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“Can I Pick More Than One Project?” Case Studies of Five Teachers Who Used MI-Based Instructional Planning

by M. Gail Hickey - 2004

Five middle grades teachers developed and implemented MI-based units of instruction. Participants experienced varying levels of collegial support for MI-based instruction, found students both embraced and avoided learning choices, noted importance of students' realizing their own personal learning strength(s), and reported motivation for continued MI use in instructional planning.

The theory of multiple intelligences suggests children learn, process information about their world, and express their knowledge in different ways. Howard Gardner, who is credited with developing the theory and launching the creation of a related instructional model, argues against the notion that theres only one way to learn how to read, only one way to learn how to compute, only one way to learn about biology (Bintrim 2001).

Adherents to multiple intelligences (MI) currently recognize eight kinds of intelligence present in the human population: logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, bodily kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, intra- personal, verbal/linguistic, and naturalistic. Formal instruction in schools, however, tends to concentrate learning opportunities in two major areas: linguistic and mathematical/logical. In his book Frames of Mind, Gardner (1993) recommends educators use MI theory within classrooms in ways that honor differences inherent in students learning processes. Gardner states:

It is of the utmost importance that we recognize and nurture all of the varied human intelligences, and all of the combinations of intelligences. If we recognize this, I think we will have at least a better chance of dealing appropriately with the many problems that we face in the world.

While agreement among educational theorists on the viability of the MI theory for classroom instruction is far from universal (see, e.g., Eisner, 1994; Gardner, 1994; Levin, 1994; and Sternberg, 1994), there is much support for the implications MI holds for promoting a more balanced approach to education. At a time when national curriculum standards and mandated testing define the educational norm, working toward a more balanced approach to education remains a vital interest among concerned educators. Eisner (1994) confirms this when he affirms Gardners work as extremely important and writes, My hope is that those prescribing uniform national standards, related to uniform national goals, assessed by uniform national tests, will rethink the implications of their own ideas in light of the perspectives that Howard Gardner has provided (p. 560).

Twenty years after Gardners MI theory first was published, one might anticipate students in multiple contexts would have been exposed to instruction which recognize[s] and nurture[s] all of the human intelligences (Gardner, 1993). Indeed, a plethora of instructional resources exists that illustrate the basic tenets of MI theory. Some of these resources offer teachers general suggestions for applying MI theory to classroom instruction (see, e.g., Armstrong, 2000; Campbell, 1996; Chapman, 1993). As these resources demonstrate, supporters of the MI theory call for teachers to adopt multiple intelligences theory because of its potential for motivating increased learning from a wide range of students, and use multiple intelligences theory during instructional planning. Armstrong (2000) advises MI theory can serve as a template for instructional planning to facilitate student learning and achievement.

In spite of repeated urgings from MI adherents, it would appear individual classroom teachers have not yet begun to visualize MI theory as a template for instructional planning. Few specific examples of actual classroom teachers use of multiple intelligences theory in day-to-day instructional planning are available in the literature (Silver, Strong, & Perini, 2000). Why this should be the case-more than two decades following the general acceptance by the MI theory by the educational community-is a mystery. The literature on multiple intelligences, however, does provide some descriptive studies of MI application at the building level. Hoerrs (2000) work provides detail on New City Schools attempts to develop a school-wide multiple intelligences emphasis in the St. Louis area. Campbell and Campbells (1999) book summarizes how schools in five states attempt application of MI theory. Examples of individual teachers application of MI theory within the context of an instructional unit, on the other hand, are rare.

An even greater dearth of studies involving middle grades teachers application of MI theory exists. Some educators feel alternative learning models are more appropriately applied in the early grades, since students at the middle and high school levels are expected to get serious about learning. Such narrow perceptions of learning tend to contribute to the alienation many adolescents exhibit toward schools and the learning process. Armstrong (2000) believes the following:

Children do not leave their multiple intelligences behind once they reach puberty. If anything, the intelligences become even more intense (especially bodily-kinesthetic and the personal intelligences). Consequently, students should be learning their algebra, ancient history, government, chemistry, literature and more through multiple intelligences.

There is a need for specific examples of individual teachers applications of multiple intelligences theory to unit planning, due to the dearth of such examples in the related literature. This article describes five classroom teachers attempts to design and implement MI-based social studies units of instruction at the upper elementary/middle level. Examples include thematic units featuring topics from history, geography, literature, and music.

Gardners (1994) perspective of MI theory as an educational catalyst stems from the way it encourages parents and teachers to look more carefully at children, to examine their own assumptions about potential and achievement, to consider a variety of approaches to teaching, to try out alternative forms of assessment-in short, to begin the fundamental kind of self-transformation that is necessary if schooling is to improve significantly (p. 582). The five participants in this small study drew on Gardners perspective of the MI model as a form of self-transformation when the study began and revisited the perspective repeatedly during the course of the study.

