A school library in St. Louis, Missouri, boasts something unique: It’s the only known library whose design is based on Multiple Intelligences theory—a groundbreaking concept of intellect conceived by psychologist Howard Gardner and widely embraced by educators.
Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory recognizes eight different kinds of human intellect, not just those that lead to high IQ scores. People possess varying—and equally valid—configurations of intelligence, Gardner claimed in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Basic Books, 1983). In so doing, he posed a challenge to standardized tests and the equation of intelligence with traditional success.
The library at the private New City School, which serves children ages three through grade six, was conceived to foster these intelligences: Linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic intelligence, a later addition by Gardner.
“Intelligences are a tool, not an end in and of themselves,” says Thomas R. Hoerr, head of New City, which has educated children according to MI principles since 1988. Most students are from upper-middle-class families, while about 40 percent receive some financial assistance. MI implies that there are different approaches to solving problems, Hoerr says. “We felt this should be reflected in our library.”
The design of the library, located in a former 3,900-square-foot gym and completed in 2005, supports Gardner’s concepts. There’s a Fibonacci spiral painted on the former gym’s floor, a central set of circular risers, plentiful nooks and crannies for cozy reading, and a round room with walls covered in whiteboard.
Weekly events called “MI centers” are held at the library. Students, for instance, might gather in a small, rounded amphitheater on the mezzanine level and perform scenes from a story; convene in the whiteboard-walled room and create murals inspired by a book; or sit at tables designed for games and tackle tangram puzzles. Collectively, these activities involve logical-mathematical, interpersonal, spatial, and many other intelligences.
The gym’s 25-foot ceiling, along with 10-foot-high windows, gave architect Kevin Kerwin, a principal at HKW Architects in St. Louis, good bones to work with.
But without any prior knowledge about MI, he says, “we had to learn what it was we were going to design for.” And there were no MI library models to look at, either. “There simply aren’t any others,” says Kerwin.
In his research, Kerwin found that “most of the time, people approached MI design in a piecemeal way,” with a “math corner, linguistic circle, music corner. That’s not architecture,” he says.
School officials also sought a more organic integration of MI concepts. They didn’t want a separate area for each of the intelligences, says New City librarian Joe Corbett. Possessing both an MLS and a Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), Corbett runs the library with the help of New City MI coordinator Jessica Brod-Millner, a teacher who comes in three days a week, and volunteer parents.
Embedding MI in architecture
Designed in curvilinear forms with levels flowing into one another, the library ultimately supports all the intelligences, some more explicitly than others.
Logical-mathematical intelligence is a key focus at New City. Frequent game tournaments take place in the library’s central common area, and range from checkers and chess to Othello and Boggle. “Classic games are a beautiful way to interact and learn,” Corbett says. While honing logical-mathematical intelligence, these games are also a way for kids to exercise spatial, linguistic, and the personal intelligences.
Math drives the design as well. The old lines on the gym floor demarking a basketball court made way for the Fibonacci spiral.
“The [Fibonacci] geometry is the form driver for the large common area,” says Kerwin. The open common space features round worktables; circular, soft chairs are scattered throughout.
The library’s curving risers are another important MI element. Thinking about bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, Kerwin recalled his own boyhood conclusion that girls can sit at desks, but “boys and desks don’t necessarily go together.”
“The fact that you’ve got risers means you don’t have to sit at desks,” he says. Simultaneously serving as seating and as a place to scramble, the risers are a way to reach the mezzanine and its small seating areas, “almost like little promontories,” near the windows.
This mix of private and open space addresses the personal intelligences—interpersonal, involving understanding and interacting with others, and intrapersonal—“how an individual understands himself in the world,” Kerwin says. The latter is also a “contemplative intelligence,” which is served by the plentiful nooks in the library for reading and reflecting.
Activities that engage the intelligences
While Corbett teaches traditional library skills like using the catalog and reference materials, he and Brod-Millner also lead many MI-driven learning activities.
Where these are held often depends more on the size of the group than the nature of the activity, since much of the space isn’t intelligence-specific, Corbett says. Speaking broadly, however, “Creating spaces for group activities” was essential to supporting interpersonal intelligence, according to Kerwin. The mezzanine area (1200 square feet) is ideal for single classes of about 15 kids, while the downstairs common space is better for groups of about 45.
