Utopian Schools

By Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.

(Originally published in Mothering, Summer, 1989;  revised and republished in Mothering, Winter 1996 [“The Best of  Mothering 1976-1996])

(c) Thomas Armstrong, 1989, 1996

Hardly anyone talks about educational utopias anymore.  We seem to be too  caught up with test scores, basic skills, teacher burnout. school violence, and so-called excellence to be concerned with visions of what our schools reallv could be at their best.

The early 1970s gave rise to exciting books like George Leonard’s Education and Ecstasy and John Mann’s Learning to Be, which painted fantasy pictures of futuristic schools that educated the total spectrum of human capability.  In Leonard’s book, children used computer-assisted technology to interact with humanity’s rich collection of symbol systems.  Mann’s book described a utopian school where children attended “empathy classes” and simulated trips to Mars. Just 20 vears later, some of these fantasies seem laughably outdated, whereas others are just now being realized.  In their time, however, these books revealed a freshness of vision and an unabashed impulse to explore the heights of possibility in education.  We just don’t seem to do much exploring in this hardheaded era.

Perhaps we can bring together the idealism of the 1970s with the materialism of the 1980s and 1990s to produce utopian schools grounded in the here and now.  Already many fine schools are headed in this direction.  Waldorf education, as a whole, best exemplifies a true living out of utopian principles (and these schools were envisioned 70 years ago!).  Individual public and independent schools across the country have likewise taken inspiration from mystics, philosophers, psychologists, and educators to create shining examples of schools reaching for the best.

A New Paradigm

Parents and educators in search of a new paradigm for schools can find a wealth of inspiration in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  Dr. Gardner, a psychologist and co-director of Harvard Project Zero, is the author of Frames of Mind, a veritable handbook for educational utopias.  In this book he suggests that our concept of intelligence–fashioned from years of standardized IQ testing–is far too limited.

According to Gardner, we possess not one but eight distinct forms of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist.  This particular theory differs from most other human potential approaches because it is supported by current research in neuropsychology, psychological testing, and child development, as well as cross-cultural studies and biographical accounts of exceptional scientists, artists, musicians, and other highly skilled individuals.  Gardner argues convincingly that Western society as a whole, and our schools in particular, reinforce linguistic and logical-mathematical forms of intelligence while neglecting other ways of knowing.   Teachers love children who are good with words and logic.  However, children who show ability in dance, art, music, social relations, intuition, drama, nature, and other areas of self-expression tend not to receive as much recognition.  In my own research, I have found that many children with talents in these neglected intelligences are likely to be labeled “learning disabled” or ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) if they do not perform adequately on assigned worksheets and pop quizzes.

The irony is that, despite today’s emphasis on the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, most students are not excelling academically in these areas.  Test results–poor indicators that they are–reflect a shocking decline in linguistic and mathematical achievement when compared both with past results and those of other world cultures.  Could it be that children learn best when their entire range of capability is addressed and when multiple connections are encouraged in a balanced way?  Might it be that the learning process requires engaged and meaningful contact with a broad spectrum of classroom methods and activities?

Full-Spectrum Learning Environment

Gardner’s model of the eight intelligences provides a solidly grounded structure that can be used in designing a full-spectrum learning environment for children.  Because  each child possesses all eight of these intelligences, a truly integrated curriculum can be developed to address every intelligence in a balanced way. And because, according to my experience, each child has a unique way of emphasizing certain intelligences over others, parents and teachers also need to appreciate individual differences and use approaches tailored to each child’s constellation of learning abilities and needs.

A child’s strength in a particular intelligence is evidenced in the specific way in which he or she processes information.   Primarily linguistic children, for example, learn through words; logical-mathematical children learn through logical patterns, numbers, and reasoning, spatial children, through pictures and images, bodily-kinesthetic children, through tactile and bodily sensations; musical children, through melody and rhythm; interpersonal children, through social interaction; intrapersonal children, through introspection; and naturalist children, through nature experiences. (See In Their Own Way and 7 Kinds of Smart, for more on the intelligences,) Here are some educational tools that can meet this broad range of learning abilities:

Linguistic intelligence: Books, tape recorders, typewriters, word processing software, label makers, printing sets, storytelling, talking books, writing materials, discussions, debates, and public speaking.

