Just what exactly does it mean for a kid to be smart? Ask most educators, and they’ll probably say that intelligence is a measurable asset gauged through proficiency in mathematical and verbal skills. Many others agree, which is why the sitting president rarely is compared with Albert Einstein or Philip Roth.
But the people launching the new East Academy private school have a far broader, if debatable, view of what it means to be smart. Rick Seay, the newly hired director of what will become East Nashville’s only independent school, says that rather than just examining how a student performs in math and English, teachers should look at additional areas of a student’s intelligence. These include visual and musical acuity, along with interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence, he says.
East Academy plans to open its doors Sept. 4 in the former Chapel Avenue Church of Christ at the corner of Eastland and Chapel avenues with a kindergarten and first grade. It hopes to add additional grades in the coming years. Full tuition will be under $4,000 a year, but Seay says that the school plans to offer scholarships or sponsorshipsunderwritten by philanthropic individuals, companies, or organizationsto half of its student body.
East Academy’s planned approach to learning is based on the controversial theory of multiple intelligence (MI) crafted by Harvard Professor Howard Gardner. The essence of the theory is that traditional education often fails to cultivate a student’s full range of abilities. The theory says that educators should recognize that children can struggle in math and English and still be smartit’s just that their intelligence lies in areas that most schools neglect.
“This approach of multiple intelligence will drive everything about our school,” says Seay, a highly decorated instructor who was Hillwood’s teacher of the year in 1994 and 1995. “But when you stop and look at it, it’s nothing more than common sense. Good teachers have been using it for some time.”
The MI theory holds that through discovering a kid’s particular area of intelligence, a teacher can figure out the best course of learning. For example, a student who is visually strong may be able to improve his vocabulary through associating a word with a picture. A child with strong interpersonal intelligence is one who probably learns best by working in groups and collaborating with othersthink now of the current president and the good rapport he has with his cabinetwhile a kid who is more intrapersonal will most likely understand new concepts by working alone.
“Multiple intelligence theory is really an attempt to think about the human intellect in a broader perspective than we’ve often taken in the educational environment,” says Professor James Pellegrino, the former dean of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.
Perhaps predictably, the feel-good elements of MI theory have incited a healthy share of critics. In fact, one area of intelligence that the theory has identified is something called “bodily kinesthetic intelligence,” which Seay says includes people who express themselves through movement. Think dancers, actors, and athletes. But is this really intelligence or is it just a talent? And how does recognizing this as a facet of intelligence ensure a young student will prevail in a modern, technical economy that doesn’t exactly lavish great wealth upon mimes.
“No one has ever been able to prove to me how you can teach calculus kinesthetically,” says former Metro school board member Dave Shearon. In general, Shearon says that the underpinning of the theory is soundschools often do fail to bring out a student’s full array of talents. But that hardly means that a teacher can quantify the multiple so-called areas of intelligence of their students or even that they should. “The theory has never been validated,” Shearon says.
Noting that the fledgling private school will need to attract parents and students, Shearon characterizes the school’s emphasis on multiple intelligence theory as a “sales pitch.” He adds, “parents love to think their children are special in some way.”
Pellegrino says that among academic thinkers of education, there is considerable debate about whether the theory’s claims match up “with what we know empirically.” In fact, Pellegrino says that while there may in fact be several kinds of intelligence, they tend to be intertwined. Kids who are strong in one area tend to be strong in others and vice versa. In other words, the theory’s egalitarian view of educationthat all kids can learn, just in their own unique wayis not as easy as it sounds.
Critics of multiple intelligence fret that the theory will turn classrooms into silly spectacles in which students dance, draw, and listen to musicin other words, everything but read, write, and add numbersbut the Harvard professor who developed MI says that’s a blatant misperception.
“The MI theory is about how the mind works and how people learn rather than a theory about curriculum or school management,” Gardner says.
Seay sees MI as a rival to Metro’s core curriculumin which schools are expected to teach students a standard body of knowledge and test them frequently on whether they’re learning it. “Core curriculum is very prescriptive, saying that you’re going to learn X, Y, and Z,” he says. “Multiple intelligence is a process of learning. Just as core curriculum is trying to get at a core knowledge of subjects, multiple intelligence does the same thing while appealing to many different types of learning.”
In other words, East Academy students still are going to learn the kinds of fundamentals that every parent wants their child to learnbut the approach will be different. There will be more collaborative learning, group projects, and a determined effort on the part of teachers to figure out each student’s strength. In an early reading class, for example, a teacher won’t merely read the tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs while students listen passively. The teacher might have the children act out certain scenes or listen to music from the Walt Disney movie. At the end of the day, the theory holds, students will learn more if the teaching touches on their full range of talents.
“I think multiple intelligence is a wonderful approach in every situation,” Seay says. “Just the affirmation that every child can learn is important.”
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