Lessons for Hong Kong schools in Chinese Nobel winner Tu Youyou's grit

Malaria researcher's achievement calls to mind theory that we have multiple intelligences we must harness, as well as showing determination, to succeed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 October, 2015, 4:11pm

Reading this week’s reports about Tu Youyou,  China’s joint Nobel Prize winner, made me think of the theory of multiple intelligences  advocated by Howard Gardner   more than 30  years ago, and wonder what outstanding intelligences this lady has to have reached such heights in her field of work – developing a new drug to fight malaria.

Using information gleaned from ancient Chinese medicine records, she finally produced artemisinin after 191 experiments. The World Health Organisation approved its use more than  40 years after her research effort began.   It’s a success story which should enlighten Hong Kong  educators.

 My guess is she may possess strong logical-mathematical intelligence, which enables her to deal with the research systematically and methodically; linguistic intelligence, which helps her delve into ancient records of Chinese medicine; naturalist intelligence, which is essential for sorting out different herbs and their qualities; interpersonal intelligence, which is a prerequisite for a leading researcher; and intrapersonal intelligence, which manifests itself in her goal-seeking and persistent efforts at goal achievement. There must be an effective blending of these intelligences, too.

She may also have the other  three intelligences identified by Gardner, namely musical, spatial-visual, and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences. According to Gardner, his  eight intelligences are based on empirical findings, and every one of us has these inborn intelligences to a greater or lesser extent and in different combinations. To   succeed,  one not only needs to know  where one’s strengths are and develop them;  one also needs to show grit – meaning courage and perseverance – to  develop  them. In Gardner’s view, our wits and grit need employing for the common good.

Gardner’s contribution helps us see intelligence not as singular and quantifiable by means of paper-and-pencil IQ tests and covering all domains, but as multiple and independent, meaning strength  in one area may not spread to other areas and weakness, on the other hand, is not pervasive. His most famous saying is: “It is not how smart we are, but how we are smart.” A student who is academically weak may not be weak at sports or art. Gardner is strongly against using IQ tests as the sole means to assess a student’s intelligence and then rate, rank or, worse still, stereotype or  categorise him. The traditional IQ tests also focus mainly on linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, relegating the others to minor status.  

This lopsidedness  has produced  losers in schools and society because many students’ talents and strengths lie in non-academic areas.  How to reach out to those who are not so linguistically or mathematically inclined as to perform well in high-stakes exams, and also give such students opportunities to excel in areas where they can, is of pressing importance to educators the world over. Some find the solution in vocational training, which usually covers a much wider spectrum of intelligences.

 While this is  happening in Hong Kong, with  support growing for applied learning and the Vocational Training College, vocational education is still regarded as second best by the authorities, schools and parents.

 Mindsets need to change. The multiple intelligences  theory and its application should be an important component of development programmes for teachers and principals, especially for those implementing life and career planning for students.

 School leaders not only need to have an in-depth knowledge of this theory, but also must  revamp school curriculums, structures, facilities and culture before they can make learning  more student-centred and intelligence-friendly.

Gardner says modern societies have lots of niches for different intelligences and resolution of the world’s complex problems  needs the pooling of human intelligences and will. We need more people like Tu – who, let’s remember, lacked a doctoral degree but practised lifelong learning and properly exploited her intelligences.  

Robin Cheung is a retired school principal