The Power of Key: Celebrating 20 Years of Innovation at the Key Learning Community: The Key Learning Community in Indianapolis Was the First School in the World to Base Its Approach on the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Ms. Kunkel, Key's Principal, Reflects on the School's Continuing Growth and Success-Even in the Face of Pressures to Standardize-And Shares the History of Its Founding

Article excerpt

IN THE EARLY 1980s, eight teachers from Indianapolis Public School #113 decided that they were not happy with the direction in which education was then heading. So they began sharing books and articles in a formal effort to inform and improve their practice. In the course of their study, they came upon Frames of Mind, Howard Gardner's groundbreaking work in which he introduced the notion of multiple intelligences. Kathy Sahm, one of the eight teachers, recalls: "Each of us had a story of a child who was successful in the classroom, but when you looked at standardized tests or the progress report, you did not see the success. When Pat [Bolanos] brought us Howard's work, it just made sense." It seemed obvious to these educators that students were smart in many different ways and that standardized tests just weren't giving the whole picture.

While Frames of Mind was written for psychologists, not educators, the book nonetheless struck a chord with this group. Structuring a school around this theory, they hoped, would solve some of the problems created by the traditional practice of teaching to weaknesses, rather than strengths. The teachers wanted to broaden the narrow focus on standardized test scores in reading By Christine Kunkel

In October of 1984, the teachers learned that Howard Gardner was scheduled to give a talk in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, and they decided they needed to see what he thought of the idea of designing a school around his theory. They piled into their cars and drove from Indianapolis to northeastern Pennsylvania. When they met him and told him of their idea, Gardner said that he had never thought of using the multiple intelligences in the context of a school. "I remember thinking," he recalls in 2007, "these folks are serious. Pat [Bolanos] is like a force of nature. I will learn a lot more from them than vice versa. And I have."


The rest is history. The teachers returned to Indiana and began their work of developing a new theory-based school in earnest. They wrote a grant that allowed them to travel and visit progressive schools, talk to educational researchers, continue with their reading, and collaborate with administrators in the school district. They found the work of starting a school from scratch to be exciting and enriching, and they were energized by it. During the course of their study, they came upon the name "Key School" in John Goodlad's book A Place Called School. According to Goodlad, these "key" schools could be found in China. They are experimental schools "charged with the responsibility of developing exemplary practices extending beyond mere refinement of the conventional."(1)

Beverly Hoeltke, one of the teachers now known as the Key Founders, recalls that the development of the school was always a team effort, and the job was certainly big enough that it needed eight people. Gardner had suggested that they contact Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "So we went on a quest to connect to him and other theorists," Hoeltke recalls. "We also went out into the community and sought businesspeople, cultural leaders, heads of neighborhoods. We asked lots of people what they thought [of our ideas]. I think that was a very important process."

After their initial explorations, important pieces of the Key Founders' thinking began to come together. Right from the start, there was a strong commitment to build this new kind of educational opportunity within the public schools and to offer it to all children in Indianapolis. By the same token, it would be important for parents and students to make a commitment of their own. The original design thus included a promise from parents to attend three conferences each year and a promise from students to produce two high-quality projects per year. This essential element, which came to be known as the "Key Compact," remains a foundation of the school today.

Project work, the Key Founders decided, must be a central part of instruction. …