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Applying MI in Schools

 

by Thomas Hoerr



The attraction of MI

In my mind, the theory of multiple intelligences (MI) has been seized by so many educators because it has two powerful lures. First, of course, is that when viewed through an MI lens, more children succeed. Put another way, when teachers offer different pathways for students to learn ? rather than just filtering all information and learning through the "scholastic intelligences" ? more students find success in school. MI isn't a panacea, and direct instruction and memorization of facts have their place in school. That said, an MI approach is "child-centered"; educators begin by looking at how the child learns and then work to develop curriculum, instruction, and assessment based on this information. (Conversely, in most schools, a "curriculum-centered" approach is used as educators bend the students to fit the curriculum.) Intuitively, of course, most of us understand that children learn in different ways. After all, as adults, we still learn differently. Thus we see MI as a tool to help us reach more kids, as a way to become better educators. That attraction of MI inheres in its definition.

A second feature of MI, though, one which may not be as obvious, is that using MI transforms the role of the teacher. In traditional schools, teachers typically rely on ? are often tied to ? text books and other mandated curriculum materials. In these situations, the name of the game is often scoring well on standardized tests, period. Naturally, then, materials are purchased which prepare students for the tests; the closer the match between the curriculum and what is tested, the "better" the curriculum. Aside from the losses to students ? which are considerable ? this approach also takes a heavy toll on teachers. How much fun can it be to read from a script all day? What's the message to us about our competencies when everything is set out and predetermined by a faraway publisher?

Most teachers went into education because they like working with children and playing a role in a child's growth. They also enjoy being creative, being "on stage," using their talents, and, most of all, being a problem solver. They relish the thought of figuring out a way to reach Johnny, to get Maria excited about learning, to help An-Lin begin to believe in herself. At the end of a day, when a teacher comes home physically tired and emotionally drained (an every day occurrence), satisfaction comes not from reflecting on how many workbook pages were covered or how well the teacher's guide was followed. Satisfaction, feeling like a professional, comes from knowing that you've made a difference in a child's life. It comes from knowing that you brought your curricular expertise, knowledge of pedagogy, and understanding of child development together to reach your students. MI allows teachers to do just that. When curriculum, instruction, assessment, and pedagogy are viewed through an MI perspective, there are a myriad of ways for student to learn. When MI is the palate, the teacher relies on her wisdom to find the right brush and the right colors to make learning meaningful.

In an MI setting, not only are students more likely to learn and teachers more likely to bring their creativity to the fore, but other opportunities are presented as well. Viewing intelligences as multidimensional and understanding that all children have many different talents has the potential to change the discourse among a faculty. Faculty and committee meetings can move from reiterations of information to discussions about learning and student growth. Teaching can change from something that is done by individual teachers to a collaborative, collegial endeavor in which the entire faculty works and grows together. This philosophy (believing in MI really is a philosophy of education) also enables teachers to change the dialogue with students' parents, both what is discussed and how it is discussed.

The costs of MI

The vision that I have described is true; I see it, elements of it each and every day where I work. I also hear about it from educators across the country who send me email messages about their progress. But it is also elusive. Indeed, the considerable merits of an MI approach aside, it is precisely because MI is so difficult to attain that, realistically, I feel that its use will never become the norm in most schools. True, the acceptance and use of MI has mushroomed over the last five years. (The faculty of New City School began pursuing MI in 1988 and for quite a few years our efforts were treated with some skepticism, as if MI was a novelty, a fad. Fortunately, that has changed. For the past several years, more than 700 educators have visited New City School each year and I receive between five and twenty emails each week, from teachers and principals around the world, people I've not met, but people who are interested in learning more about MI.) But still, despite this enthusiasm, the use of MI has only scratched the surface among educators.

Why is this? There are several impediments to the acceptance and use of MI:

1. Parents not seeing the value of an MI approach, not understanding how using MI can help their children to be successful.
2. Educators, particularly administrators, being so focused on short-term gains and standardized test results that they only focus on the scholastic intelligences.
3. Teachers being reluctant to expend the time and energy necessary to bring MI to life in their classrooms.
Fortunately, each of these obstacles can be addressed.

