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How Teachers Interpret MI Theory

How Teachers Interpret MI Theory

Teachers are planning projects, lessons, assessments, apprenticeships, and interdisciplinary curriculums around the multiple intelligences theory. Like intelligence itself, the adaptations exhibit infinite variety.

Linda Campbell

Do not then train youths to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each. --Plato

In Eeva Reeder's math classes at Mountlake Terrace High School in Edmonds, Washington, students learn algebra kinesthetically. When studying how to graph equations, they head for the school's courtyard. There they identify X and Y coordinates in the lines of the large, square, cement blocks that form the pavement. They then plot themselves as points on the large cement axes. Reeder maintains that when her students physically pretend to be graphs, they learn more about equations in a single class session than they do in a month of textbook study.

On the Tulalip Indian reservation in Marysville, Washington, elementary school students spend their mornings rotating through learning stations. For example, to learn about photosynthesis, students might act out the process at one station, read about it at another station, and at others, sing about photosynthesis, chart its processes, discuss plant and human life cycles, and, finally, reflect on events that have transformed their lives, just as chloroplasts transform the life cycle of plants.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, middle school arts teachers organize their curriculums around major student projects that emphasize both process and product. In music, creative writing, dance, and visual arts classes, students perform tasks that actual artists, musicians, and writers undertake. In a visual arts class, for example, students may work on portraiture for several weeks, learn how to work with different media, study portraits of recognized artists, and, ultimately, create, display, and reflect upon a final work, using all the principles and skills they have acquired.

Curricular Adaptations

What do these three scenarios have in common? They are all curricular interpretations of Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences. As such, they share one of its central tenets: a school is responsible for helping all students discover and develop their talents or strengths. In doing this, the school not only awakens children's joy in learning but also fuels the persistence and effort necessary for mastering skills and information and for being inventive.

Since Gardner first published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences in 1983, educators began applying his theory in their classrooms. Just as Gardner maintains that each person has a unique cognitive profile, so too have educators shown that there is no single preferred multiple intelligences model. Individual teachers and entire schools have implemented the theory, making it the basis of their mission statements and curriculums. But they have done it in diverse, and sometimes conflicting, ways.

In the course of my university teaching, my staff development work, and my research for Teaching and Learning Through Multiple Intelligences (1996), I have discovered scores of approaches to multiple intelligences. Some teachers interpret the theory as an instructional process that provides numerous entry points into lesson content. Some say it suggests we need to develop each student's talents early in life. Others dedicate equal time to the arts each day. Many teachers use multiple intelligences to integrate curriculum, to organize classroom learning stations, or to teach students self-directed learning skills through project-based curriculum. Still others establish apprenticeship programs with community experts to teach students real-world skills. None of these adaptations is more correct than any other. Teachers apply the theory in the way they consider most appropriate for their students, school, and community.

Following are descriptions of five of the many multiple intelligences curricular formats currently being used: multiple intelligence-based lesson designs, interdisciplinary curriculums, student projects, assessments, and apprenticeships. All are guided in large part by students' talents, strengths, and interests.

1. Lesson Designs

Many teachers use the multiple intelligences as entry points into lesson content. As our first example showed, Reeder teaches algebra and geometry kinesthetically. Students who have trouble understanding math through paper-and-pencil exercises often grasp concepts easily when they build models or role-play math formulas.

Other teachers attempt to engage all eight intelligences in their lessons. Sharon Thetford, a multiage intermediate teacher at Tulalip Elementary School, sets up eight learning stations that her students rotate through each day. While such lesson planning is admittedly daunting at first, many teachers report that thinking in multiple modes quickly becomes second nature.

To begin lesson planning, teachers should reflect on a concept that they want to teach and identify the intelligences that seem most appropriate for communicating the content. The "instructional menus" shown on p. 18 offer some ideas for expanding pedagogical repertoires and quickly infusing variety into lessons.

Many teachers ask students to select the ways they would like to learn. Others use the menus for homework, rotating through the eight menus over eight weeks. For example, a teacher may ask students to do their homework musically for the first week. The students then share their musical reviews in class. The following week, the teacher repeats the process with a different menu. For the ninth week, the teacher may encourage students to use their favorite homework strategies. In this way, all students confront their weaknesses and engage their strengths.

Although the multiple intelligences theory provides an effective instructional framework, teachers should avoid using it as a rigid pedagogical formula. One teacher who attempted to teach all content through all eight modes each day admitted that he occasionally had to tack on activities. Even students complained that some lessons were "really stretching it." Instructional methods should be appropriate for the content.

This is not to say that a teacher should consistently avoid an intelligence because it is out of his or her comfort zone. Instead, teachers should team up with colleagues so that they can increase both their own and their students' educational options.

Teachers at Wheeler Elementary School in Louisville, Kentucky, plan and teach in teams based on their intelligence strengths. Each teacher assumes responsibility for two intelligences and contributes to his or her grade level curriculum accordingly. Students then rotate from classroom to classroom, learning from three or four teachers for each unit of study. When interviewed, students have said they appreciate the hands-on nature of their learning and each teacher's enthusiasm.

