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Curriculum for Success
This article first appeared in New Horizons for Learning "On the Beam" Vol. XII No. 3 Spring, 1992 p.4-5 :339-40

by Ellen Weber

Portrait of A Student Failed by the Present System

Consider one 17 year old boy who twice failed grade ten. This student's IQ score, at barely 100, allowed him to squeak into the public school's regular program but his school's testing practice prevented the boy from rising past the bottom scores in his class. For awhile, in spite of his difficulties to pass most tests, the student desperately tried to succeed at school. Life on a farm taught him the value of hard consistent work, and the boy's easy going nature splashed color on classroom activities. His infectious laughter made him a sought after friend to both peers and staff. The shop teacher told how he frequently hung around to help out after class, and how, when volunteers were requested, he was first to respond.

Although the boy mastered few skills championed in traditional Western curricula, he clearly possessed his own unique array of talents. While he showed higher than average intercommunication ability, however, he withdrew and often grew noticeably quiet when tests were handed back. Although he was usually the first person chosen for sports teams, this boy was regularly passed over by debate teams or academic work groups. He sat with his head lowered whenever groups gathered for solving math problems or reading comprehension work.

Describing one class field trip, however, his science teacher told how the boy plucked hilarious stories from the most ordinary events and entertained the group with amazing tales about the sea. He frequently wove the anomalies of ocean life into narrative, in the same way that natural fibers are straightened, combed and spun into ropes. By twisting yarns from his ocean excursions with a favorite uncle, a marine biologist, he tightly bound stories of ocean life into interconnected themes of oceans and seas. So when his class studied the movement and composition of waters, this boy told about their origins, the evolution of their form, and the nature and distribution of their plant and animal denizens. His personalized tales captured peers and adults alike, with the unique ebb and flow of his oral storytelling ability. When he told of the water's interactions with the atmosphere, for example, he illustrated the causes of climate and weather changes with the clarity of a television media weather report. When his class came to their exams on oceanography, however, the boy failed the test's "one-word" and essay formats.

One principal suggested that the boy came to school with the "wrong abilities." Other educators, like his science and music teachers, suggested that the school issued this student the "wrong tests." While he could read no music, the boy played almost any tune he heard on the piano, with little apparent effort. When the school's pianist took ill he accompanied the grade five concert and he composed several pieces of original music for his church's talent show.

Unfortunately, however, the boy failed grade ten. Already stung by two previous failures and rather than repeat again, eventually he simply dropped out of the high school system. Soon after, he accepted a position pumping gas at the corner mall. Although he occasionally indicated his secret dream of becoming a marine biologist, this boy finally accepted the school's conclusion that he lacked the cognitive skills expected of those who progress toward graduation.

Educator and researcher, Howard Gardner, however, argues that the educational system's narrow view of intelligence must be replaced with an attempt to mobilize the student's full range of human intelligences. That is, the school must ask what can be done to encourage such a student's unique storytelling, musical, or interpersonal abilities. In this boy's case, frequent failure gradually eroded his self-worth, made him doubt his unique gifts and reinforced defeat by his low grades.

Gardner argues that Western civilization has crafted a curriculum approach that limits intellectual growth for the majority of students. That is, too many intelligent students, in public high schools are forced to underachieve, since no provision to educate their particular intelligence appears to exist. Furthermore, Gardner argues for at least seven intelligences, of which only two, linguistic and logical/ mathematical are prized in the West. Presumably, the boy who dropped out could not reach acceptable standards in either linguistic intelligence, that is the intelligence of a poet or an orator, or in logical/ mathematical intelligence. That is the intelligence of in a mathematician or a scientist.

Within Gardner's multiple intelligence (Ml) model, however, this student would be encouraged to develop five other intelligences. That is, he might have been encouraged to compose music, because of his musical intelligence. Or he might have been invited to dance, work with his hands as the craftsperson does, using his bodily/ kinesthetic intelligence. Similarly, he might have used his spatial intelligence in sculpting, surveying or studying topology. His high interpersonal intelligence would have helped the boy understand how other people work and to work with them, perhaps in political or religious endeavors. As well, his intrapersonal intelligence, which correlates with the previous one would allow this boy to employ his self knowledge in activities where planning and personal insight are involved. Moreover, he might have learned the basic skills through these other kinds of intelligence.

Research is increasingly demonstrating that our definition of intelligence is too narrow to describe most students. On this topic, Robert Sternberg and Todd Lubart maintain, "Rather than put obstacles in their paths, let's do all that we can to value and encourage the creativity of students in our schools." The eminent cognitive psychologist, Jerome Bruner challenged us, with growing evidence, to expand our understanding of what we commonly define as intelligence. During most of his life. Bruner struggled with the notion that schools limit intellectual growth most through their limiting focus on a fixed model of the learner.

