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The Clearing House, 83: 126128, 2010 Copyright C Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0009-8655 print

DOI: 10.1080/00098651003774828

The Existential Learner


Abstract: We are all smart in different ways. Through the theory of multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner has been one of the leaders in cataloging HOW people are smart as opposed to how smart they ARE. The ability to see the big picture and make connections between similar and dissimilar concepts has been considered for inclusion in the multiple intelligences under the name existential. The author outlines characteristics of existential learners, the arguments for and against the inclusion of existential as a multiple intelligence, and classroom strategies that will help an existential learner succeed. Keywords: multiple intelligences, educational psychology, learning theory att and Joseph were two high school seniors who worked at a local retail store in the evenings. On one slow night, they started to discuss which classes they had both taken. Matt, a top student who was well rounded but excelled in math, mentioned philosophy and commented that the only way he passed the course was by going to the teacher for extra help during lunch and after school. Joseph participated in a dual enrollment program for the humanities and was a bit surprised by Matts statement. Philosophy isnt math, but Matts a smart guy, he thought to himself. After a quick reection, Joseph realized that he would have made the same statement as Matt about most of his high school math classes. Joseph saw this connection while considering an English assignment that both he and Matt worked on in their AP class. In the lesson, students were asked to compare and contrast the world they lived in with the worlds described in Orwells 1984 and Bradburys Fahrenheit 451. Joseph was very interested in this assignment and did quite well. Matt struggled but persevered to earn a passing grade. While Matts knack for mathematics identies him as a strong logical-mathematical intelligence, Joseph cannot really be categorized by a specic multiple intel-

ligence, despite his unique gift for seeing and making sense of the big picture. Josephs cognitive strengths fall under the category of existential, a term that has been referred to by the father of multiple intelligences, Howard Gardner, as the half multiple intelligence. The challenge that this identication presents to educators is this: if existential thinkers can be categorized as having a strength all their own, much like students who are strong in mathematics or spatial arts, how do we teach and enrich students who think in this mode? Multiple Intelligences and the Possibility of an Existential Intelligence In 1983, Howard Gardner presented a new view of intelligence in his landmark book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Gardner asserted that each person possesses a set of intelligences that are identiable and independent of one another. He initially recognized seven intelligences: verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. Since Dr. Gardners initial work, he has added a naturalistic intelligence, which focuses on the synthesis of information through its relationship with the natural world. It is important to note that everyone possesses some amount of each intelligence. Most people are markedly strong in a few intelligences, which is balanced by weakness in others. Someone identied as a well-rounded individual possesses a balance of all of the multiple intelligences (New Horizons for Learning 2005). It is important to remember, however, that the recognition of multiple intelligences is meant to empower, not label, people (McKenzie 2001). Recently, Gardner has pondered the same thing as Joseph did in the story above. In Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice (2006), he considered the inclusion of a new intelligence, which he labeled existential. According to Gardner, people possessing a strong existential intelligence have the capacity to ponder the most fundamental questions

Ian J. McCoog, MEd, is the K-12 technology integration specialist for the Southern Columbia School District, Catawissa, PA.

The Existential Learner


of existence. Why do we live? Why do we die? Where do we come from? What is going to happen to us? (Gardner 2006; Checkley 1997) To be considered for inclusion on the list of multiple intelligences, a proposal must meet certain criteria. The rst is isolation as a brain function, meaning that the brain contains a specic location for that type of thought. The presence of the intelligence in exceptional individuals is the second criterion, meaning that savants or prodigies who show characteristics of the intelligence must exist in society. The third criterion is that the intelligence must have a set core of operations. These procedures and practices are unique to each intelligence. The intelligence must have a developmental and evolutionary history with expert end performance. This means the intelligence must undergo stages of transition throughout individuals lives and the evolution of human history. The intelligence must also be supported by psychological and psychometric tasks. Finally, the intelligence must be encoded into a symbol system (McKenzie 2009). Gardner sees many of these qualities in the possible existential intelligence. He states that individuals such as philosophers and inuential politicians denitely embody existential ideals. Children also raise existential questions at a young age as part of the development process. Gardner hesitates in calling existential intelligence an ofcial intelligence, because it has not yet been determined whether a specic part of the brain specializes in this faculty. So for now, Gardner refers to eight-and-a-half intelligences (Gardner 2006). The Case for Existential Intelligence People with a strong existential intelligence are very introspective. They recognize that in order to know the world around them, they must rst be keenly aware of themselves. Thus, people with a strong existential intelligence often also have a high intrapersonal intelligence. Existentialists have a rm understanding of their own beliefs and prefer to interpret new ideas from these beliefs and their life experiences. Some researchers categorize existential learners as wonder smart, because they possess the capacity to consider the complexity of what others consider routine (Logsdon n.d.). Other researchers have explained this learning style as the human response to being alive in all ways (Stanford 2003). Gardner states that an existentialist has the capacity to locate oneself with respect to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. . . and the related capacity to locate oneself with respect to such existential features of the human condition such as the meaning of life (Gardner 2000). In his book, Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom (2009), Thomas Armstrong cites numerous reasons why existential could be included on the list of multiple intelligences. He states that virtually all cultures have belief systems that attempt to make sense of ultimate life issues. Anthropological research supports both the cri-

