Schooling Built on the Multiple Intelligences

by Christine D. Kunkel

As I navigate an urban, public K-12 school through today’s turbulent waters, I can’t help but wonder about an age-old question originally pondered by Herbert Spencer, the 19th-century philosopher best known for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest.” He once asked: “What knowledge is of most worth?”

With the honor and privilege to serve as principal of the Key Learning Community, I must disclose it is no secret this school was developed by frustrated teachers who worked intensively to find a more authentic way than “the test” to prepare our students to lead successful lives.


ChrisKunkelChristine Kunkel

It was not the No Child Left Behind test-prep frenzy, but 1983’s “A Nation at Risk” and its testing craze that led eight public school teachers in Indianapolis to decide that enough was enough. These teachers could each point to instances where their students did not do well on the test but displayed aptitude in many other ways. Music teacher Jean Eltzroth realized she was only receiving students for her music class who had passed state exams and were sent to the music class as a reward. By current multiple intelligences wisdom, she was receiving only students who were strong in the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences. Clearly, music was not important for its own sake.

This course of events in the early 1980s caused these classroom teachers, since branded by Howard Gardner as “the Indianapolis 8,” to launch their research to find a better way. They hadn’t yet met Gardner, however it was at this point that leader Patricia Bolaños picked up the Harvard educator’s book Frames of Mind. After reading this book, these eight realized they might have found the answer they were looking for.

They wanted to meet the author of this groundbreaking book, so when they learned he’d be speaking in Kutztown, Pa., they jumped into cars and traveled 12 hours in hopes of speaking to Gardner for a few minutes. He was pleasantly surprised to hear of their idea. Although he hadn’t thought of applying the multiple intelligences to an educational framework from which to structure a school, Gardner agreed to work with them on the project. The rest is history.

A Popular Option
Originally called the Key School, what’s now known as the Key Learning Community is in its 22nd year. It has evolved from an elementary school of 150 students in 1987 to a K-12 program with two sites and more than 600 students. As a magnet/option program in the Indianapolis Public Schools, Key remains a popular choice, evidenced by a long waiting list each year.

As the first multiple intelligences school in the world, the Key Learning Community shapes its students’ days to include significant time in the musical, spatial and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences, as well as the more traditional areas of logical-mathematical and linguistics. In middle and high school, students spend equal time in physical education, Spanish, social studies, music, art, math, English and science. It is this significant time with experts of each discipline that gives Key its unique structure and provides students with the opportunity to focus on their strengths, as well as improve areas in which they feel especially challenged.

To enhance the multiple intelligences curriculum, Key promotes theme-based and project-focused learning. With a centralized theme to build daily activities around, students are enabled to make connections to the world they live in – and to the world we want them to learn about.

The theme for fall 2008 was “This I Believe...” With the presidential election shaping our daily landscape, teachers were able to tap into the interest generated by the campaign to bring students into that conversation, spark their motivation, and move them to important understandings that develop all intelligences. The theme always provides an important organizing center from which learning grows.

Student project development cultivates personal leadership capacity through real-world experience by taking an idea, developing it through research and collaboration, and then presenting it to a group. These all-important public speaking skills provide a vehicle for students to take what they are learning to the next level as they develop a way to present their ideas to peers and teachers.

Projects and themes were present at the start of the Key program, and Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences was just the beginning. Other theories integral to Key are Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, David Feldman’s universal to unique levels of cognitive development, W. Edwards Deming’s notion of continual improvement, Peter Senge’s learning organization, Ernest Boyer’s commonalities and Project Zero’s teaching for understanding. Explaining how Key interprets and implements these theories is not feasible here, but the process of always seeking better ways to educate is the school’s mission.

Unfortunately, authentic development of quality public education in the United States has hit a pothole called No Child Left Behind. Others have articulated how the legislation, noble in its intent, is actually leaving behind the students it is intended to help. By extensive testing, identifying weaknesses and then drilling, testing and drilling some more, schools are discouraging students and watching them drop out in droves. Is there any real mystery as to why the dropout rate is skyrocketing? What self-respecting human would remain in an environment that tells him year after year he is a failure?

But students are not dropping out at Key Learning Community. Key is addressing students’ intrapersonal intelligence (self-knowledge). Students are identifying their strengths, learning how they can use their strengths and then applying these strengths to develop understanding in all subject areas.

Proving Worth
One of the significant challenges we face in applying multiple intelligences in a public school is answering this question: How can you prove your worth in an MI program when all that is accounted for are the math and linguistic intelligences?

Certainly, these are critically important. But ultimately we ask whether the standardized tests show all of the good going on in the Key program. Standardized tests only reveal a small portion. Students who graduate from Key know who they are, what they can do and how to blaze the trail toward that goal. Key students experience mentorships in 8th grade and apprenticeships in senior year. They create exit portfolios in digital form, and seniors go on a service mission to Costa Rica to cap their Key experience. Despite a 73 percent poverty rate among students, 88 percent of Key students graduate and 91 percent pursue some form of postsecondary education.

The irony is that after many fruitful years of providing students with wonderful educational experiences, NCLB will force us to radically scale back what we can accomplish unless something is done to improve the legislation. The pressure to improve test scores at Key will force a move in methodology from the sublime to the ridiculous as teachers fulfill mandates to test and check, test and check, for disparate and disconnected factual knowledge while leaving little time for the rich experiences that are most critical for cognitive, physical, cultural and social development.

So what knowledge is of most worth in public education? Is it the facilitation of memorization of assorted facts so students can find the proper bubble to color? At Key, we think not. Our multiple intelligences curriculum still serves children as we focus on their strengths. But if the only strengths valued are two intelligences, Key will soon become a legacy of historic importance in the field of innovative public education, rather than a legacy that serves hundreds of students daily in ways that prepare students to make important contributions in our world.

Christine Kunkel is principal of the Key Learning Community in Indianapolis, Ind. E-mail: