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Museums and Schools: Developing Intelligences Together

Dr. Howard Gardner has defined possibilities for new relationships between schools and museums which, if taken seriously, could change the nature of both types of institutions and the definition of education as well. His work has important implications for anyone involved as a docent or staff educator.

In his text. Multiple Intelligences, the Theory in Practice. Dr. Gardner sketches a possible ideal school:

In the morning, students study the traditional subject areas but in untraditional ways. Almost all the work in mathematics, social studies, reading and writing, and science takes the form of student projects. Students explore particular aspects of material in depth, addressing problems that confront professionals in the discipline …

… Students work through these projects, keeping their drafts, revisions, final products, and observations in a portfolio …. This documentation of the student’s … growth serves as a catalyst for her own reflections on herself as learner …. The student’s work is assessed b\ examining the final product, her thinking in forming it, and her plans for subsequent projects.

The second half of our school day is a natural extension of the first. During this time, students and teachers venture out into the community for further contextual exploring and learning. The younger children and their teachers often travel to a … children ‘s museum or participatory demonstration at the local theater, symphony, or art museum. The excursions differ from typical field trips because classes return to the same spots many times over the course of the year. Students can continue projects begun in previous visits … or hone their skills in favorite activities ….

Whether at the museum or our enriched school environment, children are allowed to explore freely and encouraged to ask questions. Teachers, aides, and other adults (including those who staff the field trip sites) jot down notes … about the children they are watching. Which students show interest or skill in particular activities or exhibits ? What sorts of questions do students ask? What tasks do they have difficulty with?

In our school, older students carry on this intellectual exploration in a more structured way. While continuing to spend mornings carrying out the projects of the basic core curriculum, they devote their afternoons to … apprenticeships …. They study intensively with … members of the community who possess expertise in a particular area …. (Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligences, The Theory in Practice, p. 75-77, Basic Books, 1993.)

If this becomes the way schools are organized, docents will have extended contact with the same individuals and classes over time. Visits to museums, parks, zoos, gardens, and historic sites will be much more participatory than they often are now. Docents will do more listening and observing than talking, and they will have a collaborative role with teachers in evaluating, planning, and shaping the work of individual students. When working with older children, docents may fulfill the role of masters for apprenticeships that would have the children working for extended periods under individual guidance on real projects of importance in the museum and community.

So, who is Howard Gardner? Where do these ideas come from? Are they as radical and far-fetched as they seem?

Dr. Gardner is a developmental and experimental psychologist. For many years, he has been associated with Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His developmental work with young children and his experimental work with brain-damaged adults convinced him that there is no such thing as a single quality called “intelligence” as measured by IQ tests.

Instead, he recognized that there are many different abilities and that each person has a unique profile of relative strengths. By comparing the development of different kinds of skills in children with what is known about the way specific abilities break down as a result of specific kinds of brain damage. Dr. Gardner began to isolate distinct “intelligences.”

In his book. Frames of Mind (1983), Gardner identified seven ways of knowing that he felt deserved the label “intelligences.” Besides linguistic and logical-mathematical, the two types commonly measured by IQ tests, he identified:

  • spatial – an ability to form and operate a mental model of a spatial world. (Exhibited by architects, engineers, surgeons, and sculptors, among others.)
  • musical – an ability to transform thoughts and ideas into sounds.
  • bodily-kinesthetic – an ability to solve problems using one’s whole body. (Exhibited by dancers, athletes, craftspeople, and others.)
  • interpersonal – an ability to understand other people and what motivates them. (Exhibited by salespersons, politicians, teachers, and other kinds of “leaders.”)
  • intrapersonal – an ability to understand oneself accurately and to apply those insights in effective living.

Gardner emphasizes that all people have all these intelligences to varying degrees and that different skills and activities require different combinations of intelligence. This new view of intelligence has an obvious implication for schools. If they are to educate all children, schools must broaden the types of learning activities offered and must measure progress in ways that reflect all the abilities of a person.

In his next work, Gardner looked at the outcomes of education as schools exist today with their overwhelming emphasis on reading and math skills. His research found that many top students with “high IQ’s” and advanced educations at Harvard and MIT still reverted to “commonsense” but incorrect ideas to explain why we experience different seasons of the year or what an eclipse is. Their explanations used more sophisticated language but were not very different from the ideas five-year-olds express.

In The Unschooled Mind (1991), Gardner suggests some changes in the way children are educated that might help create real understanding. He turned to two models to supplement what schools do. One is museums, especially children’s museums. The other is the ancient institution of apprenticeships, where students learn through extended practical experience with masters of a craft or trade.

Both offer hands-on experience with real objects and materials. Both are repeatable or ongoing over time. Both are available in the variety of real-world areas of interest. Both can be individualized and include elements of choice and selection by the learner. Both involve joint participation of school and community.

There are places where versions of Gardner’ s vision — interrelated schools and museums — are being tried. As part of his research, Gardner’s Project Zero conducted a preschool program at the Boston Children’s Museum. The Exploratorium in San Francisco has a program for student “Explainers” where junior docents work in an apprentice-like situation. It also has a “School in the Exploratorium” for teachers to acquire concrete experience with a variety of scientific and artistic concepts. The Capitol Children’s Museum in Washington, D.C., has created the National Learning Center, a school-within-a-museum.

In other places the idea has been turned inside out, and schools are establishing museum/laboratories within their walls. The public preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, are world-famous for their “ateliers” (art-room laboratories) and their museum-like use of display and documentation of projects. Howard Gardner has written the introduction to The Hundred Languages of Children by Lela Gandini, which describes this approach.

Seven conferences on Reggio Emilia and/or Gardner’ s work were held in the U.S. between April and July of 1994. The ideas are reaching a wide audience. For instance, an elementary school in the small town of Hotchkiss, Colorado, has been remodeled around a central area that will combine the resources of library, media center, computer center, art room, laboratory, and hands-on museum with exhibits reflecting a school wide common theme of study. Such projects are spreading around the country. To foster the growth of all the intelligences of all our children, and to make sure that real learning, grounded in concrete experience, undergirds understanding are worthy goals for any community. Creating a museum within a school or a school within a museum is a structural approach to ensure such an educational program. It offers exceptional possibilities where financial and administrative support are available.

New possibilities for education of all intelligences can exist in any community. If schools and existing museums establish more active partnerships they can enrich the core education of all students and develop the special gifts of each.

The roles of docents in such community partnerships will be broader and more important than ever. Skills of listening, observing, questioning, and documenting will be added to those of providing information and stimulating interest. Docents will become more active partners with teachers as community educators.

Cleta Booth is past President of Wyoming Children ‘s Museum and Nature Center in Laramie, WY, where she also serves as a docent. Formerly the Vice President for Programming at the Children ‘s Museum of Richmond, VA, Ms. Booth has been an early childhood educator for over 20 years. Her article, “Peek and Do! Making Museum Visits Meaningful for the Youngest,” appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of The Docent Educator.

Booth, Cleta. “Museums and Schools: Developing Intelligences Together,” The Docent Educator 5.2(Winter 1995/96): 16-17.


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