The mezzanine’s amphitheater is an intimate place for reading aloud (supporting interpersonal intelligence), as well as performing, with kids exercising musical and bodily-kinesthetic abilities, Hoerr says. Audiovisual materials and headphones are also on the mezzanine.
The rounded area with dry-erase walls and a linoleum floor—a place to be messy—is also a spot to create art and exercise spatial intelligence, according to Hoerr. Here, a teacher might read something to kids, hand them a marker, and ask them to draw a reflection of what they’ve learned. Other times, students doodle or graffiti on the erasable walls.
One of Brod-Millner’s spatial projects involves having children read Jean Lipman’s book Alexander Calder and His Magical Mobiles (Hudson Hills, 1981) in this space and then create sculptures from colored wire. During a bodily-kinesthetic activity on the mezzanine, they might roll Body Dice, pairing body parts with actions, and then do jumping jacks or another physical activity.
In Brod-Millner’s “Mo Willems’ Reader’s Theatre” activity, students read and perform Willems’s The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog! (Hyperion, 2004), engaging their interpersonal and bodily-kinesthetic abilities. These exercises extend beyond the library and into other areas of the school.
More MI exercises include writing or drawing a story with the inspiration of Story Cubes (linguistic/spatial/interpersonal intelligence); reading about and making origami creations (spatial/logical-mathematical intelligence); and playing “Follow Your Nose,” in which children attempt to identify scents.
In a favorite spatial and musical activity of Corbett’s, young students read Ezra Jack Keats’s Apt. 3 (Macmillan, 1971) in the amphitheater. They then move to tables, make a diagram for each floor mentioned in the book, and identify the sounds coming from each apartment—arguing, buzzing of a TV, baseball games, and so on. After that, they collaboratively create poems or raps. Corbett says, “This scaffolding makes it easier for them to come up with” compositions.
Linguistic, naturalistic, and spatial intelligence
As for linguistic intelligence, Kerwin notes, it’s “implicit in the library,” with its 13,500-volume collection. Nonetheless, there was a desire for language to be “a very tangible thing.” This comes through with many books on display and wall quotes culled from children’s literature.
Absent from New City’s library are computers. “We consciously decided not to have them in the library,” says Corbett. “It’s not a computer lab.” That’s located about 45 feet away.
Regarding naturalistic intelligence, Hoerr says the quality isn’t just about “flora and fauna, but categorizing, classifying, comparing, and contrasting.” Referring to the compartmentalized display of children’s art and collections, he notes that “whether it’s kids bringing their collection of soda bottle openers or baseball cards,” their process of categorizing objects develops and supports naturalistic intelligence.
Taking a step back, “Spatial intelligence is one of those things where we’re cognizant of creating this feeling of discovery” and exploration, says Kerwin. He addressed this by aiming for an atmosphere of “unfolding and unwrapping of the place—you don’t see it all at one time.”
With student art displayed at the library’s entrance, you sense that it’s “a destination, and there’s a celebration of student work and student activity,” says Kerwin. “We needed a place that people wanted to discover, to explore”—while simultaneously, “all these intelligences can be present, served, and expressed in the design.”
The Eight Ways
Linguistic intelligence Possessing facility with words and languages. Activities: Reading, role-playing, imaginative play.
Logical-mathematical intelligence Having an aptitude for logic, reasoning, abstractions, and making calculations. Activities: Board games, puzzles, building projects.
Spatial intelligence Possessing good spatial judgment; understanding graphic information. Activities: Art and sculpture projects, jigsaw puzzles, perceiving library architecture.
Musical intelligence Understanding different types of sound. Activities: Composing and listening to music; singing and rhyming.
Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence Having control of one’s movements and a sense of timing; handling objects skillfully, and being aware of the outcomes of one’s physical actions. Activities: Performing, climbing, acting out athletically.
Interpersonal intelligence Understanding and being sensitive to other people’s moods, wishes, and motivations; being able to work with a group. Activities: Collaborating in different ways; conversing.
Intrapersonal intelligence Recognizing characteristics in one’s self, including strengths and weaknesses, uniqueness, emotions. Activities: Reading, solitary play.
Naturalistic intelligence Relating to one’s surroundings; identifying and distinguishing different plants, animals, and other aspects of nature. Activities: Arranging art and object collections; classifying.