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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Key to Learning: A Place for Meaningful Academic Exploration

Projects, portfolios, and presentations rule a school founded on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.
By Sara Armstrong

VIDEO: The Key Learning Community: Cultivating Multiple Intelligences

Running Time: 9 min.

In his kindergarten year, Max's interest in the degree of heat on Venus led him to create a gigantic cardboard thermometer that compared the temperature of tap water, soup, chocolate chip cookies, his own body, the surface of Venus, and other items. Wearing full space suit regalia, he made a detailed presentation of the project to his classmates.

When he was in first grade, Max did a project about the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier on which his grandfather had served. Max had his grandfather display his military medals and talk about his World War II experiences to the class. Max researched the history of the ship, created an Adobe Acrobat presentation about it, built a model from wood and Legos, and explained in detail how airplanes took off and landed on the ship's deck.

In fifth grade, Max researched and reported on the history of the Macintosh computer. He made an Adobe Acrobat presentation about each model's debut year, cost, speed, and other interesting facts. As part of the presentation, Max floated balloons above several cardboard models, comparing cost, memory, and hard-disk space by the length of the ribbons attached to the balloons.

Exploration and Development

Max's projects and presentations represent the kind of work the Key Learning Community, a public K-12 school in Indianapolis, expects of all its students as part of its commitment to providing opportunities for exploration and development.

Principal Pat Bolaños helped found the Key Learning Community in part so that children could work to their strengths.

Credit: Edutopia

When Max wants to look back at his school career, he will have a videotaped record of his twice-a-year projects plus reports that use triangles, squares, and other symbols representing progress, participation, performance, and intrinsic motivation. He won't find a report card with A's, B's, or C's.

"When you take that pressure of the grade off of them, it allows them to be more themselves -- to get into what they're doing more," says science teacher Ralph Neth.

The Key Learning Community opened its elementary school in 1987, its middle school in 1993, and its high school in 1999. In 2000, the three schools moved into a single building. Started by veteran teachers who were exploring creativity in children, Key Learning's program is based on the theory of multiple intelligences, pioneered by Harvard University professor Howard Gardner, which holds that each individual possesses different forms of intelligence -- verbal-linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, naturalistic, body-kinesthetic, intrapersonal (such as insight), and interpersonal (such as social skills) -- to greater or lesser degrees.

The "guiding principle in education," says Key Learning principal Pat Bolaños, had been that "you take an IQ test and you know whether you're smart or dumb or someplace in between." Those on the high end of the test get enrichment courses; those on the low end get remediation.

Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences "blew that out of the water," she says. The theory concluded that "people are not smart or dumb or someplace in between, but you could be very strong and capable in one area of intelligence and very weak in one or two of the others," something she says she saw in her own children. Many of her colleagues agreed. "We said, 'Let's say that all of these areas of intelligence are equally important for all children, and we will design a school that honors that starting principle.'"

Working from Strengths

Key Learning students work from their strengths -- often in elective classes called pods: K-8 students must choose a pod, which is usually multiage and multigrade and designed around the passion of a teacher or a team of teachers. Pods have had such names as Cover to Cover, in which students write books; Healthy Living; Creative Poetic Expression; Threads, Cloths, and Coverings; Managing Money and Finances; Literary Legends; and a movie-making pod called Take Five.

Ukulele concerts are big hits at the Key Learning Community, where music and art courses are mandatory.

Credit: Rich Clark Photography

"Pods are a means to give teachers and students an opportunity to do something they really love and are passionate about," says history/geography teacher Geoff Davis. All students study art and music, and are expected to learn to play an instrument and create musical compositions.

Equally important is the "flow room," which K-5 students visit three or four times a week and where they learn to immerse themselves in something of interest; the idea of flow was named, documented, and described by Hungarian-born psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The experience of flow nurtures the understanding of the intrinsic value of studying something you care about, with the idea that the feeling eventually can be transferred into all other schoolwork.

"Flow is being totally involved in an activity," says flow-room teacher Gwendolyn Staten, noting that playing cards or creating something out of Legos can fit the definition of flow for very young children. "If someone were to just come in and see the kids, they would think it's a playtime or a recess time. But it's not. It's a learning time."

Theme-Based, Integrated Curriculum

Although teachers carefully plan what their students need to know in accordance with Indiana state standards and Key Learning's own competencies, the best way they have found for students to acquire information and critical-thinking skills is through projects.

