A World of Difference

By Debra Viadero — February 02, 1994 11 min read

The children in Jamillah Bakr’s 1st- and 2nd-grade class are studying endangered species of plants and animals. Today, as a cold winter rain pelts the windows of their Cambridge, Mass., classroom, they are showing their teacher some of what they know on the subject.

Anthony eagerly twists and slithers on the floor like a cobra. Geraldine, grinning shyly, lumbers in imitation of a panda, and Nelson pounces like a leopard. Ashley is apprehensive about demonstrating her flower, so her classmates help out, swaying as they imagine a tender plant would when blowing in the breeze.

All of this moving about is part of a nationwide school-reform effort that until now has attracted little attention.

One of the central premises of “Different Ways of Knowing,’' as the program’s title suggests, is simply that children learn in different ways. Like the students in Bakr’s class, some children may learn best through movement and acting out stories. Those with an aptitude for visual learning may thrive when allowed to paint or draw, while other students may respond better to traditional reading and lecturing approaches.

In part because many of her students come to school speaking Portuguese, Spanish, or Haitian Creole, among a variety of languages other than English, Bakr tries to capitalize on each of these pathways to learning. As part of their study of endangered species, her students have painted murals, written poems, and made animals out of scraps of cloth, cardboard, and Styrofoam. They’ve also read books, given oral presentations, and taken expeditions to area zoos and museums.

“The philosophy of this program is a way of thinking and believing that all students do learn,’' Bakr says. “It gives students who don’t have [a common] language ways to express themselves, and it helps almost all of the students.’'

One Big Package

The idea that children learn differently is, of course, not new. The Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner in his 1983 book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, postulated that there are at least seven different kinds of intelligence--language, logical-mathematical analyses, spatial representations, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other people, and an understanding of one’s self. What’s more, he suggested that the job of teachers is in part to find ways to capitalize on each of them.

Likewise, some of the program’s other theoretical underpinnings have a familiar ring. Research in cognitive psychology, for example, suggests that children bring to school basic assumptions about the world that teachers must build on and that children must “construct’’ their own meaning.

The developers of the program have, in fact, freely borrowed from a long line of successful ideas and projects--the Bay Area Writing Project, Deborah Meier’s Central Park East Elementary School in New York City, and Robert Slavin’s research at Johns Hopkins University on disadvantaged students.

What sets “Different Ways of Knowing’’ apart from some of its predecessors, however, is that the program tries to combine all these ideas and infuse the entire effort with thematic studies that draw on social studies and the arts.

“To our astonishment, when we looked around, we found small pockets of things and a lot of theory, but there was not one program that put it all together--at least one that was replicable,’' says Andrew G. Galef, whose eponymous foundation gave birth to the program.

Galef is the chairman and president of The Spectrum Group, which includes such major corporations as MagneTek, Warnaco, and Petco Animal Supplies Inc. Six years ago, he and his wife, Bronya Pereira Galef, founded the Los Angeles-based Galef Institute to do something for education that they hoped would “lessen the widening gap in society between the haves and have-nots.’'

Galef’s wife, a photojournalist who dropped out of school at 15, believed that the arts could hold out a second chance for some students. “I could always draw, and I could always paint,’' she recalls. “And that was always a place I could go that was mine.’'

The Galefs, however, left it to experts to give shape to their intentions. To put a program together, they hired researchers, curriculum writers, and such prominent educators as Donald W. Ingwerson, the former superintendent of schools in Jefferson County, Ky., who would become the institute’s president.

What they wanted, more than a blending of reform strategies, was a practical, replicable program that teachers could sustain at the classroom level.

“You hear people say, ‘Let’s be more child-centered, and let’s be more thematic,’'' says Gary Chadwell, the program’s national field coordinator. “Teachers say, ‘That’s a great idea, but how do you do it?’''

The Galef Institute set out to show teachers how to make--and maintain--these changes. “Where we thought we really could be helpful now was in helping teachers sustain their own school improvement, rather than pulling into town and then pulling out of town and then letting things go back to the way they were,’' says Linda Adelman, the director of Galef programs.

So the program developers decided to make a commitment to spend at least three years working with a school or a district. They put together a series of daylong workshops and invited artists and teacher-consultants to come into teachers’ classrooms and model new teaching approaches for them.

The program provided participating schools and libraries with trade books and classroom materials. A written curriculum offered teachers practical examples of how to integrate social-studies instruction throughout their courses and enhance students’ thinking skills. It also featured bibliographies and sample letters explaining each unit of study to parents. Teachers in the program, however, were free to use as much of the curriculum as they pleased.

Adelman says the curriculum, which teachers cannot get unless they agree to take part in the training, serves as a sort of “starter dough’’ for classroom change. “I’m not a particularly creative teacher,’' Chadwell explains, “but I can take an idea and elaborate on it, and it will trigger other ideas.’'

That was three years ago. Since then, the Galefs and other foundations, such as the Stuart Foundations and the Ahmanson Foundation, have spent nearly $10 million on the effort. Now, 90 schools in six states--California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, and Washington--have implemented “Different Ways of Knowing’’ in classrooms serving a total of more than 15,000 students.

But for a reform effort of such scope, the program has been remarkably low-key. “We wanted to make sure the program did work--especially for at-risk youngsters,’' Ingwerson says.

Now, he says, the organizers are pretty sure it does.

