Recently, American audiences got an Academy Award winning look at how easily traditional assessment overlooks cognitive gains made outside of formal classroom instruction. Slumdog Millionaire, a film about an improbable winner of the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, provides a kind of case study in multiple intelligences and learning styles, particularly those with cultural components.
The protagonist, Jamal Malik, along with his brother Salim and friend Latika, demonstrates a tremendous intelligence born from the streets of Mumbai. When circumstances call for him to test his abilities in a formal, albeit fantastic environment, Jamal’s surprising success is met with suspicion and accusations. By assigning him the label slumdog, the world has placed restrictions on the paths to which he may aspire. As educators, we often perceive limits to our students’ understanding based on our own cultural paradigms. The damage brought about by these unfortunate assumptions is made transparent when children like Jamal rise above them.
When their parents are killed by an anti-Muslim mob, Jamal and his companions leave their already impoverished life behind. Orphaned and alone, these three musketeers must learn to navigate the physical and political labyrinth of the Juhu slums. The tests they face are far removed from the ruthlessly efficient norm-referenced exams synonymous with Western culture. Their tests are ones of sheer survival, and these amazing youths score in the top percentiles. In a country where potable water is a luxury, accepted codes of ethics offer no particular advantage. Jamal and Samil learn that it is better to steal than starve, just as it is better to kill than to be killed. Though both boys exhibit clear intelligence, their ways of knowing are as individual as students of any classroom.
Samil, only marginally older and physically developed than Jamal, keenly reads the threads of power that hold their violent world together. He knows who is weak and who is strong. He knows when to strike out and when to run. These skills are recognized almost immediately by Maman, who begins to groom Samil for a role in his organization. Later, when Samil is forced to kill Maman, he does so with calculation, not passion. At a young age, he has learned to leave behind corpses, not enemies. In a situation that would break most adults, Samil follows one cold decision with another when he uses Maman’s death to curry favor with Javed, a rival crime lord. This way of knowing might translate to the playground, or even the boardroom, but it would not gain high marks in a classroom setting. In fact, students in Western schools showing similar aptitudes are typically branded as bullies and troublemakers, and despite its obvious merits, interpersonal intelligence is ignored at best and punished at worst.
Despite widely published and often cited research on multiple intelligences, most Western public schools still judge pupils by traditional rubrics. Jamal’s success on the quiz show emphasizes the flaws in this style of assessment. The questions asked by the host represent a statistical sampling of fields ranging from history to popular culture. As with standardized selected response tests, the implication is that performance on sample questions is predictive of overall knowledge. Thus, Jamal is labeled either a prodigy or a cheat. The possibility that he may simply have been extremely lucky is overlooked.
By his own admission, happenstance was a key factor. While he knows whose face appears on the American hundred dollar bill, he would be hard pressed to name those appearing on most rupee denominations. This naturally begs the question, do we judge intelligence by what a person knows or their capacity for knowing. By the first standard, Jamal would likely fall short in most classrooms. By the second, he would be judged a genius.
His ability to mine sense memories for trivial facts gives the impression that he can recall relevant pieces of information at will. Whether triggered by the smell of a dollar bill, the fall of his mother, or a chance encounter with a pop icon, Jamal’s mind makes connections that allow for swift recall of seemingly useless data. It is important to note that his intelligence pushes far beyond rote memorization. He is able to reassemble his knowledge in new and creative ways. When he deceives gullible tourists into believing that he is a guide at the Taj Mahal, he deftly parries questions and clarifications with fabrications of the truth constructed on the spot. This requires gifts for both language and reasoning ability, areas in which he clearly excels, despite having no formal education. While Samil would probably have difficulties in most formal school systems, all evidence points to the possibility that Jamal might have been successful, if only he had been given the chance to do so.
A teacher’s job description is often convoluted. We are essentially charged with the task of making students smarter. To do so, we must understand that intelligence is not a rigid characteristic, but an ever changing capacity to learn. As more knowledge is acquired, more nodes exist for future connections to be made. Nor is any one way of knowing manifestly superior to another. It is possible to take advantage of student’s contextual experience and cultural foundation by building new ideas on top of previous models. The characters of Slumdog exemplify the need to recognize these alternative learning styles and to design classroom assessment with them in mind.