Teacher Beverly Hoeltke goes over Key Learning's unconventional progress report with a student and his mother.

Credit: Edutopia

Teachers, in consultation with students, spend a fair amount of time in the spring coming up with possibilities for themes for the next school year. Parents, community members, and other interested parties can provide input. The faculty makes the final decision, and themes are selected for fall and spring. In the 2001-02 school year, themes included "Our World at Play" and "Movements" for K-8 students, and "Shared Use of Symbols" and "Shared Life Cycle" for high school students.

The themes are used to tie together what is being learned in core classes, and the students are challenged to develop a major project related to the theme. The projects are presented to peers and interested parties, such as parents, and the presentations are videotaped. Students are expected to teach their peers what they have learned in an interesting way. They are also expected to answer questions posed by peers and adults to demonstrate depth of understanding on their chosen topic.

Video portfolios made up of student presentations over the years are of interest to students and parents. For example, students often reflect on the kind of work they did as younger students while they plan new projects, and parents can clearly see ways in which their children have grown and how their knowledge on a topic has deepened.

"If you look at projects of a particular child over a long period of time -- such as through grades K-8, which is what I do every summer -- one of the things you find out is that you get a very strong sense of who the child is, what they're interested in, and actually what their process of learning is," explains teacher Beverly Hoeltke.

All-Important Participation

Teachers do not give grades, because they feel that getting a grade, even an A, limits students in their performance and sends the wrong message about motivation, which they want to come from within the child. The progress report details a student's performance in each of the multiple intelligences on three dimensions -- progress, participation, and performance -- and includes self-assessment.

Student Leili Haas and technology learning coordinator Norman Gwaltney discuss Haas's video portfolio.

Credit: Rich Clark Photography

Progress is indicated by N (needs help), S (steady progress), or R (rapid progress). For participation, students receive a triangle (intrinsically motivated), a square (extrinsically motivated), an X (disruptive), or a circle (passive). "That is the absolute worst thing to happen on your progress report -- to be given a circle," explains Bolaños. "It means that you are not participating at all. And that's very bad. That's worse than an F to get a circle."

Progress reports also explain where students are on the road toward becoming experts in subject matter. Rankings such as novice, apprentice, and journeyman are used, as well as indicators of level of student achievement that start with universal level and work up to discipline level.

The high school progress report goes even further by defining more advanced work. That work incorporates Ernest Boyer's eight "human commonalities," which, in practical terms for Key Learning students, includes multimedia compositions, participation in school governance, a major project related to diversity, mutual trust, and respect, and other projects. "We do more than just memorize stuff for a test and write it down and forget it," says student Leili Haas. "We actually understand the stuff that we're talking about."

True Professional Development

Teachers at Key Learning are not only subject-matter experts; they also participate in ongoing discussions about assessment, learning, and all aspects of school. Beyond these ongoing sessions, many arrive at 7:30 a.m. on Mondays to discuss the latest theory or practice that might better inform their work with students. Recently, the group was reading Peter Senge's Schools That Learn and discussing how his work might lead to a change in high school progress reports.

Pat Bolaños and teachers meet regularly to discuss educational theories and how they relate to teaching and learning at Key Learning.

Credit: Rich Clark Photography

"We meet both before and after school to discuss new policies, evaluate existing ones, organize fundraisers and co-curricular activities, and discuss books and articles suggested by the principal and other staff members," says teacher Geri Williams. "I only vaguely remember being surveyed and definitely not being asked for my opinion or input in making any decisions on policy in my other schools. No one spent time or asked me to spend time reflecting on the success or failure of any project or activity. Here, all these evaluative procedures are expected of me." In addition, she says, teachers at Key Learning "are encouraged to pursue further degrees and licenses and to attend any meetings, lectures, workshops, and seminars."

The success of a school can be measured in a number of ways. One measure might be a place where students are intrinsically motivated and find schoolwork fun because they can follow their interests and express their knowledge in ways that are meaningful for them. Another way to look at success would be to explore the enthusiasm of the staff -- through their longevity at a site, their time spent on school-related activities, the regard they have for each other and their students. Or the increased number of visitors every year who want to know how to do what they see back at their own schools. Or parents who share their time, expertise, and support of the school.

By all these measures, Key Learning scores high.

Sara Armstong is a former Edutopia staff member.

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