Docent Educator Logo

Getting Pre-teens and Teenagers Interested and Involved!: Considering Diverse Learning Styles

Imagine a hypothetical situation in which an out-of-town couple asks for directions to your museum. In all likelihood you would give them directions that you, yourself, feel most comfortable following. If you have a good sense of direction, you might tell them to go “north on 5* Avenue.” Alternately, you might pull out a map and direct the couple by pointing to particular streets. Or, you might give them directions filled with visual landmarks to follow, such as “take your first left after the fountain and a right when you see the lake.” Perhaps, you might direct the couple using mileage such as “go 1.2 miles on the highway. Then go 300 yards on 6th Street.” Or, you might simply say, “I’m going that way why don’t you just follow me?”

This hypothetical situation illustrates that we all approach the world with diverse learning styles or intelligences. If you are particularly comfortable with directions that involve street names and the cardinal points, then you are an individual who possesses strong verbal and kinesthetic learning styles. On the other hand, if you are good with maps, you might be more mathematically inclined. If you need visual landmarks or an actual car to follow, then your greatest strengths are being visually or spatially aware.

If you are teaching pre-teens and teenagers, and want their involvement and participation, you must understand and enfranchise the many learning styles they bring to your institution. In 1983, Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. This study gives us a construct for comprehending learning styles. Gardner proposed seven learning styles or intelligences. The two language-related intelligences

Gardner labels “verbal/ linguistic” and “musical/rhythmic.” The three object-related intelligences he terms “logical/mathematical,” “visual/spatial,” and “bodily/kinesthetic.” Two person-related intelligences he calls, “intrapersonal” and “interpersonal.” These intelligences are developed through one’s lifetime and are affected by outside factors such as one’s environment, schooling, and relationship to others. While everyone is born with all seven intelligences, over time, one relies more on certain intelligences resulting in areas of strength and weakness.

Applying Multiple Intelligences to Students in Grades 6 through 9

Pre -adolescents and teenagers are becoming more self-conscious, independent, and may become bored easily. When you add the variable of differences in learning styles, the prospect of touring this age group can become daunting indeed. However, capitalizing on your students’ multiple intelligences will increase the odds that your secondary school groups will be more interested and eager to participate during a tour. While you cannot know in advance how many in your school group are predominately verbal, kinesthetic, or visual learners, you can prepare your content and approach to accommodate diversity. The following are some examples of interactive, interpretive techniques that engage multiple intelligences. While you may already incorporate some of these approaches on your tours, realizing that they tap into diverse intelligences will help your tours become even more all-inclusive. It may even garner greater participation from an age range that is known for being somewhat reticent.


Brief writing activities work well for students with heightened verbal or linguistic abilities. Not only does this “Thought Bubble” activity enable students to use their writing skills, it encourages them to use careful looking skills and their imaginations. Begin by distributing pieces of scrap paper, writing surfaces (such as cardboard), and pencils. Students simply need to select a character within a work of art, create a “thought bubble” (those clouds that appear over the heads of comic strip figures), and write a phrase or sentence that records that character’s thoughts. To generate a character’s thought bubble, have students carefully focus on their character’s pose, gesture, expression, clothing, and interactions with others. Finally, have students share their “thought bubbles” aloud so the group can guess which thoughts and characters go together. In addition to stimulating the verbal/ linguistic learners, this activity also serves as a wonderful “ice-breaker” for tours with pre-teens and teenagers as it calls for everyone to become involved (through writing) and provides a non-threatening forum for participation in front of one’s peers.

Another way to get verbal/ linguistic learners involved is to initiate your discussion by asking students to write down the first word that comes to mind when they look at a work of art. Then, you can gather the words and, as you hold up a word, ask the group why this word may have come to mind. This will cause your students to look closely at the work of art for specific details that give visual form to their first impressions.


Of all the intelligences, it is the musical or rhythmic intelligence that emerges earliest. As babies, we were soothed by lullabies, we learned our first animal noises through songs like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and as toddlers, the rhythmic cadence of nursery rhymes entertained us. Individuals who maintain a strong musical or rhythmic learning style might find it particularly interesting to approach art through a song or poem. While taking this approach does not necessarily mean that you’ll be singing in the galleries, it can involve sharing a song’s lyrics or a few stanzas of poetry with your visitors.

After the lyrics or words of poetry are shared, ask your visitors how the words resonate with the artwork you are focusing on. Or, have the students select artworks of their own choosing that they feel are the most appropriate matches for lyrics or poems from a range ofworks available in a gallery.


Students with a strong visual and spatial learning style are known for their creative imaginations. They also possess a special interest in visual elements. From overall composition, to texture, quality of line, and the effect of shapes and colors, those with a keen visual or spatial intelligence are easily able to perceive the various components and effects within a work of art.

Ask students to isolate details or to embellish upon their response to works. For example, using a painting that depicts a Civil War soldier’s return home, you might ask students which details are used to convey the emotions of this soldier and those around him. Then, to engage imaginations, have the students imagine this scene prior to the war. What would be different?


