The DISCOVER Projects (Discovering Intellectual Strengths and Capabilities while Observing Varied Ethnic Responses) began in 1987 under the direction of Dr. C. June Maker at the University of Arizona. At the time, Dr. Maker had been analyzing various new theories of intelligence, the most notable of which was Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. She also had been studying groups of gifted children, as well as successful scientists who had overcome disabilities, to isolate factors contributing to exceptional success. She eventually determined that the most important component of exceptional success was the superior ability to solve complex problems. The DISCOVER Projects were created to study, categorize, and measure a broad spectrum of “problem solving strategies” used by various age groups of differing ethnic, economic, and cultural backgrounds.
Dr. Maker and her staff soon realized that even though patterns of problem solving ability emerged, individual strategies differed substantially according to the category of problems presented. Very few “generic” problem-solving skills emerged. Instead, an individual might solve certain types of problems in a superior way yet be average or below average with others. This observation fit perfectly with Gardner’s theory and other theories suggesting that everyone has more than one type of intelligence, and the DISCOVER staff began categorizing problem solving strategies according to identified intelligences (then seven). Eventually, Maker’s research not only verified many aspects of multiple intelligences theory, but also showed overwhelming evidence that different intelligences can be effectively measured by observing the number and the choice of problem solving strategies an individual uses. A fascinating two-way relationship appeared—the amount of any given intelligence possessed by an individual can be assessed by observing problem solving skills; and, conversely, problem solving skills and overall leaning capacity can be improved “by learning through” or “by applying” one’s strongest intelligences.
As an example of how problem solving relates to different intelligences, consider the following problem: a heavy rock needs to be moved to the top of a hill. A person with a high degree of Linguistic Intelligence might employ strategies such as asking other people what ideas they have, or they may find it helpful to organize a plan of action by first writing out their thoughts. A person with high Spatial Intelligence may approach the problem by drawing a diagram of the various components needed to do the job or by making a physical model of the process. A person with a dominant Musical Intelligence, or related artistic abilities, might not be all that interested in the mechanics of how the rock gets moved. S/he might become excited about contributing to strategies that move the rock in a “novel” “showy” or otherwise “interesting” way and, likely, will be more concerned about the aesthetics and elegance of the project rather than the cost or practicality. On the other hand, a person with higher Logical-Mathematical Intelligence may first want to know why the rock has to be moved to the top of the hill and whether an alternative exits. If no alternative exists, s/he may ask how much it weighs, what resources are available, or if making the hill smaller would be more efficient. Of course, such extreme reliance on only one intelligence is rare. An Individual is a complex combination of all the intelligences in varying degrees.
After thousands of children were observed, 119 effective problem solving strategies were recorded and organized into a performance-based assessment instrument now known as the DISCOVER Assessment. Today, while conducting the Assessment, trained individuals, known as observers, watch those being assessed as they participate in a variety of activities; then, through a group process and using problem solving criteria, the observers rate the levels of intelligence for each individual being assessed.
The Assessment can be used, in its numerous forms, with children ages three and up as well as with adults. Its effectiveness has attracted considerable attention, especially as an alternative to traditional assessment methods for identifying gifted students and as an “ethnically and linguistically fair” assessment of abilities. At present the DISCOVER Assessment is used in several states and countries while it continues to evolve as a research project.
Simply assessing children’s intelligences and their use of effective problem solving strategies is not enough. Teachers need curriculum ideas that take advantage of the Assessment results.
DISCOVER researchers looked at connections among components—problem solving, multiple intelligences, and learning ability. They determined that each person approaches all problems primarily through the filter of his or her own dominant intelligences; an individual learns best by applying his/her natural areas of strength first. This fact alone suggests that children sitting quietly behind a desk listening to an instructor may not be engaged in the best model of learning; and, in some cases, this method actually may be detrimental. For example, high-energy children with high Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence are often misdiagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder and given drugs to calm them down when exactly the opposite should occur. These children learn best (and very effectively) by moving their bodies in the learning process—for them, lack of movement actually retards learning!
The scope of the DISCOVER research grants at that time was not large enough to develop full-scale, multiple intelligences-based curricula for all grade levels. So researchers opted instead to design experimental curriculum models in the form of guidelines for schools or individual teachers, demonstrating how they could reshape their existing curricula. As a result, each school using the models developed its own “version” or prototype of a DISCOVER Curriculum. Many variations, some were more effective than others, were created. Future curriculum development efforts will include collecting and analyzing examples of good ideas that can be incorporated into a complete DISCOVER Curriculum.
The key idea of the curriculum models (and a central idea for any new DISCOVER Curriculum) is that students use their dominant intelligences to stimulate learning in all subjects, especially weaker ones. After a child is assessed and a profile is developed to show his or her combination of strengths, the learning experience can be customized, allowing the student to learn weaker subjects by using the familiarity and comfort of natural strengths. For example, a child with low oral and written linguistic skills will not learn math effectively by listening to lectures or reading a textbook but may catch on quickly when the concepts are presented in another way. Consider the previous example of the “high-energy" child. This child will have difficulty concentrating during a traditional addition/subtraction lesson. S/he may understand the concepts quickly and permanently if allowed to walk or jump forward and backward the proper number of spaces along a number line on the floor. Probably, he or she will learn the alphabet more quickly by forming the shape of the letters with his or her entire body. On the other hand, a child with high musical intelligence may learn letters best by singing the “ABC” song; whereas, high Spatial Intelligence children might respond best to letters that are three-dimensional, colorful, and graphically detailed or to making letters in a tray of sand.
Classrooms using DISCOVER Curriculum models may look similar to traditional classrooms but are designed to teach the same lesson in many different ways. All children in the class eventually learn the same core subject matter, but they use methods of their own choosing guided by their teacher(s). As a bonus, this teaching method not only improves learning, but also increases students’ task engagement and results in fewer discipline problems.
Data from numerous pilot projects and implementation experiments show that the DISCOVER Assessment and Curriculum Models, used together, do increase test scores and overall academic performance. At the same time, they increase creativity and critical thinking. Of course, significant change often takes years because of the difficulty of changing attitudes and methodologies. However, the eventual results justify the efforts. In Tucson, Arizona, Maker’s staff, along with like-minded school reform organizations and projects, worked with one particular school for seven years They saw the students’ average standardized test scores rise from a percentile in the low 20s during the first three years to the mid 60s in the seventh year.
Present activities include preparations for a significant new stage of developmental research that will integrate more technology into the Assessment process, create a much more extensive series of Strength Profiles and produce national standards-based curricula for all grade levels. See DISCOVER—Personalized Education for more details and participant selection criteria.
Although DISCOVER methodologies are often used to identify and service gifted students, all students can benefit from these ideas and from educational programs customized to their individual abilities. While maintaining strong support for academic excellence, the DISCOVER staff is committed to seeing that all children are assessed accurately, regardless of external factors or barriers. They want to make sure that the children's innate abilities, once recognized, are expanded and challenged in ways that will help them not just pass the next exam, but also be more successful in life. Our nation currently is struggling in a national debate about how to prepare students best. DISCOVER can play a key role in reform by offering exciting, research-based alternatives to older methods of teaching and learning. The ultimate goal of DISCOVER is to spark creativity and engagement in the learning process.