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Art to Heart

The Key Learning Community

What led eight teachers in Indianapolis to found a school based on Howard Gardner’s ideas of multiple intelligences?

“We were working at a very large elementary school [more than 1,000 children], and we began working with theme curriculum,” recalls Beverly Hoeltke, one of the teachers. Arts specialists at the school suggested a circus theme. “We did a three-ring circus, and it was so successful we were astounded. We didn’t have behavior problems. Children were really excited about school; they didn’t want it to stop. So that intrigued us.”

The teachers had also noticed that some children in their classrooms who had been labeled “failures” were very talented in the arts. They began investigating theories in education and found Howard Gardner’s book Frames of Mind. With its ideas that there are different types of intelligences, the book “answered a lot of the questions we had as far as why these children might not be succeeding in linguistics but could do a lot of other things,” Hoeltke says.

Making Connections

The teachers visited Gardner, and he told them about the flow theory of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. “So we began to make connections,” Hoeltke says. “We really were on a bigger quest than we imagined in that we were trying to find out what education should look like that would allow children to develop their multiple intelligences.”

They put their answer into practice at the Key Learning Community, which opened in 1987 as an elementary school and has since expanded to serve students in grades K-12. It’s something quite different from most public schools.

  • At Key, children spend about as much time in music, art, and physical education classes as they do on subjects such as reading and math.
  • Elementary children spend time in individual exploration in “flow” classes, based on Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of a beneficial state in which people are so involved in what they’re doing that they lose track of time. “Flow basically teaches students how to make decisions, how to reflect on their thoughts, reflect on what they’re doing, and then also to use that information to have a more successful and meaningful life,” says Key elementary specialist Nicole Cooreman.
  • Learning is project-based. Two school themes are chosen each year, with student input.
  • All students, even kindergartners, are required to do two in-depth individual projects each year and present them to fellow students. The presentations are taped.
  • In middle school, students are matched with community mentors. In high school, each student works with a community guide in an apprenticeship situation.
  • Students spend time each day in “pod” classes—electives they choose that are developed by teachers who have an interest in the subject. (The Key Strummers ukulele class shown in Art to Heart is an example of a pod class.)
  • The school has no competitive sports teams.
  • Children do not receive letter grades; instead, they are evaluated in terms of progress made along a continuum of learning.

“The philosophy in the school has to do with developing students who are able to direct their lives,” says principal Christine Kunkel. “By focusing on all eight intelligences as equally as we can, that really helps the students to begin to recognize their own strengths and build a foundation for what they’re good at, what they like to do—learning how to recognize it and then taking that into the career realm.”

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