teria of developmental history and evolutionary plausibility. Studies of prehistoric man have shown a continuum in practices such as hunting and burial rites, for which practices have grown more and more sophisticated. Over time, the growth of human understanding from childhood to adulthood shows a progression that satises the criteria of developmental history. Proof that existential thought can be demonstrated symbolically can be seen by viewing the relationship between religious thought and the symbols present in each of the worlds major religions. The existence of existential savants satises the exceptional individuals standard. There are unquestionably individuals in society who have a low IQ, but can think deeply and meaningfully about questions of life (Armstrong 2009). The real sticking point for the inclusion of existential intelligence comes from brain research. While researchers such as Armstrong suggest that spiritual experiences brought on by seizures or seemingly cosmic connections between twins indicate the possibility of brain function tied to existential intelligence, medical professionals have not yet determined a denitive part of the brain that supports existential thought (Armstrong 2009). Gardner suggests that it is also possible that existential questions are just part of a broader philosophical mindor that they are simply the more emotionally laden of the questions that individuals routinely pose (Gardner 2006). How Do Existential Intelligences Learn? Students with a strong existential intelligence need the freedom to ponder, conceptualize, and hypothesize about the content presented in class. They ourish when asked why and what if questions. These students are generally not so introspective that they do not wish to contribute to the knowledge of the group. Furthermore, making connections that lead to a consensus of understanding is one of the goals of existential students. Students that possess high levels of existential intelligence can piece together schoolwork that is presented through larger concepts rather than chronologically. They can easily make connections between similar topics within a content area and beyond by incorporating aspects of other disciplines into their current studies (Fogarty and Stoehr 1995). To facilitate learning, teachers can differentiate their instruction for existential learners just as they would for a student showing strength in any of the other multiple intelligences. Assigning respectful tasks that convey the same desired understanding is a great way for teachers to accommodate students with inclinations toward any of the multiple intelligences. Creating assignments for existential learners may also help teachers become better reective practitioners. Existential learners need to make sense of how concepts relate to and interact with one another. Considering their instruction in this way


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can help teachers see how the various concepts of their classes t together. Conclusion In the future, the nature and operation of modern society may prove to be the deciding factor for the existential intelligence. Technology, particularly the Internet, has moved from a static, one-way form of communication to a medium that has the capability to collect much of the knowledge in the known world. We are currently experiencing what has been called the Web 2.0 revolution, in which Internet users are forming learning communities where the exchange of knowledge is rapid and usually accurate. Web 3.0 is on the horizon, when users will have fed the Internet enough information to allow computers to determine our likes and dislikes and then provide services on the basis of that information. There can be no greater challenge for an existential thinker than to attempt to make sense of this exchange of information (McCoog 2007). Gardner sends a concluding message of hope when he states that by that future date, we may well know whether it makes sense to speak of a separate existential intelligence, perhaps lodged deep in the temporal lobes (Gardner 2006).

Armstrong, T. 2009. Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria: ASCD. Checkley, K. 1997. The rst seven... and the eighth: a conversation with Howard Gardner. Educational Leadership. (accessed October 28, 2009). Fogarty, R., and J. Stoehr. 1995. Integrating curricula with multiple intelligences: Teams, themes, and threads. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Gardner, H. 1983. Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic. Gardner, H. 2000. Intelligence reframed: multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic. .2006. Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. New York: Basic. Logsdon, A. n.d. Existential learning style: Learn about the existential learning style. resourcesresearch/qt/existential.htm (accessed May 26, 2009). McCoog, I. 2007. Integrated instruction: Multiple intelligences and technology. The Clearing House 81 (1): 2528. McKenzie, W. 2001. Creative classroom consulting. Multiple intelligences survey. (accessed October 28, 2009). .2009. Multiple intelligences criteria. MI/criteria.htm (accessed May 26, 2009). New Horizons for Learning. 2005. Multiple intelligences. mi.htm (accessed May 26, 2009). Stanford, P. 2003. Multiple intelligence for every classroom. Intervention in School and Clinic 39:8085.

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