The author uses a heuristic phenomenological approach (Moustakas,

1994) to explore how upper elementary/middle grades teachers approach the development of social studies instructional units incorporating multiple intelligences theory and in what ways the teachers and their students respond to units taught using the MI model. According to Moustakas (1994), heuristic inquiry is a process that begins with a problem or question for which the researcher seeks understanding or illumination. Essential to a fuller understanding of the problem or question under exploration is interaction with participants who also share in the research journey.

Data sources include five social studies thematic units appropriate for Grades 58 designed to reflect attention to multiple intelligences, reflective journals kept by teachers who designed the units, and notes taken during focus group discussions. The units were developed and classroom-tested by individual teachers enrolled in a graduate course about multiple intelligences theory.



Audrey1 teaches sixth grade in a parochial elementary (K6) school. She developed a Middle Ages/Renaissance unit based on MI strategies. Audreys sixth-grade students worked in small craft guild groups to complete the following Middle Ages projects/activities: decide on a craft or hobby to represent your guild; design a billboard-type sign to advertise your guild; develop a motto or advertising slogan to communicate your guilds specialty; plan a price list for the types of items sold by your guild; make a sample craft to sell during the classs medieval town simulation. Next, students worked independently on Renaissance projects/activities such as the following: Imagine you live in a European town circa 1300 and must compose prose or song to invite tourists to enjoy the attractions of your town; prepare an oral report on one city, either Bruges, Cologne, Geneva, Ghent, London, and inform listeners about the citys early beginnings, its rise and growth, and its position in todays world; create a map of the three main routes to the East used during the Middle Ages/Renaissance eras; sketch a building from the Middle Ages; report on the Bayeux tapestry and design your own tapestry with fabrics using sewing materials or glue; review examples of Renaissance art and create an original work of art in a similar style; construct a timeline that includes names and brief statements about Dante, Petrarch, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Erasmus, Rembrandt, Bacon, and Chaucer; compose and perform your own version of a Medieval hymn; after reviewing notable discoveries in science and mathematics from the Renaissance era, create a minibook of 10 or more science and math puzzlers appropriate for students at the middle school level.

When Audrey presented her students with packets describing choices they might make for the two major projects during their study of the Renaissance, they came alive with enthusiasm and motivation. Not all students, however, benefited from student choice as expected. Audrey reports a few students selected projects that were not their dominant intelligence. One student in particular, Audrey recalls, who is not math savvy, picked a project involving math and science . . . and struggled.

Audrey rearranged her classroom seating chart to reflect composition of the student guilds for their Renaissance unit and reports the decision helped tremendously for the interpersonal intelligence students. . . .[She] worked to make sure that each group was equally balanced with various intelligences. Audrey believes this sense of balance helped cooperative groups be more productive. When students find their own area(s) of learning strength, they show excitement and pride as they work, Audrey reflects. This [MI] model has proved very useful to me this year, she says, and I plan to use it in the years to come.



Gay is a middle school (grades 68) music teacher. Students in Gays music appreciation class previously had developed research papers on African American musicians. Students shared key information from these research papers with one another, then considered musical elements such as syncopation, call and response, and improvisation brought to the American music arena by African Americans. Gays students learned how the social and economic characteristics of the 1950s and 1960s influenced the music of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, respectively. Finally, students explored alternate rock styles and the birth of hip-hop music. Students approached the study of each musical period and style using a variety of choices, such as mime, role play, original rap, demonstrations, presentation of musical collages, art work, or oral reports.

Initially, Gay believed music teachers could not defensibly teach an instructional unit based on MI. As she listened to her classmates, talked with her instructor, and read the MI literature, however, Gay began to see possibilities and connections that could enhance her students study of the African roots of American rock and roll music. Gay reports, The students who were the most unmotivated to complete academic work were some of the most motivated to participate in [the MI-based unit].

When reflecting on the students involvement with the MI-based unit in her classroom, Gay states

students are not only more actively engaged in the lessons, but they are also remembering the information for a longer period of time than I could have ever imagined before starting [the MI-based unit]. They are starting to show more understanding of relationships between different [musical] eras and artists. I am surprised and impressed with the results in student learning.

Some students in Gays class were considered to be low achievers in traditional academic subjects. Gay notes these students-whose written expression skills were below grade level-felt relieved to be able to use their artistic, dance, or writing talents to show what they had learned without being saddled with the burden of written work. Gay continues, Now that I have seen how the integration of multiple intelligences into their music history lessons impacts their learning. Im curious to see how we could use [MI-based instruction] with their music theory lessons. I truly believe that the benefits far outweigh the difficulties.