In "Models of the Learner," Bruner argued for a renewed perception of the relationship between the human mind and the process of instruction. He urged American educators to avoid models that insist on only one kind of learning and to equip the learner instead with a menu of possibilities.

New City School As It Implements Gardner's Model

While traditional schools have focused on a set curriculum that pertains especially to linguistics and mathematics, in which boys are expected to excel in mathematics and girls in linguistics, one St. Louis elementary and middle school both recognizes and utilizes more types of skills or intelligences .

At this school "boys are encouraged to become great artists and writers, and girls can be soccer stars and math wizards." Like many other schools modeled after Gardner's Ml theory, the New City School in St. Louis. MO. realizes that the "many types of intelligences must be recognized if we are to prepare students for a new century. All skills, talents or intelligences in students must be fully recognized, developed, and encouraged for students to be truly educated." After studying "Frames of Mind" for almost two years, the New City school faculty, under the direction of Tom Hoerr, Ph.D., is now in the process of implementing Gardner's Multiple Intelligences model. Through the use of schoolwide themes, such as " Life Along the River" each classroom is designing activities and experiences to address all seven of Gardner's intelligences.

As an alternative to the hierarchical school structure which values only certain kinds of skills or abilities, New City School teachers recognize that some, like the dropout described here, possess many different talents. The decision to build a school around the model of multiple intelligences, according to Hoerr, was, "...a commitment on our part to a philosophy that says all children are intelligent and that each child has a unique array of talents."

Further, Hoerr stressed that a major factor in using Gardner's approach to curriculum is the recognized need of his school for a curriculum that provided components for interpersonal and intrapersonal growth. In addition to the school's recognition that students possess a wide variety of worthwhile talents, this school emphasizes the often ignored affective development of its students. Hoerr wrote. "The model also highlights the personal intelligences, and that ties in very well with New City's emphasis on affective development and interpersonal growth."

Rather than simply reward students who read, write or compute well, New City School argues for Gardner's inclusion of interpersonal and intrapersonal skills. Presumably, an at-risk boy's communication abilities would be both recognized and valued under such inclusion. Hoerr states, "Knowing yourself and getting along with others are key skills, and our work with Gardner's theory will help us do an even better job in this critical area.

Is it reasonable to expect that large public high schools or staffs of diversified educational foundations could build curriculum around diverse intelligences? Certainly, to do so would require educators to avoid categorizing students on the basis of arbitrary and limiting standardized measures of intelligence such as the "IQ" score, which purport to measure a static quantity of intelligence present at birth, and that claim to indicate achievement potential. In order to help expand their knowledge of what is being discovered about intelligence, New City School staff enrolled voluntarily in an optional graduate course. This course . "A Seminar on Multiple Intelligences," registered fifteen teachers or one-half the schools' teaching staff in its first session.

The group, led by Dr. Kathe Rasch of Maryville College, is meeting once per month in a large group and two or three times each month in small interest groups. The groups investigate such topics as the Personal Intelligences or Assessment. It is intended that this group of trained staff will take the lead role in working with other staff members to determine the best way to implement Multiple Intelligences at New City School.

While details of its application are still being worked out, the school's philosophy, approved in 1989, explains the active roles intended from all students. Would not such an inclusive curriculum provide students presently failed by the system with joyful learning experiences leading to personal success? Its philosophy reads:

"The New City School is an urban School founded on the premise that the opportunity to learn together should be shared by children of diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as diverse academic abilities. The School promotes active learning through a challenging program of academic, aesthetic, and physical education that is experientially based, and respects and values individual differences. The school strives to provide each child with joyful learning experiences leading to personal success. Students are encouraged to develop self-esteem, creativity, critical thinking and independence, preparing them to succeed in a changing society."

Although MI pilot programs such as New City School are far from completion, initial evidence concerning the students use of rich and evocative materials to develop a broader range of talents seems promising.


About the author

Ellen Weber is Director of the MITA Brain Based Renewal Center in Rochester, NY. She is the author of

Student Assessment That Works, which is reviewed in New Horizons' Journal, and of MI Strategies in the Classroom and Beyond: Using Roundtable Learning. She is also author of the article Lessons from an Inuit Community on Baffin Island, and dozens of other articles on brain based renewal with practical strategies for secondary and college levels. Weber's upcoming book suggests parctical strategies to use MITA for Online learners.


Ellen Weber (PhD)
MITA Brain Based Renewal Center
PO 347 Pittsford , NY 14534
Phone (585) 421-3656

Copyright © Jan 1992

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