Multiple Intelligences at the Middle Level: Models for Learning in Art and across the Disciplines

By Simmons, Seymour, III | Art Education, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Multiple Intelligences at the Middle Level: Models for Learning in Art and across the Disciplines


Simmons, Seymour, III, Art Education


Adolescence is, on many counts, a time of crisis both inwardly and outwardly. Bodily changes affect coordination and self-concept, while hormonal shifts can unhinge the emotions. Intellectually, adolescents have not quite shed the magical/concrete thinking of childhood, yet strive, at least in argumentation, for the rationality of adults (Piaget & Inhelder, 1967). Such personal ambiguities are, of course, exacerbated by cultural ones. Unlike traditional societies where rites of passage usher 13-year-olds directly into adulthood, U.S. society suspends adolescents for years or the cusp between childish indulgence and adult responsibility (Kessler, 1999-2000). Small wonder so many adolescents try on the mantel of maturity by experimenting with adult indulgences like drugs, sexual exploration, crime, and other self-destructive acts (Michael, 1983).

All these conflicts surface visibly in the art room, whether as controversial imagery or confrontational behavior (Henley, 1997). Artistically, too, middle-schoolers sit uncomfortably "in the middle." No longer satisfied with elementary forms of expression, they are also all too aware of their incapacity to achieve the realism they associate with adult art (Simpson et al, 1998; Davis, 1997). This frustration leads many young people to quit art, while others, perhaps more capable, may stop because art's not "cool," or because of pressure by parents or teachers to concentrate on academics. All this can make the middleschool art room a challenging place to be.

Yet, the Chinese language reminds us that "crisis" can also mean "opportunity." Successful middle school art teachers know this for a fact and capitalize on the energy of adolescents to make art an opportunity for many to achieve a sense of mastery and self-respect (Wolf, 1997). The question remains, however: How can success be achieved by students of all types and levels of ability? This article attempts to address that issue by looking at middle level (6th-8th grade) art instruction through the lens of multiple intelligence (MI) theory (Gardner, 1983). MI provides not simply a justification for art in schools, but a framework for teaching art in a more comprehensive way in order to reach a greater range of students. This approach may also help legitimately link arts education to learning in academic disciplines (Eisner, 1998).

Linking Theory to Practice

Since its formulation in 1983 by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, Multiple Intelligence theory has become a major force in educational reform. MI, as the name implies, opposes the common view of so called "general intelligence," a singular and fixed capacity that can be measured by a standardized IQ test (Spearman, 1927 and 1904). These tests, it is argued, emphasize logical/mathematical and linguistic skill and so short change those with different abilities. Not surprisingly, many of the differently-able come from minority populations with cultural backgrounds and values unlike the middle-class Caucasians for and by whom the tests were first designed (Neisser [Ed.], 1998; Jensen, 1980; Lemann, 1993). Gardner strives to be more democratic. He opposes the intellectual bell curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994) in which few are "haves" and many, "have nots," and affirms that everyone has his or her own unique MI profile. Normally all the intelligences are present, but with particular strengths and inevitable weaknesses. As MI researcher Bruce Torff put it, this shifts the question from "How smart are you?" to "How are you smart?"

According to critics, besides being elitist, IQ tests and the like are typically not authentic (Wiggins, 1989). They test how well people can take a particular kind of test, but not how well they can apply their knowledge. Focusing on authentic application while accommodating diverse capacities, Gardner redefines intelligence as the "ability to solve problems or to fashion a product... that is valued in at least one culture" (Gardner in Moody, 1989). …

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