Notebook, 1993-

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Notes from: Brandt, Ron. "On Assessment in the Arts: A Conversation with Howard Gardner." In EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP

On Assessment in the Arts

The author of Frames of Mind: A Theory of Multiple Intelligences,Howard Gardner has spent years investigating issues of creativity, intelligence, and the artistic process. Here he explains the endeavors of Project Zero to develop assessment techniques for the arts. He contends that "making art" is central to artistic learning and that perception and reflection activities must be linked directly to student production of art. [Howard Gardner is Co-Director, Project Zero, Harvard Univ, Graduate School of Education, Longfellow Hall, Cambridge, MA 02138. Ron Brandt is ASCD's Executive Editor.]

"For those who may not know your theory, would you summarize it briefly?"

"Evidence from a variety of sources, especially, new information about development of the nervous system and organization of the brain, indicates that human beings have evolved over a long period of time to think in at least seven ways, which I call "intelligences." I mentioned two of them--mathematical and linguistic--but there's also musical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligence."

"Everybody who's normal has the potential to develop each of these intelligences to a large extent, but we don't all have the same profile to begin with, and we certainly don't all end up with the same profile. Most important, strength in one intelligence does not have predictive value for strength in another intelligence. You can be very strong in music and not in spatial, or vice versa. Therefore, psychologists who claim that intelligence is a single entity--educators who think of students as either smart or dumb--are wrong. A person can be smart in one area and dumb in others."

"Part of our effort is trying to find how best to define each of the areas and how best to assess aptitude and achievement in them. We're also interested in which forms of intelligence are important in the various arts. For example, linguistic intelligence plays a role in the study of science and history and geography, but it's of central importance in writing fiction or poetry . . . . "

"You and your colleagues at Harvard Project Zero are working with Educational Testing Service and the Pittsburgh schools to develop ways to assess student achievement in the arts. Why?"

"I see the school as a place to develop the different components of the mind. Artistic thinking--thinking in artistic symbols--is a distinctive way of using the mind, but one usually downplayed in school. For example, we use the mind in a certain way in creating or listening to music. You could work with mathematics or language for the rest of your life, and it would not affect your ability to deal with music. By the same token, the abilities involved in dealing with the visual arts--with sculpture or painting, with dance, mime, use of the body, and so on--all represent separate sets of cognitive skills."

"Is it really possible to assess achievement in the arts in a meaningful way?"

"Even people who are strong advocates of arts in the schools are very much in conflict about assessment. To some extent, they feel that what's most important in the arts is difficult to assess: arts have personal meaning, they deal with emotional content they're often very subjective. So some people, including people involved in the arts, feel that assessment is incompatible with their purposes. Others, though feel that we must assess results if we are to justify the expense of offering these experiences in schools. But they often make the opposite error of trying to assess the arts in the same way other kinds of learning are assessed: with multiple-choice tests and so on."

"The assessment techniques you're developing are for use with all students, not just those with special talents?"


"Are they intended as measures of ability or achievement?"

"In the beginning, we had the mistaken idea that one could assess aptitude apart from intensive involvement with material. We're convinced now that that probably doesn't work in the arts. It's pointless to test people's musical or dramatic aptitude unless they've had a significant amount of experience in artistic thinking. And many kids--even at the high school level, have had virtually no exposure at all. So our approach has been to involve students in very rich kinds of artistic activities. We involve them not only in artistic creation--actually painting, composing, and so on--but also in what we call "projects." These are curriculum modules that involve fairly long-term kinds of analysis and perceptual discrimination, as well as considerable "reflection" on what they're doing. And after students have had some experience with these kinds of thing, we assess them, so to speak "on the fly" while they're actually engaged in these projects."

"As an analogy, let's ay that somebody wanted a chess aptitude test. We could give people a chessboard and say, "All right, play with these for 20 minutes and we'll see how good you are." Or recognizing that they don't know the rules of chess, instead we could see how good they are at counting, calculating, spatial reasoning, and so on. But you would probably find that such related abilities are a poor predictor of actual chess playing, because chess is a complicated activity that also involves "psyching out" what's on your opponents' mind, thinking several steps ahead, that sort of thing. So it's much more sensible to take a hundred people who have never played chess before, teach them the rules, have them play for a while, and then begin to give them chess problems."

"That's basically what we're doing: we're assuming that most kids have not had much experience artistically. We immerse them in activities that call for artistic thinking, and after they have some familiarity with an activity, we use various kinds of assessment techniques, including some straight-forward ones as well as some that are more unobtrusive."

"How can you be sure about the validity of these new techniques?"

"Well, to begin with, they're not all new. Both Project Zero and ETS have had extensive experience that tells us what sorts of things are likely to work and not to work. But a crucial part of this effort is that, from the very first, we have worked directly with teachers . . . . .Once the teachers think the exercises are usable, they try them with students. Then, if they work, we find that the teachers are usually able to reach general agreement on how to analyze the results . . . . We came up with a set of measures to look at changes in student performance over time . . . . how improves . . . . "

"These measures are intended for use by teachers, then, not by external evaluators?"

"Our goal is to come up with instruments that make sense to teachers in regular schools and that will provide useful feedback on how students are doing. That's been the goal of the Rockefeller project in general. We're not part of the current critical thinking initiative, but this effort is analogous to it."

"Whether there will eventually be a set of National Assessment-type instruments that could be administered without intensive participation by local teachers is a question that hasn't been answered yet. Clearly, that is the sort of thing that ETS might want to do, and I'd be glad to see it happen if it seems feasible."