Most museum galleries are organized chronologically, stylistically, thematically, or geographically. Engage the logical/mathematical learners in your group by having students imagine they are curators responsible for the installation of a particular gallery. Encourage them to take a few moments to wander around the gallery and to think of another way to categorize the art besides “20th Century Art” or “African Art.” As students share their alternate categories, call their attention to the diverse range of subject matter, styles, etc. that they have identified.

This activity makes both students and docents look at gallery installations in entirely new ways, is interesting and fun, and provides a change of pace for the tour. Pre-teens and teens are especially appreciative of such activities as they offer a brief bit of the independence they crave.

Another gallery activity that fosters students’ independence while simultaneously tapping into their logical/mathematical learning styles is a brief drawing exercise. Distribute pieces of scrap paper, writing surfaces, and pencils. Have students select a work of art within a specific gallery, identify any patterns or repeated geometric shapes the artist has created, and quickly sketch the arrangement or dominant ones. Then, have students discuss what effect (if any) the patterns or repeated shapes have on the composition of the work, such as balance, movement, or tension.


The bodily or kinesthetic learning style is characterized by a keen awareness of one’s own body and an understanding of how it interacts with the environment. Dancers and athletes are counted among the people with this intelligence.

Individuals who prefer this learning style enjoy using their sensory perceptions. Capitalize on this by having students imagine themselves within a work of art. Next, ask them to describe what they see, hear, feel, smell, and taste. Depending on where students imagine themselves within the artwork, the sights, sounds, textures, aromas, and flavors may be above, below, behind, or in front of them. To sum up their imaginative forays into a work, have students discuss how the artist was able to conjure up such vivid sensory inputs using paint, stone, wood, or metal.

Another route to engaging the senses is to have students use similes and metaphors to describe sensory impressions. For instance, a student’s texture simile might be, “the silver goblet was like a smooth, shiny mirror.” In addition to being a sure hit with language arts teachers, this approach engages both the bodily/ kinesthetic and verbal/linguistic intelligences in your students.


Characterized by an ability to understand one’s own feelings, the intrapersonal learning style can be stimulated by an interactive gallery activity that is a take-off of the activity called “Token Response.” In this version, students are given only two symbols or tokens — a heart, symbolizing appreciation, and a frowning face or “yuk” symbol, indicating dislike.

Give the group 1 minute to walk around a gallery of works. Then, have students place the heart token on the floor in front of the artwork they like best and the frowning face token on the floor in front of the work they dislike most. Next, go to the work of art that amasses the most “tokens.” Have students explain why they put their tokens in front of it. Why might some works have both types of symbols and others have none at all? By promoting an understanding that art provokes an emotional response in us — be it positive or negative — this activity taps into the highly individual, intrapersonal intelligence.


In contrast to the intrapersonal learners, the interpersonal learners are sensitive to the feelings of others. Therefore, they tend to work well in teams or group activities. An activity entitled, “Academy Awards,” brings together the art world with popular culture while appealing to those with a more highly developed interpersonal intelligence.

Divide students into various groups and assign them the task of selecting the work of art in a particular gallery that is most deserving of “Best Color,” “Best Costume,” “Best Action,” “Best Plot Line,” or “Best Lighting” (or any other superlatives that fit your collection). After several minutes, have each group share their choices. Then, have the group of students as a whole vote on “Best /Artwork” from the pool of nominees that incorporate many of the category superlatives. In order to be successful, the students will have to work together toward the goal of identifying the winner. This activity challenges students to use their critical thinking skills by requiring them to support their judgments about works of art they think deserve awards.

In Conclusion

Keeping students in grades 6 through 9 interested and involved during the duration of a tour can be challenging. As typical pre-teens and teenagers, these students are less likely to volunteer ideas and opinions, are more self-conscious, and are crucially aware of how slow-paced the art museum is when compared to other aspects of contemporary life. Considering multiple intelligences will promote participation by making your tours more inclusive, interactive, and interesting.


The Multiple Intelligence

Intelligence Key Components
Verbal/Linguistic  Reading, listening, writing, speaking, conveying information
Musical/Rhythmic Music, rhythm, keen awareness of sounds
Logical/Mathematical Critical thinking, abstract reasoning, interested in patterns and numbers
Visual/Spatial Creative, imaginative, interested in colors and art media, abstract thinking
Bodily/Kinesthetic Tactile, interested in sports and fitness, agile, keen awareness of how body relates to outside world
Intrapersonal Reflective, comprehends emotions
Interpersonal Gets along well with others, team player

Katherine M. Bunker is a Chicago-based museum educator and co-director of Learning Through Art, a partnership providing resources, training, and evaluation for museums and schools. She was formerly assistant director of Student programs in the department of museum education at The Art Institute of Chicago (1996-1999). This article is based on docent training conducted at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, OA. For more information, Ms. Bunker can be reached at:

Bunker, Katherine M. “Getting Pre-teems and Teenagers Interested and Involved!: Considering Diverse Learning Styles,”The Docent Educator 11.3 (Spring 2002): 4-6.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *