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Learning to your strengths

Which do you feel more in touch with: numbers, music or your body? Pupils and teachers are finding new ways to absorb information. Fiona Leney reports

It's 11.30 on a rainy morning, but Year 7 boys have tropical islands on their minds: what sort of facilities will their perfect island boast? It's not leisure studies but the culmination of a project to help these boys become better learners by identifying and targeting their specific learning strengths. It's the practical application of multiple intelligence (MI) theory.

The theory goes that each of us has eight different "intelligences", or ways of absorbing information: linguistic, mathematical, visual, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal (learning through discussion in groups), intrapersonal (internal thinking) and naturalist.

It has suffered from over-simplification how many teachers are fed up with being told the troublemaker in class is a kinesthetic learner who can't be expected to sit down and write?

But James McAleese, the teacher running the project at Richard Hale School in Hertford, is convinced MI data can equip pupils and teachers to perform more effectively.

The cynicism that sometimes greeted MI labels was usually lack of knowledge, he said. "It's absolutely not a case of letting a child think 'I'm kinesthetic, or visual, so I can't do this work', but of harnessing that information to find a way of learning that best suits him."

James has also assessed fellow teachers' MI scores: "One colleague with a very low visual score realised he was making little use of the whiteboard or other visual stimuli. He's now setting out to do so, and both he and his pupils are benefiting," he says.

"The aim, ideally, is to try and 'hit' several of those MI types in each lesson so that over time, everyone is catered for. In today's French lesson, for example, we used the interactive whiteboard, which catered for visual, kinesthetic and linguistic learners, a cassette for auditory learners, a cryptogram for the mathematicians and the choice of working with a partner or alone for the inter and intrapersonal learners."

As James says, experienced teachers may already be doing this, perhaps without realising why. He first researched MI while working in Quebec and started implementing it when he joined Richard Hale in 2002.

Learning2learn, his course, lasts throughout Year 7 and starts by assessing pupils giving each a bar chart showing their eight intelligences. An early lesson turns the boys into the England football coach. They devise tests for eight skills needed in a top team and then assess players.

"They see from the different marks they give each player for dribbling, tackling, shooting, etc, that by the end they have a neat summary of each individual's skills, emphasising where and how they should play," says James. "From there they can see that they can use their best MI skills to learn effectively."

The school produces a pamphlet giving tailored revision tips. For example, a linguistic learner will enjoy writing practice answers, while a mathematical learner will favour finding patterns, such as gender rules in languages or making tables. Visual learners can colour-code topics. Musical pupils may try marching songs, or revising to music. Which brings us to the island: the culmination of the Learning2learn year, with the boys grouped in learning types, with a specific task suited to their MI skills.

The musical learners will compose an island song, with music performed on scavenged objects. The kinesthetic learners will design and build a model of a raft, the naturalists will select suitable famous people to be on the island and create fact files about them, and so on.

The boys work together as a class, but enjoy "specialising" in their strengths. They're impressively thoughtful about what they have discovered.

"It was interesting to find out how my mind works. I'm surprised I'm a mathematical learner, but it makes sense now," says Ben Orchard. "It's good to find out more about yourself and think about how you like to learn. I am not surprised I'm musical, because I'm always humming," says Billy Green.

James believes setting pupils work on a topic tailored to their MI skills creates little extra work for the teacher and can produce exciting results. The problem is setting a common assessment level for marking. "I go on how much work they've done on their topic. Obviously I want to see, for example, that the kinesthetic learner has researched authentic marching and drumming patterns," he says

How different learners could describe a Second World War battle

Linguistic: prosepoetry about the event.

Mathematical: territory gained and casualties suffered, in the whole campaign, by regiment or by general.

Visual: storyboard cartoon with writing, plus recruitment posters or propaganda flyers.

Kinesthetic: research and present different marches and drumming patterns for the soldiers, with written or spoken commentary.

Musical: research and present authentic war songs of the era, or write their own marching or victory songs.

Interpersonal: the commanding officer's speech to his troops on the eve of battle.

Intrapersonal: a letter from a soldier on the front line to his family, wife or girlfriend.

Naturalist: a small-scale design of the battlefield, attributing detail to topographical research.

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