2. Interdisciplinary Curriculums

Many elementary educators have embraced multiple intelligences teaching, but high school teachers can just as easily adopt the theory. In fact, because high schools typically offer liberal arts programs, most already feature a comprehensive multiple intelligences curriculum. Students can quickly identify experts in specific intelligences by the subjects they teach!

Rather then totally reworking the curriculum, secondary educators need only adapt it to highlight various intelligences. For some schools this means adding a stronger arts program; for some teachers, it means adding learning stations in their classrooms or bringing in community experts in various disciplines to mentor their students.

Some secondary teachers have capitalized on their school's multiple intelligences programs by coordinating schoolwide interdisciplinary units. Although interdisciplinary instruction is popular, here is one proviso: Gardner is careful to remind educators that the core disciplines continue to offer the most sophisticated knowledge accrued over centuries. Before thinking in interdisciplinary terms, we must first possess the knowledge of the individual disciplines.

Seattle's international focus. An inner-city Seattle high school piloted a schoolwide multiple intelligences week on international awareness. Teachers continued to teach within their own disciplines, but all created lessons with an international focus. Literature faculty introduced short stories from the cultures of their students. Business education teachers focused on international trade issues, thereby complementing math instructors' lessons on foreign stock exchanges. Social studies teachers compared diverse forms of government and surveyed civil rights issues. Physical education teachers taught games from around the world, while health teachers conducted a unit on infectious diseases. Art and music educators engaged students in a variety of visual media and ethnomusicology. And in science classes, students studied local and global environmental issues.

The Seattle teachers became so excited over their unit plans that they invited parents to attend their classes, scheduling the classes in the late afternoon and evening for the parents' convenience. The week was a huge success: the students appreciated the cohesive curricular focus, and hundreds of parents--including immigrant parents--attended.

Montana's use of the arts. Montana's Framework for Aesthetic Literacy (Montana Office of Public Instruction 1994) is another approach to interdisciplinary, multiple intelligences-based curriculums. This K¬12 English and language arts curriculum is taught through the visual and performing arts. Because the teachers prefer the inquiry approach over structuring curriculums thematically, they begin each unit by posing a thought-provoking, open-ended question to guide students in their studies. They might ask questions like:

What is beauty? Who determines the standards for what is beautiful?
How do we use imagination to explain our world?
How do the arts reflect their cultures?
How does balance work? Why is it important?

To seek answers, students might attend a play or a symphony, see a film, or tour a museum. They make discoveries, draw connections, construct knowledge, and seek meaning and resolution on their own.

The Montana framework suggests a three-step curricular approach. First, students are immersed in an artistic experience. Second, they study essential English and language arts concepts while also practicing diverse thinking and communication skills. Finally, they generate their own products and answers to the unit's focus question. Through this curricular sequence, students use their multiple intelligences to acquire literacy skills and to reflect on relevant and worthwhile questions.

3. Student Projects

Some educators use the theory of multiple intelligences to promote self-directed learning. They prepare students for their adult lives by teaching them how to initiate and manage complex projects. Students learn to ask researchable questions; to identify varied resources; to create realistic time lines; and to initiate, implement, and bring closure to a learning activity. Regardless of the disciplinary focus, these projects typically draw on numerous intelligences.

Even primary-age children can learn how to execute projects. With teacher guidance, students at Project Spectrum--Howard Gardner's lab school at Harvard--study local birds and their nesting habits. They design and build bird houses and then observe whether their designs successfully meet the needs of the birds or whether modifications are required.
Middle school students in the small town of Lakewood, Washington, learn biology concepts by solving a mock crime. They conduct investigations, gather and study evidence, and suggest hypotheses they must support. Once they solve the crime, they analyze the problem-solving approaches that led to the correct answer.

Some teachers encourage students to identify their own topics to pursue for classroom projects. For example, high school students in Palo Alto, California, wanted to recommend to the city how it might use a property in a redevelopment area. They did this by presenting videotape documentaries to the city council.

High school students in Ithaca, New York, became interested in cancer therapies after a classmate was diagnosed with leukemia. The students undertook research projects, interviewed medical personnel, and visited hospitals to understand the disease and identify traditional and nontraditional healing approaches.

Projects such as these typically span two weeks to two months. Some teachers include three or more projects in a year-long curriculum, claiming that in this way, students can cover more information in greater depth than they could with conventional classroom approaches.

Project guidelines. Because the skills of managing one's own learning must be explicitly taught, one elementary teacher (Campbell 1994) created the following project guidelines to teach his students how to conduct projects.

1. State your goal. (Example: I want to understand how optical illusions work.)

2. Put your goal into the form of a question. (Example: What are optical illusions and why do they fool our eyes?)

3. List at least three sources of information you will use. (For example, library books, eye doctors, prints of M.C. Escher's work, the art teacher.)

4. Describe the steps you will use to achieve your goal. (Find books on optical illusions and read those books, look up optical illusion in the encyclopedia, look at Escher's work.)

