How Should Naturalist intelligence be Activated in the Classroom?

Neil Hammond, 2009

Multiple Intelligence Theory in ELT: Thorny Issues 2

How should naturalist intelligence be activated in the classroom?

Gardner defines an individual with high naturalist intelligence as someone who ‘demonstrates expertise in the recognition and classification of the numerous species – the flora and fauna – of his or her environment.’ (Gardner, 1999, p.48). Roles that attract, or result from, naturalist intelligence would be the biologist or herbalist, ‘hunters to fisherman to farmers to gardeners to cooks’ and ‘those who generally exhibit, an early fascination with plants and animals and a drive to identify, classify, and interact with them’ (Gardner, 1999,p.48).

In respect to how this intelligence manifests in the urbanized world, Gardner comments on ‘…the extent to which to which our consumer society is built on naturalist intelligence’:

The ability to distinguish one sneaker or sweater from another, to discriminate among brands of automobiles, airplanes, bicycles, scooters, and the like, draw on pattern-detecting capacities that in earlier eras were used to distinguish varieties of lizards, bushes, or rocks from one another. (Gardner, 2004, p37)

While including the natural world may warrant specific thematic choices on the materials level, the choice of how a teacher may seek to stimulate naturalist intelligence seems to be a question that perplexes practitioners. Suggestions seem to fall into the environmental: those that would activate the natural world in the classroom, and the implied: concentrating on the applicable skills that naturalist intelligence may generalize into ‘non-natural’ contexts

Environmental suggestions would include:

‘Learners listen to sound inside and outside the classroom and discuss what they have heard/Learners work with a text on environmental issues/Learners write a text describing a natural scene/Learners discuss an environmental issue /Learners do an activity associated with nature (e.g., walk by the sea and write a story in the past tense about it)/Learners make a mind map with a word related to nature (e.g., bird, tree).

Learners read descriptions of nature in a novel and then write their own.’

(Tanner, 2001 pp 40-41)

On the other hand, the ‘implied’ view of indirect naturalistic applications can be seen in the following statement:

‘Naturalist Intelligence can be catered for in the ELT classroom by noticing relationships. Categorizing and classifying. Observing plants and animals or collecting rocks would not appear to be immediately relevant and neither would listening to the sounds created in the natural world.’ (Berman, 1998, p153)

This leads to confusion between naturalist and verbal-linguistic intelligence as we can see in Berman’s suggested activities for the stimulation of naturalist intelligences which involve:

a) categorizing of separate story strands in a jumbled text and sorting vocabulary

into categories.

b) categorizing tense in a narrative

c) categorizing vocabulary according to theme

(Berman, 1998)

Indeed, are these activities actually logical-mathematical rather than naturalistic in appeal?

Gardner ponders this overlap. He suggests that while the ability to classify ‘can appear as just an exercise of our logical-mathematical intelligence’, the actual discrimination is ‘prior to their classification, and, indeed, any biological classification scheme is always secondary to some set of perceived criteria’. He suggests the following sequence:

1) objects are perceived through combination of senses

2) naturalist intelligence employed to make consequential distinctions

3) specific logical criteria used to classify distinctions

(Gardner, 2004, pp36-38)

Gardner would therefore seem to suggest that naturalist intelligence manifests in the discernment of specific and subtle distinctions. As such, Berman’s categorizing puzzles are first and foremost logical–mathematical in nature.

For example, Darwin’s naturalist intelligence lead him to perceive the concept and need for his theory of evolution, but he used his mathematical-logical intelligence to hammer his perceptions into a coherent theory.

Suggested language teaching applications

This leaves us with the question of how naturalist intelligence can manifest in the language classroom. The direct environmental approach may be more apt, though the suggestions that Tanner makes are largely (though not exclusively) theme dependent and may not always be applicable to a pre-set thematic syllabus. In this view, the naturalist intelligences will be largely neglected until the coursebook hits on an appropriate, probably environmental, theme.

Fortunately Gardner suggests that, ‘urban dwellers who have never glimpsed a farm or a forest may well draw on, even exploit, their naturalistic intelligence in their capacities as vendors, purchasers…’ (Gardner, 2004, p37). He suggests that consumer society is built on naturalist intelligence to the extent that the ability to distinguish between varieties of natural phenomenon is the same ability that we engage in the ‘market place’ when judging the value and merit of, for example, competing brands. This then would seem to broaden those themes that may engage naturalistic intelligence.

In addition, the heightened ability of the naturally intelligent to discern patterns in nature is based strongly on the keenness of particular sensory organs: hands, ears, nose, eyes, mouth.

A recent case in point I observed personally would be the acute aural skills that a computer technician employed when listening intently to the almost imperceptible

noises that a computer processor was making, in order to determine the remedial action needed.

In this sense, it may well be that teaching that takes into account the ‘VAK(OG)’ (visual, aural, kinesthetic etc) learning styles, not as an end in itself, but with particular application to tasks that require the learner to ‘discern’, the classic EFL comparing and contrasting for example, may be instrumental in activating natural intelligence. Activities involving classification or categorizing of non-sensory abstract concepts such as grammar or vocabulary, would not seem to fall within the frame of naturalist intelligence.

Berman, M (1998), A Multiple Intelligences Road to an ELT, Crown House

Gardner, H. (1999), Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2004), Changing Minds. Harvard Business School Press

Tanner, R. (2001) “Teaching Intelligently”, English Teaching Professional. 20:40-41

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