"What are some of the factors to consider in assessing aesthetic growth?"

"We think one should monitor three kinds of things: production, perception, and reflection." " This idea isn't highly revolutionary, but it's more unusual than one might think. This past spring I spent three months in China. We have a great deal to learn from the Chinese about teaching students to produce great works in the traditional way. But they haven't confronted at all the issue of how people learn to see art nor of how they reflect on it." "Now, there's a growing group of American art educators who say our schools spend too much time on producing art and that we ought to teach the arts as we do other disciplines: take a verbal and analytic approach--emphasize historiography, aesthetics. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, but there's a great danger that it will slip into the traditional ways of knowing, verbal-analytic and logical-mathematical forms, which are covered pretty well in the rest of the curriculum." "Our approach differs from both the Chinese and the American in two ways. One is that, particularly with the younger kids, production continues to be central. That is, we think artistic learning should grow from kids doing things: not just imitating, but actually drawing, dancing, performing, singing on their own. And I mean not just songs they've been taught, but singing their own compositions. That's central to our approach--and it's very different from just learning traditions from the past or just talking about art." "The second aspect of our approach is that, as much as possible (and our exercises strive to do this), production should be linked intrinsically to perception and reflection. " "Perception means learning to see better, to hear better, to make finer discriminations, to see connections between things."

"Reflection means to be able to step back from both your production and your perceptions, and say, "What am I doing? Why am I doing it? What am I learning? What am I trying to achieve? Am I being successful? How can I revise my performance in a desirable way?"

"Now, that's quite different from the "discipline-based" approach, which always proceeds in terms of the standard disciplines. Our approach grows out of the child's actual experience with the arts. We don't talk about perception or reflection apart from artistic activity. As kids grow older those aspects can be taught more intensely. I have no objection to teaching art history to 10- or 12-year olds but I do object to teaching it apart from actual artistic production . . . . After working on the project . . . . introduced to the way artists in the Middle Ages . . . . That way the student was much more interested because she herself had been trying to solve the same problem of . . . . Another example . . . . is theme and variations . . . . the children are interested because they've been confronting the same problem as Mozart . . . . [Sense and significance of an invested interest--and "value" to a greater degree than a kind of importance or "recognition" of their interest and effort . . . . ]"

"That type of exercise would seem to be generalizable across disciplines."

"Many of them are, but not all. Exercises in pitch or in color arrangement don't have direct analogies in other art forms . . . . We try to get maximum applicability but, as you may know, my theory of multiple intelligences holds that no two forms of thinking are exactly comparable."

"Will you give one or two more examples of ways to assess growth in the arts?"

"We show a slide [fakes of Mona Lisa] and say, "What is this? . . . . "Are you sure?" . . . . They talk about differences they see and the reasons. After that kind of reflection, we get them experimenting on their own, trying to ether copy a work like it or copy things . . . . so they begin to see what is involved in doing something so that it looks as if it was done by someone else. Now, that task begins with perception, passes through reflection then eventually goes to production. And we go from a fun puzzle to the serious question of style . . . . "

"Another form of assessment in volves the building of a portfolio. Over a period of time, students accumulate their various efforts, including drafts, notes, false starts, things they like and don't like. Their portfolio becomes a kind of data base that both teacher and student can look at to see what's been done and what's been learned. Some of the measures can be quite explicit: how many entries kids make in their notebooks, how detailed they are, things like that. But others can be more difficult to get exact reliability on; for example, how many different sources of information have been used in trying to improve a work, or when a work has deepened, rather than simply changed. We think these kinds of data should be enlightening to students, evn if the teacher never looks at them. But of coure the teacher does look at them too."

"What we need in America is for students to get more deeply interested in things, more involved in them, more engaged in wanting to know; to have projects they can get excited about and work on over longer periods of time; to be stimulated to find things out on their own."

"Program officers at the Rockefeller Foundation, our sponsors, felt that many young people are being cheated out of the opportunity to receive a good education--by college admissions criteria and so on--because while they have many abilties and many achievements, they tend not to do well on standardized tests. There's a lot of agreement about that, even amoung the testing experts. Having a certain kind of intelligence we might call "test smarts" helps some people scoot through school very well, but everybody knows that it doesn't have nearly so much predictive value for what happens outside, or after, school. So the Rockefeller Foundation became interested in the possiblilitiy that school has focused too much on a certain combination of intelligences--linquistic, logical, mathematical: but that life certainly involves more than that . . . . "

" . . . . I would have no problem with calling intelligences 'talents,' as long as people also called language and logic 'talents.'"

" . . . . It's not a theory with a capital T; it's a new way of thinking about things, a new way of organizing a lot of information."

" . . . . Even though there's a lot of focus on the kids who are good performers--who play an instrument well, for example--teachers don't often engage them in musical thinking, in visual thinking . . . . "

" . . . . Education is gradually becoming more individual-centered. Surely we've passed the point where we want to teach every kid the same thing the same way. My theory gives educators a way of thinking about individual gifts and how to accommodate teaching to them, but also a way of teaching conventional subject matter in ways more accommodating to the different ways of knowing. A student''s profile of intelligences ought to have some effect on the way he or she goes about learning history. Another implication is the realization that, while assessment is important, we need to be much broader in what we assess and much more flexible in how we assess it."

[Notes from: Brandt, Ron. "On Assessment in the Arts: A Conversation with Howard Gardner." In EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP]



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