Trent teaches seventh-grade social studies at a suburban middle school. Students in Trents high-ability class previously had studied a variety of ancient and modern cultures and had developed a Five Themes of Geography Outline for each culture studied. For the MI-based unit, they thought creatively about the future of society while applying the five themes of geography: location, movement, region, human-environment interaction, and place. Students brainstormed: What will life be like 1,000 years from now? Would transportation be the same? Would people live elsewhere? Students included information about each of the five themes in their responses.

Students developed a Five Themes of Geography Outline for the futuristic society they envisioned during the brainstorming activity. Trent shared information about MI with the class at this point. Individual students selected an area of their futuristic society they most wanted to develop further - such as transportation, economics, food, lodging, or entertainment - and recorded their conceptualization on a sketch representing brainstormed ideas. Finally, students were challenged to use their personal area(s) of intellectual strength to study how their conceptualization might be developed, and to present their work to the class as a whole.

At Trents middle school, the MI model allegedly is supported by all teachers and administrators. In practice, however, Trent found using MI takes a large amount of will. After studying the MI literature and talking with his classmates, Trent decided to enrich and extend his high ability students study of problems of the future through MI-related geography activities. Some students still preferred to select assignments that were safe for them because they feared getting a poor grade for trying something new, Trent reports. While Trents students initially selected safe activities involving the familiar reading/writing format, eventually many students became enthusiastic about opportunities for choice. Giving students choices for pursuing knowledge or skills related to content studied always is helpful, Trent notes, but when choices are defined through MI theory even my troublemakers seem to be more on task, and their grades were improved.

In his journal, Trent wonders why, given opportunities to try alternative activities, many students chose to complete the more familiar verbal/ linguistic or visual/artistic assignments:

I thought maybe it was peer pressure they felt, not wanting to try something different or the pressure to conform. Maybe it was an attitude that they always had done a project in [verbal/written format]. They feared changing. Maybe it was the topic itself that allows for a lot of visual and verbal responses. Or, could it be the lack of adequate time?

Some students did select alternative assignments. Trent feels these students took the risk because they were empowered at a comfortable level to try something and succeed. Their own individual strengths are intensified. . . . They stayed on task because they were motivated to learn in their own way.

When students realized areas of learning strength, Trent felt the MI model was validated. Katie normally focuses more on socializing than on social studies, he recalls. [But during the MI-based unit she] was working busily on her interpersonal activity. Trents reflective journal describes

Katies process of discovery:

She had decided to interview staff, parents, and students about the future. This worked for Katie because she was doing what she normally or comfortably likes to do. The interpersonal category was able to bring her own abilities to light that maybe was not done during other class time.


As a gifted and talented resource teacher, Kris had received school district sponsored training in MI theory prior to participating in the study. Fifth- grade students enrolled in Kriss gifted resource room program read Lois Lowrys (1989) Number the Stars as an introduction to Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II. Kris created an activity packet for each student to use during the reading of Number the Stars. Included in the activity packet were instructions for these projects: Book Quote Illustration, Cultural Symbols Poster, Morse Code, Triangle Poem, Traditional Jewish Dance, and Personal Family Member Interview. After the activity packet was explained and the MI theory introduced, individual students had 1 week to decide which two projects they wished to complete over the next 3 weeks. Kris employed a reflective writing assignment to assess how well original objectives were met. The reflective writing assignment included these open- ended items: This book made me think . . . ; This book made me feel . . . ; This book made me wonder . . . ; I liked these activities because . . . ; I did not like these activities because . . .

Kris experienced more resistance to MI from her students than from her professional colleagues. Why dont you just give us a test? one student complained after examining the activity packet Kris had developed. Opportunities for student choice, which were not welcomed by many students at the beginning of the unit, later proved to be directly connected to students motivation for learning. One student who does not have a television at home, for example, demonstrated improved motivation when she asked hopefully, Can I pick more than one [project]? Another student asked to interview her grandfather, who had served in World War II; suddenly four more students requested assignments involving interviews.


After hearing Trent discuss his concerns over why some students chose not to select alternative assignments, Kris decided to create a questionnaire which asked students to respond to these two prompts: I liked these activities because . . . and I did not like these activities because . . . Students positive responses toward the activity packets fell into several categories, such as they made me understand the book better or they taught me how the Jews and Danes are such good friends. Negative comments, as Kris had suspected, tended to deal with time management, such as I felt so rushed or Doing the activities was stressing because I did not have much time. One student admitted he would rather have spent the time working on the computers.