Logical-mathematical intelligence: Strategy games (chess, checkers, go), logic puzzles (Rubik’s Cube), science kits, computer programming software, nature equipment, brain teasers, Cuisenaire rods, and detective games.

Spatial intelligence: Films, slides, videos, diagrams, charts, maps, art supplies, cameras, telescopes, graphic design software, three-dimensional building supplies (Legos, D-Stix), optical illusions, visualization activities, and drafting materials.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence:  Playgrounds, obstacle courses, hiking trails, swimming pools, gymnasiums, model-building kits, wood-carving sets, modeling clay animals, sports equipment, space to move, carpentry materials, machines, and costumes for drama.

Musical intelligence: Percussion instruments, metronomes, computerized sound systems, CDs and tapes, musical instruments (pianos, guitars, saxophones), the human voice, sounds of nature, and things to strum, tap, pluck, and blow into.

Interpersonal intelligence: Clubs, committees, afterschool programs, social events, cooperative learning, interactive software, Internet, group games and projects, discussions, simulations, competitive and noncompetitive sports, and peer teaching.

Intrapersonal intelligence:  Self-paced instruction, individualized projects, solo games and sports, forts, tree houses, lofts and other retreat spaces, diaries and journals, meditation, and self-esteem activities.

Naturalist intelligence: Aquariums, trips to the zoo, nature walks, gerbils and other small animals, ant farms, gardening, terrariums, and ecology projects.

Brainstorming for Today’s Classroom

Parents and teachers interested in a truly holistic education can brainstorm strategies using the above activities.  One way to begin is to designate a specific area in the classroom for each of the eight intelligences.  For example, each classroom might include a book nook (linguistic), a math/science lab (logical-mathematical), an art area (spatial), a carpeted open space (bodilv-kinesthetic), a listening/performing center (musical), a group discussion table (interpersonal), a quiet loft (intrapersonal), and an ecology center (naturalist).

Another way of applying Gardner’s model is to design eight different ways of teaching a given skill, using the symbol systems of each intelligence.  To teach reading, for example, a teacher could link up the word-based symbol system to spatial intelligence by having children learn to read through rebuses (drawings that represent words, such as a picture of a bee to designate the word be) or by presenting the alphabet pictorially (a picture of a snake evolving into the letter s).  Musically, children can learn to read by singing the lyrics to songs with simple vocabularies.  Kinesthetically, children might pantomime written words or trace letters on each other’s backs.  Mathematical children might learn reading more easily when it is presented logically or through a computer software program.   Interpersonally oriented children would probably enjoy leading a reading group or teaching a younger child to read, whereas intrapersonal children might prefer to teach themselves to read by going off to a corner somewhere in the classroom.  The naturalist might enjoy reading about lizards or the rainforest.

Many schools–some unaware of Gardner’s model–have already implemented the spectrum of intelligences in their classrooms.  Certainly, Waldorf and Montessori schools integrate the eight intelligences in their own way, and open classrooms have been using “activity areas” for years.  In 1986, the Key School, in Indianapolis, Indiana, was one of the first US public schools to officially adopt Gardner’s theory in organizing its curriculum.  Since then, hundreds of other schools have followed suit.

Gardner’s educational model articulates an ideal that many parents and teachers have cherished for years: There are many ways of learning and knowing.  At the same time, it expresses this ideal in a clear way that can be directly applied to any number of learning environments.   Emerging from the cognitive revolution of the last two decades, it nevertheless embodies principles that progressive and open educators have valued for decades.   Most importantly, this model gives those of us who still love the idea of educational utopias a way to bring our lofty visions down to earth, where they can be realized in the lives of children.

For more information, read Thomas Armstrong, The Best Schools: How Human Development Research Should Inform Educational Practice

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

Follow me on Twitter:  @Dr_Armstrong

Subscribe to my blog feed

Share This: