The red-headed seventh grader had struggled for half the year at a private school in Florida. English class seemed to perplex him, math bored him. He liked the insects and experiments in science class but hated the reading and reports. His music teacher teased him about being tone-deaf. And he was a klutz on the athletic field.
For two grading periods, his report cards reflected the misery of a child who didn't fit into the system: No grades better than D's and C's, no motivation, no confidence.
Then something clicked. For a change of pace, his American history teacher assigned a project on the Civil War to be completed by using any medium -- written or oral reports, drama, artwork, video, the student's choice.
On the day projects were due, the youngster's only struggle was to drag into the classroom his 8-by-4-foot, three-dimensional, scale model of the Battle of Gettysburg. To the teacher's surprise, he proceeded to analyze the battle's strategies with insight and enthusiasm. His hard work was undeniable and untypical. He got an A-plus. For the remainder of the school year, he earned A's in history and improved in every other class.
A classroom miracle? Thomas Armstrong doesn't think so. The former teacher and learning disabilities specialist says he has witnessed so many similar academic turn-arounds that he no longer believes in learning disabilities. Instead, he promotes the concept of learning differences -- in all students.
At the start of a school year already marked by a new onslaught of criticism of America's educational system, Armstrong contends that the greatest disability in today's schools is in teaching and not learning. "Our schools are largely to blame for the failure and boredom that millions of children face as they trudge off unwillingly to their six-hour fate every weekday," reports the author of In Their Own Way: Discovering and Encouraging Your Child's Personal Learning Style (Tarcher, $16.95), a book scheduled for release this month that contains both controversy and promise.
The same misunderstanding of different learning styles that lands millions of children with no handicap into special education classrooms across the country, says Armstrong, also undermines the day-to-day education of millions of additional children who are labeled underachievers, who suffer school phobias or who seem just plain bored with school.
In effect, what he argues for is the acknowledgment and encouragement of "the beat of the different drummer" in students.
"If your child sticks out one iota from the norm -- in other words, if your child shows his true individual nature -- then there is always the danger that he will be discriminated against or stuck with some label and treated like a category instead of a real human being," maintains Armstrong, now the director of Education Therapy Services, a learning-issues organization in Santa Rosa, Calif. Because "our schools have lost the ability to respond to individual differences," he says it is up to parents to discover and nurture their children's personal learning styles.
Armstrong bases his argument largely on the theories of Howard Gardner, a Harvard psychologist whose 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences proposes seven different kinds of intelligence or learning styles -- linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily kinesthetic, linguistic, spatial, interpersonal and intrapersonal. According to that theory, a child who doesn't score highly on standard IQ tests may nonetheless possess other kinds of intelligence not measured by those tests. "Gardner's theory," says Armstrong, "provides a solid foundation upon which to identify and develop a broad spectrum of abilities within every child."
Yet the overwhelming majority of public and private schools teach through only two of those learning styles -- linguistic and logical-mathematical -- while "the majority of school children have strengths outside of those two categories," says Armstrong.
The great flaw of the educational system, he says, is that children who demonstrate poor verbal and logical skills and yet are highly talented in other areas of intelligence typically do poorly and even fail in school. For instance, with his exceptional Civil War project, the Florida student demonstrated a spatial talent that previously had gone untapped. In his study this year of 30 children in 14 states -- all of them labeled learning disabled by the schools -- Armstrong found that all possessed personal learning gifts that weren't encouraged in the classroom.
One 17-year-old New Hampshire girl never did well in her classes but was the state karate champion. An 18-year-old Georgia youngster was at a standstill in the school system but was artistically gifted and could draw elaborate dragons with mythical heads that spewed out streams of fire that looked like flowers. He located an 11-year-old boy in Redwood, Calif., who "had incredible knowledge of machines" and often fixed bicycles from spare parts he found, but had never learned to read or write well. The child discovered it was easier to write his school compositions on the computer his mother occasionally brought home from work than in longhand, because of the mechanical connection.
"The content areas in schools tend to focus mostly on working with words," he says. "Reading is the key to all subjects and the skill of reading is the most important skill any child needs in school. So we do have a real hierarchy in the way that schools value our intelligence.
"I'm not saying we need to make all our children musical, or make all our children artistic or athletic," he says, "but we need to become more balanced in the way that we approach education."
Robert Hockstein of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, an educational think tank headquartered in New York, says that education as usual and the recognition of a variety of learning styles are "miles apart ... the schools don't come close to measuring things like spatial intelligence, body intelligence. Emphasis on the verbal is appropriate, but it should not be put in a category of higher esteem."
But Hockstein expects the theory of multiple intelligences to have "a profound impact" on education. Already, he says, there is a growing phenomenon of specialty schools that stress the arts or dance or mechanical skills. And he mentions the Waldorf and Montessori school approaches that for decades have made art and other nonverbal skills the basis of their methods.
Still, he worries about a mainstream educational system that "is going into a phase right now that emphasizes testing built around multiple choice. It will produce kids who can perform better on tests but know a lot less. What we want is a whole person who can think and do things -- not a generation of test takers who can't relate to other human experiences."
By focusing on good test-takers, expert fill-in-the-blankers and reliable hand-raisers, Armstrong contends that schools ignore "99.9 percent" of the country's natural human resources. "It really bugs me when I see that overconcern with those puny little test scores, as if they define what we know and who we are," he says. "I believe that out there is one or several children who hold the keys to the greatest problems of our time. But these keys aren't going to be drawn out unless they are given the opportunity to develop."
Armstrong likes to point out that many of history's "evolvers" -- people whose lives changed society -- didn't fit the mold of standard education and probably would have been shoved into a remedial class in today's schools. "As a child, Picasso would come into class with his paint brush under his arm and would refuse to do anything but paint," he says. "He drove his teachers crazy. Marcel Proust was criticized by his teachers for writing disorganized compositions. Einstein didn't read until he was almost 9 and Thomas Edison never got along at school."
Armstrong believes most kids only endure school because the schools are not addressing "their hunger for learning, an innate love and natural hunger." He contends a remodeling of the schools to use each child's strengths to learn any subject would revolutionize American education.
"Parents should look at their child and say, 'Hey, my child spends his free time drawing. Why can't my child learn reading? Maybe he is a spatial learner. So why aren't the schools using his art as a way to help him learn to read?'
"Same for the interpersonal learning child -- the very social child who loves to go out with the other kids, who loves to socialize and be a leader. And yet when they go to school they have to sit in a small cubicle, separated from classmates, alienated from other kids. When they try to communicate with kids, it is seen as disruptive behavior and they're punished."
By recognizing and encouraging personal learning styles in the classroom, Armstrong says "every kid can become a successful learner. We don't need to have 8 million kids with significant reading problems and 5 million kids who are hyperactive ... And we wouldn't need to label as many as half of all school children as underachievers. And we don't need to have 90 percent of the kids in schools not happy to be there."