Overcoming the barriers to MI

Parent education, something which should be highly valued in any school, becomes a major priority in an MI school. Because none of the students' parents will have attended an MI school, educators need to help them understand how the intelligences are used and that their children are learning. (Oddly, sometimes parents are the most skeptical about the soundness of an academic program because their children tell them that school is fun!) Signs in the halls, explanations on student work that is posted, weekly letters from the teachers and principal, parent education evenings, student portfolios, exhibitions, and performances (PEPs) and framing parent-teacher conferences around the intelligences all contribute to parents understanding. It is not enough to entertain parents; they must be educated so that they understand how MI is used.

As logical and simple as all of these steps may sound, however, they are difficult to do. This is primarily because most educators don't appreciate the value of educating parents. Too often the parent-teacher relationship becomes us vs. them. Teachers, often with justification, fear that more parent communications will lead to more parent criticism. And all too often, when teachers do try to involve and educate their students' parents, the parents do not respond.

To each of these hesitations, I'd argue that an MI approach facilitates teacher-parent communication. Parents who are critical of schools are often so because they are wary. Simply put, they aren't sure that their child is learning (or, worse, they know ? they've been told ? that their child isn't learning). When parents view their children's progress through an MI lens, however, the gains are quite obvious. By reviewing the contents of a child's portfolio, for example, or by attending (or seeing videotapes of) student presentations and performances, the gains are clear and striking. Over time, the enthusiasm and excitement about learning that is generated by an MI approach will result in students doing better on traditional measures as well.

The effectiveness of MI is supported by the findings of a study conducted by Harvard's Project Zero. In interviewing the principals of 41 schools using MI, 78% of them said that their schools had realized gains on standardized achievement scores and 63% attributed the growth to "practices inspired by MI theory." (Not surprisingly, the use of MI paid other benefits in these schools as well: 78% of the schools reported improved performances by students having learning difficulties, 80% reported improvement in parent participation, and 81% reported improved student discipline.) Anecdotally, I can readily extol the virtues of MI. Because of our MI focus, our kids are more likely to find learning fun and less likely to find school boring. Discipline problems tend to disappear when students are excited about learning and finding success.

Some teachers, of course, try to involve parents. They do all the right things, but still, despite their efforts, few parents come to school or get involved. It isn't that these parents love their children any less. It could be that these parents are unable to get away from work, that they don't have the flexibility to be present during the day (which is why sending home videos of students' performances and progress is good). But it may also be that these parents, themselves, struggled in school, that for them, walking into the building is a reminder of their personal frustration and failure. (This is compounded if their children are having school difficulties. For regardless of how well we present our concerns, parents who hear that their children are failing also hear that they are failing as parents.) But by using MI, by offering parent nights in which the parents can engage in the same activities that students do during the day ? use their intelligences ? we can begin to chip away at some of the fear or cynicism that parents bring to the table.

Sometimes, when I am making a presentation to a parent group, I will begin by asking the parents to write the initials of three people they know whom they would describe as "successful." I intentionally don't define "success." After they have done this individually, I have them work together in small groups and see what their responses had in common. While everyone recognizes that it is important that students read, write, and compute well (it is important!), rarely are these the qualities that parents generate in thinking about "success." Invariably, they talk about adults who are kind people, folks who are happy in their lives, people who are good parents, spouses, and friends, and those who make a difference in the world through their acts. As we, the parents and I, continue the dialogue, it becomes very clear that an MI approach helps prepare children for success. For whether it is finding satisfaction from a potter's wheel or easel in the basement, enjoying playing basketball at age 55, singing in a choir, working in a garden, or, most significantly, having strong inter- and intrapersonal skills, MI is a very pragmatic theory. Cultivating the intelligences, which invariably happens when learning through them, leads to greater enjoyment in life.

