ranasinghe and Kalani Dodantenna playing the lead roles, along with Jayalath Manoratne and Kaushalya Fernando. Innovative music composed by Chinthaka Jayakody has added much glamour to the overall theme.
Education typically refers to development of knowledge, values and understanding required in all aspects of life rather than the knowledge and skills relating to particular areas of activity. The whole idea of education is to bring out what is within of an individual, in a true sense of unleashing his/her potential. Thaala shows how it is done in an eco-friendly setting.
The story revolves around a remote primary school in Sri Lanka. Asela, a young teacher comes to the Hatagalla Vidyalaya. He, in a short period of time, makes a dramatic change in the quality of education by way of raising the enthusiasm among the poor students with innovative and interactive learning methods. Despite the resistance to change from both parents and teachers, he guides the children to believe in themselves in dreaming big and achieving big. He in fact, stimulated the use of multiple intelligences in myriad ways.
In the olden days someone was regarded as intelligence if he/she can “read, write and do arithmetic.” Is this the only way to assess a person’s intelligence? The answer is “no”, simply because there are more than one form of intelligence. The transformation of children in Hatagalla Vidyalaya is a classic example of multiple intelligences being developed.
Intelligence comes from the Latin verb “intellegere”, which means “to understand”. It is an umbrella term used to describe a property of the mind that encompasses many related abilities, such as the capacities to reason, to plan, to solve problems, to think abstractly, to comprehend ideas, to use language, and to learn. Among the many researchers on intelligence, Howard Gardener’s name appears prominently. He is a Professor of Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is of the view that intelligence has multiple forms.
He defined the term intelligence in a much broader sense compared to the traditional ideas. He says, “Intelligence is a bio-psychological potential to process information that can be activated in a cultural setting to solve problems or create products that are of value in a culture”. In essence, he relates intelligence as a capacity to understand in a cultural setting.
Based on his research, Gardner asked a fundamental question: Is intelligence a single thing or various independent intellectual faculties? His suggestion was that each individual manifests varying levels of these different intelligences, and thus each person has a unique profile of capability. His ideas on intelligence were first laid out in a 1983 book, “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences”. Since then, the concept of multiple intelligences was further enhanced and refined. Gardner proposed eight different intelligences that people have. They are: verbal/ linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual/spatial, bodily / kinaesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic.
Use of multiple intelligences for educational enhancement
As the Thaala movie beautifully portrays, multiple intelligences can be creatively used for the enhancement of education. It in fact, confirms what Finland showed the world in producing what is known as the best education system in the world. Learning in a fun way in a relaxed atmosphere with individual potential is identified and enhanced.
We say, different strokes for different folks, highlighting the need to cater to the individual’s requirements. This applies to education and training as well. As the movie shows, different intelligences can be dynamically stimulated towards learning in order to ensure that the person with that particular intelligence as the dominant one can have a better impact. Let’s look into the ones that are less focused in the traditional streams.
Musical / Rhythmic intelligence: The people herein associate with rhythm and music, displaying greater sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, tones, and music. They will often use songs or rhythms to learn and memorise information, and may work best with music playing in the background.
Playing of music in the classroom during reflection periods can be one activity to encourage those who are high with this intelligence. Showing of examples or create musical rhythms for students to remember things, facilitating students to create a song or melody with the key learning contents, using of well-known songs to memorise things can be other suitable activities in this respect. This goes closely with the overall theme of Thaala movie where the poor students won a major music award by defeating some well-to-do schools, simply by being authentic and innovative.
Bodily/ Kinaesthetic intelligence: Those with this type of intelligence are generally good at physical activities such as sports or dance and often prefer activities which use movement. They learn better by getting up and moving around. They have “muscle memory” where they remember things through their body, rather than through words (verbal memory) or images (visual memory). It requires the skills and dexterity for fine motor movements such as those required for dancing, athletics, surgery, craft making, etc.
Thaala shows how the dynamic teacher engages the students enthusiastically to develop their bodily/kinaesthetic intelligence. In an educational setting, using of props during lecture such as requesting the students to have a standing discussion, engage in several dialogs by moving around can appeal to bodily/ kinaesthetic intelligence. I know one trainer who throws a ball to someone to answer a question, which is a classic demonstration of such an approach.
Interpersonal intelligence: Those who are high in interpersonal intelligence are characterised by their sensitivity to others’ moods, feelings, temperaments and motivations, and their ability to co-operate in order to work as part of a group. They typically learn best by working with others and often enjoy discussion and debate. Asela, the young urban teacher is portrayed as one having a high degree of interpersonal intelligence.
As Asela shows in action, teachers have to be aware of body language and facial expressions and offer assistance whenever needed, in order to demonstrate interpersonal intelligence. Encouraging classroom discussions, ensuring collaboration among peers and facilitating students giving feedback on one-another can be some actions appealing to this intelligence.
Intrapersonal intelligence: This has to do with learning about oneself and learning from oneself, with the key theme being self-reflection. Once again, the way Asela faced obstacles and the way he turned them into opportunities is a good demonstration of his intrapersonal intelligence. With his input, the students who were materially poor became mentally rich, with a high level of confidence.
In a classroom setting, creating a positive environment where self-reflection is encouraged can be a step towards strengthening intrapersonal intelligence. At the end of a corporate training session, a closed-eye process of allowing the participants to reflect on what they have captured appeals to this intelligence.
Naturalistic intelligence: Those with it are said to have greater sensitivity to nature and their place within it, the ability to nurture and grow things, and greater ease in caring for, taming and interacting with animals. They can discern changes in weather or similar fluctuations in their natural surroundings. They are also good at recognising and classifying different species. “Naturalists” learn best when the subject involves collecting and analysing, or is closely related to something prominent in nature. Martin Appuhamy, a close associate of Sinharaja Forest who knows the ins and outs of flora and fauna found there, is a classic example.
Students at Hatagalla Vidyalaya demonstrate this authentically. As true “Naturalists” they learnt to demonstrate the sounds of birds and animals, and expanded their knowledge. That was the major breakthrough in converting those who disliked traditional learning towards new way of learning.
The way forward
Thaala amply highlights the multiple ways of making education an entertaining engagement for students. In richly capturing the economic as well as ecological aspects, the movie shows the awakening of a mentally backward group of students, with the much-needed guidance from a different kind of teacher. It effectively narrates how the systemic barriers can be tactfully overcome in experimenting towards progress. It reminds me of what Robert Frost said, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”
Such an awakening approach is acutely needed by the present education system in Sri Lanka. Whilst international examinations such as London Advance Level are increasingly becoming student-friendly, we still continue to assess what students do not know. A swift shift from exam-orientation to excellence-orientation is what is required. The heavy tuition burden on students and parents points us to examine how free our so called “free education” is.
(Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri can be reached through email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info.)