5. List at least five main concepts or ideas you want to research. (Example: What are optical illusions? How is the human eye tricked?)

6. List at least three methods you will use to present your project. (Example: Construct a model of how the human eye works. Hand out a sheet of optical illusions for class members to keep. Have the class try to make some.)

7. Organize the project into a time line. (Week 1: Read sources of information. Interview adults. Week 2: Look at a variety of optical illusions. Make diagram of eye.)

8. Decide how you will evaluate your project. (Examples: Practice in front of an adult and get his or her feedback. Practice in front of two friends. Fill out a self-evaluation form. Read the teacher's evaluation.)
By working through these project guidelines, students naturally engage several intelligences. In the project on optical illusions, most students used seven of the eight intelligences. Perhaps more important, by initiating and completing projects of their choice, they acquired valuable autonomous learning skills.

4. Assessments

To show what they've learned from their projects and other coursework, students should be asked to do more than fill in blanks and supply short answers to specific questions. They should demonstrate their higher-order thinking skills, generalize what they learn, provide examples, connect the content to their personal experiences, and apply their knowledge to new situations.

When appropriate, students may even select the way they will demonstrate what they've learned. Some teachers have used multiple intelligences menus as assessment options. The teacher specifies criteria for quality work, knowledge, and skills, but leaves students free to use flow charts, role plays, original songs, or other approaches.

Teachers at Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School in Vancouver, Washington, have developed approaches that involve both parents and students in assessment. Students individually evaluate the skills and knowledge they have acquired and include their assessments in their portfolios. They also work in groups to assess one another's projects and evaluate their courses and teachers. Parents participate in a number of ways: by setting goals and assessing with their children, by reviewing student videotapes, by evaluating courses, and by writing informal comments during their visits to the classroom. Such diverse tools and increased participation yield more comprehensive pictures of student progress while giving students and their parents a stronger voice in schooling.

5. Apprenticeships

Gardner suggests that schools personalize their programs for students by offering them apprenticeships during the elementary and secondary school years. The apprenticeships he recommends would not track students into careers at an early age. Instead, they would contribute to a well-rounded liberal arts education and consume approximately one-third of students' schooling experience. Ideally, each student would participate in three apprenticeships: one in an art form or craft, one in an academic area, and a third in a physical discipline such as dance or sports. Students would have input into which apprenticeships they pursued.

Through such apprenticeships, students are learning something frequently lost in today's fast-paced society: that one gains mastery of a valued skill gradually, with effort and discipline over time. Once students achieve competence in the disciplines they are studying, they experiment with their own approaches and creative extensions.

Apprenticeship programs may be offered as part of the regular school curriculum or as extracurricular enrichment opportunities.

At the Key School in Indianapolis--the first multiple intelligences school in the U.S.--teachers, parents, or community members mentor students in 17 crafts or disciplines--each one called a "pod." Each student attends a pod of his or her choice four times a week to work on material related to one or more intelligences. Because each pod is open to any student in the school, children of varying ages participate in each of them.

Pod topics include architecture, cooking, and gardening, as well as themes called Sing and Song, Logowriter, Imagine Indianapolis (city planning), and Young Astronauts. In addition to the in-school experiences, a local museum offers Key students apprenticeships in shipbuilding, journalism, animation, or weather monitoring.

Programs such as this offer students powerful opportunities to work with older students or adults who have achieved competence in a discipline or craft. And when they are immersed in real-world tasks, students begin to see where their efforts may lead.

No Prescriptions

These five curricular approaches--multiple intelligence-based lesson designs, interdisciplinary curriculums, student projects, assessments, and apprenticeships--represent only a handful of adaptations of Gardner's theory of intelligence. In actuality, there may be as many models of multiple intelligences teaching as there are teachers! Educators, it appears, readily embrace the theory because it affirms what they already know and do.

Multiple intelligences does not demand an overhaul of a curriculum; it merely provides a framework for enhancing instruction and a language to describe one's efforts. Unlike most educational reforms, it is not prescriptive. Its broad view of human abilities does not dictate how and what to teach. Rather, it gives teachers a complex mental model from which to construct curriculum and improve themselves as educators. *


Campbell, B. (1994). The Multiple Intelligences Handbook: Lesson Plans and More. Stanwood, Wash.: Campbell and Associates, Inc.

Campbell, L., B. Campbell, and D. Dickinson. (1996). Teaching and Learning Through Multiple Intelligences. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon (college division of Simon and Schuster).

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
Montana Office of Public Instruction. (1994). Framework for Aesthetic Literacy: Montana Arts and English Curriculum. Helena, Mont.: Author.

Linda Campbell is Chair of the K¬12 teacher certification programs at Antioch University Seattle. With Bruce Campbell, she coauthored the training manuals for the ASCD video series, Understanding the Multiple Intelligences (1994). She can be reached at 2326 6th Ave., Antioch University Seattle, Seattle, WA 98121
lindacam@premier1.net This email address is being protected from spam bots, you need Javascript enabled to view it ).

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