Educators, particularly administrators, have a clear goal: success on standardized tests. While it is easy to criticize this narrow goal, the reality is that education has become politicized. These same educators would tell us that they are aware of how limited and limiting this focus is, but they feel they have no choice. (A rebuttal is topic for another article!) In any case, given this focus, teachers need to help administrators understand that students will perform better on any measure ? particularly those children for whom success in school is elusive, the kinds of children who typically fare poorly on a standardized test ? when learning is fun and when they look forward to school. None of us enjoy failure and children are no different. Is it any wonder that students don't do well on standardized tests when their daily educational message is "You're not smart"? By creating an environment in which more talents are recognized and in which more children can succeed, students will naturally approach school with more enthusiasm and interest.

This happens at New City, day after day, year after year. The New City School is a unique place. We receive national and international attention because of our work with MI, but that is only a piece of what sets us apart. Prior to our work with MI (actually, since our school's founding in 1969), New City has always embraced diversity, the belief that children learn best when they learn with those who are both similar to and different from themselves. In the 2001-2002 school year, we are 32% minority (mostly African American) and 28.5% of our students ? students of all colors ? receive need-based financial aid. We enroll students from 48 zip codes.

And yet, while our families are different in many ways, we are fortunate because they share one common denominator: they value education. We have the sorts of families that every teacher wants. Our parents are interested in their children's education and are very supportive. The power of MI aside, parent support must be factored in our success. And successful we are: Our students average 3, 4, 5 years above grade level on our tests. The spring 2001 New City School 6th grade class of 27 students scored, for example, an average grade equivalent of 12.8 on our Stanford Achievement Tests (averaging performing at the 89th percentile for all subtests). Again, these high scores are not all because of our use of MI. What these high scores do show, however, is that it is possible to educate children in a very nontraditional way and still achieve good results on traditional measures of student success. (And yes, despite the neat kids we get from our great families, for sure, some of our success is due to our use of MI!)

What we've learned

We've learned a lot in our fourteen years of implementing MI. We've learned that yes, Gardner was right: there are many different ways that students can learn. We've learned that implementing MI requires changing pedagogy and assessment techniques. And while it would certainly be possible to implement MI in a school that was not a collegial environment, we know that collegiality supports our use of MI; our students and teachers benefit from it. We've learned that parents must be brought along in our journey. It is important that parent education ? and involvement ? be an integral part of the school.

We've also learned that some topics are much harder to pursue with MI than others, that we must balance the pursuit of MI with standardized tests and curriculum demands. We've learned that developing an MI curriculum takes more time; yes, it is more effective and more rewarding, but it takes more time. Finally, perhaps most important, we've learned that we don't have the answers. We continue to work, as individuals and as a faculty, in finding ways to use MI to help our students, and ourselves, grow. It has been a fun journey and I'm looking forward to our next steps.

Selected MI and MI-Related Bibliography

? Armstrong, T. (1994). Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.
? Barth, R. (1990). Improving Schools From Within. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
? Blythe, T. (1998). The Teaching for Understanding Guide. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
? Faculty of the New City School (1994). Celebrating Multiple Intelligences: Teaching for Success. St. Louis, MO.: The New City School.
? Faculty of the New City School (1996). Succeeding With Multiple Intelligences: Teaching Through the Personal Intelligences. St. Louis, MO.: The New City School.
? Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
? Gardner, H. (1991). The Unschooled Mind. New York: Basic Books.
? Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence Reframed. New York: Basic Books.
? Glock, G., Wertz, M., and Meyer, M.(1999). Discovering the Naturalist Intelligence. Zephyr Press: Tucson, AZ.
? Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
? Hoerr, T. (2000). Becoming A Multiple Intelligences School. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.
? Thomson, B. (1993). Words Can Hurt You. Addison-Wesley: New York.
? Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding By Design. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

About the author

Thomas Hoerr is director of New City School, an MI school in St. Louis. His publications include chapters in Succeeding with Multiple Intelligences and Celebrating Multiple Intelligences. He can be reached by writing Thomas Hoerr, New City School, 5209 Waterman Avenue, St. Louis, MO 63108 or via email at trhoerr@newcityschool.org.

Copyright © January 2002

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