World in a Schoolhouse

Sitting in the heart of a Portuguese neighborhood of small shops and two- and three-story rowhouses, Harrington Elementary School was in many ways an ideal choice for piloting the “Different Ways of Knowing’’ approach.

Even in Cambridge, a school district with a noted school-choice program, most of Harrington’s 670 students come from the neighborhood. They speak more than 15 different languages, and an estimated 80 percent of them come from families poor enough to qualify for free meals under the federal school-lunch program.

“We call this ‘the world in a schoolhouse,’'' Principal Jose Figueiredo says. “These children are as bright as any children. I don’t buy any of these arguments that because you speak another language at home, you’re doomed to failure.’'

In part because of those language barriers, however, Harrington teachers like Bakr were already used to finding other means of making connections with their pupils. They say the Galef program was one of the few reform packages to come along with a framework for doing that.

“It’s not a universal feeling that all children can learn,’' Mary Ann Moll, who teaches 3rd grade at Harrington, says. “Sometimes, it’s very isolating when you don’t know other people who feel the same way.’'

Walk into Moll’s class, for example, and children are getting a lesson on the elements of lines. “What kind of lines can we make?’' Moll asks her pupils. Students suggest spirals, circles, dotted lines, and zigzags, among others. “Do these lines make you think of anything?’' she asks. Students then go on to sketch and color in their own lines while classical music plays in the background.

The exercise, Moll points out, is one in which all students can participate, even Ayasa Murashige, whose only language is Japanese.

Later in the year, students will go on to other drawing activities. And they will use those skills, for example, to show in their science journals how to hook up wires and batteries and light bulbs to form an electrical current.

“Galef’s message was the same message I believe in about how kids learn and how they function best,’' Moll says. “I guess I do more of everything now than I did before.’'

Bakr’s endangered-species exercises, which draw on constructivist principles of learning, are part of a long effort that began in September. First, she asked students to research their plant or animal of choice and become “experts’’ in that subject. “I’m not saying they can’t use a cat because a cat is not endangered,’' she says. “I let them find out for themselves.’'

Both teachers say the training and classroom support that “Different Ways of Knowing’’ provides have been prime features of the program for them.

“Lots of times you go to staff-development things, and they’re not usually very good,’' Moll says. “They treat you like little children.’' But she says the training Galef provided was different. Moreover, the teacher-consultants and artists who visit their classrooms--sometimes up to five times a year--showed more clearly how to put theory into practice in a real classroom situation.

Chadwell, the program’s national field coordinator, says teachers have asked most often for consultants in the arts because they feel least comfortable in that area.

“Before, I had a phobia about singing,’' Jacqueline Wright, a kindergarten teacher in the program, says. “Now, I sing all the time, and my kids love it.’'

Some teachers have needed more classroom support than others. “We had one teacher who spent half a year saying ‘How do I get started? How do I get started?’'' Bakr recalls.

Bakr, Moll, and Wright were among the original four teachers who joined the program when it was launched in Cambridge during the 1990-91 school year. Now, 28 Harrington Elementary teachers are participating.

Today, the biggest struggle has become how to assess children in a way that takes into account all their individual ways of learning. “Our teachers are struggling with that now,’' Bakr says.

Although Harrington educators have no hard statistics on how well the program has worked for students, they do have success stories to tell. They talk, for example, about the 3rd-grade boy who couldn’t read but whose face would light up when he was asked to represent something in a drawing. They mention another 3rd grader, a girl with spina bifida, who couldn’t participate in physical education and wasn’t too popular with her classmates. Their opinions of her changed, however, after they saw she could participate in classroom movement activities.

“It’s the small triumphs,’' observes Chadwell, that help measure success.

Marshaling Data

The institute has, however, accumulated its own statistics. And a two-year study suggests that the program has made a difference for participating schools. Conducted by James S. Catterall, an associate education professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, the study tracked 1,000 students in California and Massachusetts. By looking at student scores on standardized tests taken in the spring before the program began, researchers predicted how those students might be expected to score on the same tests two years later.

The study showed that, while students had not made any major unexpected gains in reading and mathematics, their scores for language achievement had improved substantially--up to 8 percentage points in one year. And the gains had increased with each year of participation.

Moreover, while students in other classrooms were becoming less likely to believe that their own effort pays off in school, students in the “Different Ways’’ program tended in the opposite direction. They were increasingly likely to say that working hard in school was more important than being lucky or smart.

Researchers also observed other signs that students in program classrooms cared about their work. Those students, for example, raised questions more often about how they were doing, monitored their own academic performance more frequently, and responded more often to feedback from teachers and classmates.

“That’s one of the things that really stands out, that wider sense of participation and engagement,’' Catterall says. “Where that would lead in terms of student testing, I don’t know.’'

Increased participation, however, didn’t necessarily mean increased enjoyment. For the most part, students in program classrooms were no more likely than nonparticipating students to like school at the end of two years.

Students weren’t the only ones to change. Over two years, teachers in the program exhibited more of the kinds of classroom behaviors associated with the program’s philosophy. They would, for example, integrate more arts-related activities and use movement more often to drive a lesson home.

Catterall says the results are enough to warrant forging ahead with the program. In fact, the institute hopes to train some 1,500 to 2,000 additional teachers by the next school year.

“By the turn of the century, we hope to have a significant presence in every state,’' Ingwerson says. “Eventually, we hope to work ourselves out of business.’'

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 1994 edition of Education Week as A World of Difference