Renovating to Support the Seven Ways Students Are Smart

Ask educators what intelligence is and you’re sure to receive complicated answers and strong opinions. In the last ten years, the traditional concept of intelligence as a single attribute has been hotly debated. While the intelligence quotient (IQ) concept has been around since the early 1900s, it is now being challenged by Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (MI).

Most administrators would agree that, if research indicates a new method of teaching works, it should be used. But, while educational theory can turn on a dime, bricks and mortar can’t. How can you renovate an existing facility so that it supports multiple intelligences? Here’s how one administrator did it.

The Saltonstall School
Saltonstall School, in Salem, Mass., was built as a K-8 building in 1916. Fifteen years ago it was turned into a middle school. With an increasing student population, the district needed more classrooms, and a recent decision was made to renovate and add to the building. The Boston-based architectural firm Earl R. Flansburgh + Associates, Inc., was chosen to assist with the project.

The goal of the renovation was to create an incubator for innovative programs in elementary education statewide. Because the facility was old and still had many original features, such as a wood-burning fireplace, the district didn’t have the opportunity to start from scratch. "The footprint of each room was pretty much set," says principal Dr. Kathy Corley, which meant that they had to work primarily within the existing 800- to 900-square-foot rooms.

Corley, along with teachers and education professors from Salem State College, was given the opportunity to direct every aspect of the facility’s renovation and education philosophy--from the building design to the school calendar. She knew that it was unusual to be given such free rein from a superintendent, and she didn’t take the responsibility lightly.

Students were moved to one of the district’s other middle schools for the duration of the project, which was completed in the winter of 1996. The school now has 21 classrooms (housing 24 students each), a science discovery center, computer lab, media center, parent center, auditorium and nurse’s clinic. It is home to 371 students, with capacity for 520. The building serves pre-K to fifth grade and is open 12 months per year, in six sessions of six weeks each.

MI Theory
One of the decisions made by the educators responsible for the renovation was to incorporate Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (see box on page 17). In Gardner’s theory, intelligence is defined as the ability to solve real-world problems and the ability to make something or offer a service that is valued within one’s culture. Within his framework Gardner has identified seven distinct types of intelligence--verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, musical, visual/spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

According to MI theory, one form of intelligence is no better than another—all are equally valuable and viable. Yet, Gardner’s research indicated that different cultures are biased toward or against certain types of intelligence. Our Western, North American culture, for instance, favors verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical intelligences and tends to undervalue others. These biases, added to the traditional theory of intelligence, have influenced the manner in which most schools are designed and equipped.

Gardner says that, traditionally, we try to produce great lawyers. We want students to write and speak well, to be able to solve problems and do math. Unfortunately, if a student has great artistic ability, he or she may not excel in the traditional classroom with traditional teaching methods. However, Corley suggests, "If someone can reach the artistic student and say, ‘Art is your ticket to the rest of the world--your ticket to understanding,’" then that student may have better academic success.

When it came to renovating Saltonstall, MI theory was a primary consideration. "You don’t want the facility to drive the educational program--you want the educational program to drive the facility," says Corley. Unfortunately, the school didn’t have the money it needed to modify the facility in the most desirable way. Because of this, she and the other educators involved had to focus on what changes to the facility would best support the implementation of MI theory. They also had to find ways to stretch their limited renovation budget. Here are the seven areas they zeroed in on to make the renovation a success.

  1. Focus on Technology.
    Technology is important to MI theory because computers, with appropriate software, can reach students through any of the five MI entry points (see box on page 17). Good multimedia programs present material verbally, spatially, musically and logically. Because of the interaction with the mouse and keyboard there is also a kinesthetic aspect to technology. Access to computers in each classroom was a critical component of the renovation.

    Rewiring the school was necessary to make technology available to all classrooms. Corley says, "In older buildings, there is often one electric outlet on each wall. You have to be able to support a listening center, computers, overhead projector, VCR and television in each classroom." Saltonstall now has 146 networked PowerMacs--four in each classroom and 25 more in the computer lab. Students use approximately 50 different software programs.

  2. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.
    Corley’s renovation strategy was to put facilities money where it would provide the most bang for the buck. To make the cut, renovations had to help students learn. If students didn’t benefit, she did everything in her power not to spend the money. "We had about $475,000 in contingency money," she notes. By preserving that money, the school was able to purchase most of the technology it needed.

    "We tried to avoid change orders wherever possible," Corley adds. "For example, we originally planned to break down the walls in five small storage rooms to make larger rooms, including a technology office." Unfortunately, construction workers found asbestos and lead in those walls. "It would have cost $50,000 to $70,000 to fix it," she recalls. Because she viewed every thousand dollars as a computer, she didn’t want to spend 50 to 70 computers modifying those rooms. So she said, "Just don’t do it. As long you don’t disturb the material, you can leave it as it is."

    Many other problem areas were also worked around or avoided. For instance, the art room still has a fireplace from the original building. One of the storage rooms has a huge rock protruding out of the floor. No one knows why it’s there. (Perhaps it couldn’t be removed in 1916 during the school’s original construction.) Leaving these areas untouched allowed money to be shifted to areas that supported MI and other focus points of the curriculum.

