Brain-Based Learning

Patricia Bolanos: Multiple Intelligences, Projects, and Assessment

April 11, 2002

Dr. Patricia Bolaños passed away in July 2003. She was principal at The Key Learning Community in Indianapolis. The schools curriculum is based on psychologist Howard Gardner's theories of multiple intelligence, which hold that individuals use eight areas of intelligence to solve problems. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's theory of flow, David Feldman's developmental continuum, and Ernest Boyer's human commonalities research are also included in school practices.

1. What was the "big idea" behind the Key Learning Community?

The initial idea was the theory of Multiple Intelligences and how that plays out. How will that play out in a school system? This theory said that people are not smart or dumb or someplace in between, but actually there are eight distinct areas of intelligence that have their own symbol systems, that you could be very strong and capable in one area of intelligence and very weak in one or two of the others. And so from our experience 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."

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2. How does this theory compare with the assumptions that underlie more traditional schools?

The theory of human intelligence -- you take an IQ test and you know whether or not you're smart or dumb or someplace in between. And that had been the guiding principle in education. You try to find the gifted students, you sort them out according to these tests, these IQ tests, and then you give them enrichment. And the rest of the student population, you treat with remediation because they're not as smart, they don't learn as fast, all of those things. And that's what a good school would do. Well, this theory [of Multiple Intelligences] just blew that out of the water.

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3. How does your focus on the Multiple Intelligences affect the school's schedule and structure?

Our scheduling is different, our staffing patterns are different. We give just as much time in instruction to musical intelligence that we do to logical-mathematical intelligence. And we will not permit any child to be pulled out of a class for remediation. They must be there for the instruction. They must be taught by someone who knows how to teach the subject area. And so if a child needs remediation, we provide that after school.

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4. What's the reasoning behind having your high school students engage in projects?

We're interested in how students apply knowledge and so students are required through their high school [years] to do major projects each semester. At the end of high school they should have eight major projects that they would have developed with the help of teachers, with the help of anyone that they can find who will help them, but all of this is to be put together on a multimedia portfolio to document what it is they're capable of doing, not in a subject area, but in the larger community.

We're trying to develop civic-minded students. It's not just, "Be as smart as you can, do as well as you can in your areas of strength, but you must apply this knowledge and use this in the service of the community." And so that is the reason for the projects at the high school level.
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5. What is your approach to assessment?

Currently, we have two progress reports. One for the elementary through middle school and one for the high school. And the basic ideas that we're looking for is [to] identify along a continuum where a student might be functioning. And a student might be at a certain level for a number of years, so this is very distinct from grade-level thinking. That [continuum of] first grade, second grade, third grade. There is a continuum to which students' work is compared and teachers can identify along this continuum where this child is functioning.

In addition to that, and almost more importantly [than] that, we look at how a child is participating in the classes because we value intrinsic motivation very highly. If they are intrinsically motivated they are given a triangle. If they are extrinsically motivated -- if they need nudging, if they only do what they have to do -- [they are given] a square. If they're disruptive, they're given an X for being disruptive. And if they're passive, they're given a circle and that is the absolute worst thing to happen on your progress report -- to be given a circle in an area. It means that you are not participating at all.

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6. How do standardized tests fit into the Key program?

Our students are required to take two sets of standardized tests, one required by the state in the fall and one required by the school district in the spring. We do very well in some areas and in some areas we're not as strong. However, the areas where we're not as strong are areas that the test itself is focused on memorization. And we don't focus on memorizing answers. And so, the students are functioning with higher-order thinking here, rather than just rote memorization.

And so those parts of the standardized tests that require that -- computation in mathematics [for example] -- [in] computation our scores might be low, but students might understand mathematics much better here than to be able to take a test. So tests are important because if our test scores are not high enough, they [the district] wouldn't let us grow and expand. So our test scores are more than adequate, but we never use our test scores to show the effect of this program.

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7. You'll graduate your first high school class in 2003; how will Key have equipped them for their futures?

When students leave this school, they will know where their strengths are and that, in the work of developing the students' intrapersonal intelligence, they can think about themselves and know what they want to do, but also, link that with service to the community in some way.

We would like very much, and the word leadership has not been said yet this morning, but it's in our conversation normally. At the high school level, we're trying to nurture these students for leadership roles later on. And I'm not saying political leadership, I'm talking about leadership in whatever field they enter. That they will be able to take risks, that they will be persevering, all of those things associated with the skills that are needed for leadership in this century.

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8. What are some of the important lessons people can glean from your school?

It's a good time to be an educator because educators are under attack now. You know, "They're not bright enough, they don't do this, they don't do that." No. Educators are bright enough. They just need to find time to talk about their work and that's what we've succeeded in doing over the years. The only thing that I can say that we're a model about is having people who do the planning, do the implementation. It's very important. Don't take any packaged anything. Do it yourself. Start from scratch and do it yourself. It's like creating a work of art.

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