Kris shares that not only does she intend to continue to plan instruction using the MI model, she will talk with the students [more] about what multiple intelligences means for them. Students should be able to understand why they gravitate to certain ways of learning and why they avoid others. This is not a hard concept to understand. It would only take time to explain.


Jean teaches sixth grade at a middle school that emphasizes writing across the curriculum. Students in Jeans sixth-grade high-ability class researched a person from African history and selected from among a varied collection of projects/activities, including develop a crossword puzzle about the person researched (include a descriptive paragraph); create a story rap (with or without drums); role play a griot and use storytelling techniques to teach the class about the person you researched; write or dramatize a time machine story representing the time and place in which your person lived; create and display a 3-D object to represent the person researched and write a descriptive paragraph to accompany the object; develop a slide show or PowerPoint presentation about the person researched; make a map of the country/area of Africa where your person lived, including representation of the continent itself. Jean noted increased student choice resulted in improved motivation.

As Jean developed her MI-based unit on famous Africans, she was concerned administrators and colleagues would not support her use of assignments that did not feature writing as the major focus. As the unit progressed, these concerns subsided. Jean concludes, Allowing the students to have some control through the use of choice provides a great deal of improved product motivation. Her students responded favorably to assignments that suited their personal talents and areas of interest.

Listening to both Trents and Kriss concerns over their students reaction to MI-based instruction, Jean says her students consistently evaluate the [MI-based] assignments as some of their favorites. They take ownership of their learning and are more motivated to turn in assignments of a higher caliber of work. Jeans students also tended to share their projects on famous persons of African history with their parents and other family members.

Jean plans to use this MI-based unit again next year. She predicts,

Lesson plans and activities can be changed and molded to meet the needs of the learning styles represented [in new groups of students] each year.


Five teachers planned units of instruction for students in Grades 5 through

8 on the following topics: Africa/Expository Writing (Grade 6), Number the Stars (Grade 5), Renaissance (Grade 6), The Future: Human-Environmental Interaction (Grade 7), and History of Rock and Roll: African American Influence (Grades 68). The instructional units, participants reflective journals, notes from focus group meetings, and samples of students work from this small study point to several key findings about teachers use of MI-based instructional planning in classroom settings:


Teachers involved in this study found reactions to their decision to use MI theory for instructional planning were varied. Colleagues and students were not always supportive, at least initially.


Student choice is an integral part of MI-based learning.


Not all students embrace student choice equally. Some students will continue to select the more traditional visual/linguistic formats, even when presented with a variety of choices.


When students realize their own areas of learning strength, the MI model is validated for both students and teacher.


Teachers who developed and used MI-based instructional units within a supportive, reflective environment are likely to feel positively about MI and be motivated to use MI-based instructional planning in the future.

Participants reflections on their experiences with MI-based instructional planning can be best summarized by the following intraspective quotation, excerpted from Trents journal:

The best results are [achieved] when a majority of the school is involved with the MI process. I am weak in the knowledge of art and music. I need to use my schools resources; the art teacher and music teacher can assist me in artwork and music best suited for [future units]. Gardner supported this thought by saying schools succeed when they have a working majority within the school: teachers are talking to each other comfortably about substance, they talk about kids and what theyre learning. In this collaborative study, thats just what the teachers did.

MI theory shows promise as a template for design of long-term instructional strategies, such as the instructional unit format. Few examples describing classroom teachers design and implementation of MI-based instructional units are found in the literature. Even fewer examples exist depicting MI- based units used in the middle grades classroom. Teachers and other educators interested in learning more about the MI theory and its implications for promoting a more balanced approach to education can benefit from studies employing a heuristic phenomenological approach. This article adds to the available literature by describing individual classroom teachers experiences with MI-based instructional planning and implementation.


1 All names are pseudonyms.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 1, 2004, p. 77-86
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11511, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 9:38:18 PM

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About the Author
  • M. Gail Hickey
    Indiana U.-Purdue U. Fort Wayne
    E-mail Author
    Gail Hickey is Professor of Education at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne. She has been an elementary classroom teacher, a gifted resource teacher, and a coordinator of gifted programs. Since 1987, she has trained teachers in elementary social studies methods, curriculum, and gifted education. Her articles and research have been published in numerous professional educational journals. Her textbook, Bringing History Home: Local and Family Projects for Grades K-6, was published by Allyn and Bacon in 1999. Along with other national experts, she authored a K-6 social studies textbook series for Scott Foresman/Pearson Education Publishing (2003). Currently she serves as coinvestigator in a statewide research project designed to study the experiences of recent immigrants to Indiana.
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