Creativity and Accountability co-exist in an Indiana school

In the Age of Accountability, a School Famous for its Creativity Struggles to Get Results

(Image: Chalkbeat)

(Image: Chalkbeat)

The challenge

Even Gardner, the inventor of Multiple Intelligences theory, has cautioned against the way some education advocates of his ideas have translated them simply to mean students should be given freedom to learn in different ways.

The theory, Gardner has said, is a theory of cognition, not a theory of learning.

“On the basis of research in several disciplines, including the study of how human capacities are represented in the brain, I developed the idea that each of us has a number of relatively independent mental faculties, which can be termed our “multiple intelligences,” Gardner wrote for the Washington Post in October.

Gardner wrote that he was trying to rebut the notion that the brain can be thought of one big computer with a single intelligence.

“In contrast, a belief in multiple intelligences assumes that we have a number of relatively autonomous computers–one that computes linguistic information, another spatial information, another musical information, another information about other people, and so on,” he wrote for the Post.

Gardner has been careful not to endorse much of the Multiple Intelligences-inspired curricula that critics have maligned as de-emphasizing more rigorous schoolwork in order to spend more time on tasks deemed creative. Critics fear that a project focus reduces attention to core subjects like math and English in favor of fuzzier self-directed study.

Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, wrote in 2004 that efforts to apply the theory to education have been counterproductive.

“For educators, the daring applications forwarded by others in Gardner’s name (and of which he apparently disapproves) are unlikely to help students,” he wrote. “All in all, educators would likely do well to turn their time and attention elsewhere.”

In some Multiple Intelligences-inspired schools, the philosophical underpinnings of the education program include a presumption that standardized tests are poor measures of student learning. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, the low test scores among those schools are not unique to Key.

Branton Shearer is an expert in multiple intelligences and a former Kent State University professor who now consults with schools that follow the theory on the very problem Key faced–how to raise test scores without junking the program.

“You can do both, but it takes a Herculean effort,” he said. “Something has to give. You can’t be pure one way or another.”

Balancing the program means taking a hard look at everything students are doing to assure the activities promote learning and impact necessary skills, Shearer said.

It’s tough to justify some of the activities Key students did in the past, like tracking their running times or making puppet shows, if they weren’t mastering basics like math and reading. Lessons have to foster creativity and address academic needs at the same time, he said.

Shearer compares Key to BlackBerry, the company which famously pioneered the smart phone only to be passed by competitors.

“They had a great product, so what happened?” Shearer said. “The needs of the population changed and it was tough to keep up. In schools, it can be tough to accept that you have to build those basic school smarts for how to be a student or you can’t have great projects that are meaningful.”

Seedhouse set about reshaping the staff and the course of study.

She pored over test data for every Key teacher. About half them were replaced, nine of them with Teach for America participants. But some of her best hires, she said, were veterans like Davis.

“Geoff had proven results in the classroom,” she said. “He thought all kids could learn. He was self-reflective on the things he knew he needed to work on as a teacher.”

What Davis and others taught had to change, too, and nothing was off limits.

Projects, a hallmark of the instructional method, were maintained, but scaled back. Free time for students to explore their interests was kept, but also reduced and reorganized.

Reading and math were pushed to the top of the priority list.

It’s a different world at Key now, Davis said.

“I did a lot of projects,” he said. “I’m into authentic learning. If we read ‘The Phantom Tollbooth,’ we built a toll booth. We don’t do those things now. Instead teachers are collecting data like crazy.”

Key students still get concentrated time to work in each of Gardner’s intelligence areas, but instead of doing all of them each week, classes rotate four times a year. In specials like art, projects remain a focus. The lessons are carefully tied back to academic learning.

“It’s a constant balance,” Seedhouse said. “There is a tension, and some of it depends on each teacher, who their kids are each year, and what they really need.”

The tension between creativity and academic rigor is playing out on a larger scale in the national debate over Common Core standards. Common Core proponents are pushing a reconsideration of how instruction is delivered, insisting that creativity can be infused into daily lessons on core subjects, for example.

Indiana, one of the early adopters of Common Core in 2010, is now reconsidering whether it should stick with the standards or create its own at the behest of a bill passed by the state legislature last year. Some of the opponents of Common Core are skeptical of the way it proposes to change instruction, fearful that students will not learn all they need to know to succeed in college and life.

Seedhouse is reluctant to wade into the political debate over Common Core. She said she hasn’t taken a side because she doesn’t know enough yet about how Common Core relates to Indiana’s prior standards.

But she sees some parallels between the aims of Common Core and her work at Key.

“I think Common Core is a way to move students and teachers to thinking more about education as a mastery of skills, rather than the accumulation of information,” she said. “I think this does go well with the Multiple Intelligences philosophy, as it promotes students developing a meaningful understanding of information in a variety of ways.”

‘I want to learn’

By the end of last school year, teachers and students had the sense they were learning more.

Fifth grader Sanaah Diaby and her classmate, Arielle Wallace, said the school felt different before Seedhouse’s arrival.

“I knew there was no focus,” Diaby said. “I didn’t care.”

Wallace chimed in: “We were having more fun than learning. We could tell we weren’t learning a lot.”

But when the huge jump in test scores were announced this fall, they weren’t surprised.

“It’s a better school,” Diaby said. “Our test scores used to be right here on the floor.” She motioned low to the ground with her hand. “Now they went way out of the building. The better our school, the higher our scores will be.”

Still, there are questions for some about aspects of the program that have been lost and whether better scores will bring a chance to revive them.

For Davis, the major revelation of Seedhouse’s reform might trouble some educators to acknowledge but now seems obvious to him: poor children need a program tailored to prioritize building foundational skills.

“You’ve got to match the population to your approach,” he said. “We weren’t spending enough time with kids in the classroom on areas they need most. Reading, math, science, and social studies were out the window. We didn’t have time for that.”

Key’s test gains have proven that refocusing the school was the right move, Davis said. Even so, he wishes his kids had more opportunities to explore their interests and get creative. That still strikes him as a more appealing part of education.

“Making those gains has made it all worthwhile,” Davis said. “I don’t know if it’s the best way to learn, but it is best way for these kids to learn. They need solid expectations and structure.”

Letting go of some favorite Key activities from years past, however, was tough. Top on Davis’ list is an eliminated class he’d like to have back called “flow.”

In the class, students were given an opportunity to select something to work on, perhaps writing a song or building a scale model. The goal is for students to learn deeply by forgetting the clock while they explore their interests.

Davis compares “flow” to the feeling he gets in his art studio.

“It was all about getting in the grove and time disappears,” he said. “Your learning just jumps.”

Count said she opposed cutting flow.

“I feel like students don’t get enough choice in school,” she said. “They should have an opportunity to discover what they like and develop their talents. Flow was a very good place for that to happen.”

In addition to taking up a lot of time, Seedhouse said, she felt flow as a class was sending kids the wrong message.

“It was inadvertently messaging kids you can only get into flow in the flow room not in the classroom,” she said. “But in theory it makes so much sense.”

Sanaah and Arielle said flow was one of their favorite classes, but perhaps for the wrong reasons.

“It was like playing games,” Arielle said. “Now we play a bit, but when we do we understand we are learning interpersonal skills.”

Sanaah looked wistful. “I really miss the games,” she said.

Chalkbeat Indiana is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.