  3. Make the Tough Calls.
    There were literally hundreds of difficult decisions to be made during the renovation. Corley and her team had to make tough choices that best supported MI. She recalls, "The architects said to me, ‘It’s $1,000 for each one of those sinks in the classrooms. How about taking them out of the plan?’ But I could not go back to the teachers if I took the sinks out. The sinks were a priority." Sinks might seem extravagant, but are critical to the MI concept. A sink in each classroom allows students to do art and science projects without having to travel to a special room. It saves on creating special function areas and increases the number of activities that support students with high spatial and kinesthetic intelligence.

  4. Get People Involved Early in the Process.
    Getting everyone with a vested interest in the building involved early is important to saving money and keeping occupants happy. Unfor-tunately, some decisions were made before Corley joined the renovation team. For instance, office windows facing hallways were replaced with solid walls. "Had I been involved in the design process earlier, I would have kept all of the windows," she says. From a principal’s standpoint, windows allow constant visual contact with students--something that she believes is a great behavior management tool. She suggests that curtains could have been used for private meetings and may have been less expensive as well. But, because she was trying to avoid change orders and the walls were already under construction, the windows were removed.

  5. Make Informed Decisions.
    Corley and the other educators aren’t facilities experts--but they knew whom to ask for advice. She believes that the people closest to an area usually give the best input--for instance, teachers on classroom design or custodians on flooring selection.

    Teachers made many classroom design suggestions that were implemented. Besides the sinks mentioned earlier, teachers wanted passageways added between classrooms so that students didn’t need to go into the hall to get to an adjacent room. At Saltonstall, each classroom houses two grades (i.e., K-1, 2-3 and 4-5). Teachers often share students, so the passageways were a big convenience. The passageways also provided extra room for storage.

    Corley asked custodians how much carpet should be used in the classrooms. She was told that it didn’t make sense to carpet classrooms entirely if sinks were being placed there. Custodians suggested wet areas around the sinks. They also mentioned that students often eat and spill things in primary classrooms, so part of each classroom includes vinyl flooring for messy activities.

  6. Create Multipurpose Areas.
    Creating areas that can be used for several activities helped stretch Salton-stall’s renovation budget. Multipurpose areas also support MI theory because they allow for activities that focus on different intelligences. For instance, Saltonstall’s auditorium has no fixed seating. While this means that chairs need to be set up for large groups, it also means that the cheerleading, dance and karate clubs have a space to meet-- something that would not be available if fixed seating were used.

    Besides adding visual appeal to the building facade, balconies bring the outdoors into more classrooms. Classroom balconies are used as functional learning areas. One instructor, teaching early maritime trade, set up drying racks on his balcony and had students make salt cod. Other teachers use the balconies for studying weather and science topics.

    At Saltonstall, you’ll find the teacher’s lunchroom and the parent center each equipped with a stove and oven. "I remember the architect giving me a rough time about the stove/oven combination," says Corley. The architect didn’t think that teachers would cook their lunches. "I know that teachers don’t cook their lunches," she continues, "but a lot of the K-1 classes’ science experiments have to do with cooking." The stoves and ovens supported the school’s MI curriculum. The appliances also supported the school’s extracurricular activities: Every Friday a baking club and an ethnic cooking club meet in the two rooms --well worth the small added expense.

    At a time when many schools are eliminating music programs altogether, Saltonstall is investing in them. All K-1 classes take violin lessons. Why such an emphasis on music? For two reasons. First, studies have shown that there is a connection between music exposure and increased math ability--specifically, spatial intelligence. Second, some students have high musical intelligence, and this program supports them. Corley chides, "Pay me now or pay me later. We have lots of special ed staffing. I predict that our school will have fewer kids in special ed as time goes on because of our use of multiple intelligences." It was decided that the school could afford to devote space to a large music room by also using it for afterschool child care. The local Campfire Boys and Girls provide after school programs that are paid for by parents--a great way to amortize the expense of a large room with a specialized purpose.

  7. Allocate Space for a Flow Room.
    One of the most innovative features of the Saltonstall School is its flow room. Flow is a concept created by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He believes that, if you get involved in a task that is difficult for you, yet is interesting, you will lose all track of time and go deeper and deeper into your work. You may have experienced flow while doing some activity that you love--perhaps skiing, playing chess or working in the garden. Flow is a focused state of attention, almost a trance, in which the outside world fades away. One of the important aspects of flow is that it teaches students to invest time and effort in difficult tasks--a skill that can be used throughout their educational and work careers. Flow is connected to MI in that students are more likely to have flow experiences in activities that they find interesting. These activities may not be what they would typically experience in the classroom.

At Saltonstall, an entire classroom was given up to provide space for the flow room. The room includes a stage for dramatic performances, a reading area and tables for projects with manipulatives. By sharing the room among all classes, the school is able to use the theory without providing those design elements in every classroom. Activities that focus on each of the seven intelligences can be found in the room.

The flow room also provides a way for teachers to observe students’ multiple intelligence preferences, strengths and weaknesses. Teachers bring their classes to the flow room every week or two. They observe the children as they work on self-selected activities. Corley says, "If a child is very kinesthetically talented, for instance, and can manipulate things well, but is having trouble with reading, you can use the knowledge from the flow room back in the classroom."

Do Corley and other educators consider the renovation and implementation of MI theory at Saltonstall a success? Absolutely. And, while educators are pleased with students’ ability to learn at the school, the numbers show that parents are ecstatic. Families can request that their children attend any school in the district as long as seats are available. For September 1997, Saltonstall has 110 kindergarten applications for 55 available seats. There are waiting lists for second and third grade, too--proving that everybody wants to learn at the school of the seven intelligences.

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