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How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach
By Howard Gardner
BasicBooks, 1991, 303 pages

An "overwhelming body of educational research" suggests that our schools are failing to live up to their missions, writes Howard Gardner in this persuasive and highly practical reassessment of traditional schooling. Even the most successful students typically fail to exhibit "genuine understanding" — as opposed to "acceptable mastery" — of the materials and concepts they are taught, he says. The core problem is that scholastic and disciplinary forms of knowing are often at odds with "the unschooled mind" within nearly every student.

Surveying a wide range of research on early learning and cognition (much of it his own), Gardner maintains that most children tend to develop deeply entrenched patterns of thinking and learning by the time they are five years old. These patterns include general ideas about the physical world and the world of others, stereotypic views of events, familiar scripts, and simplified preferences. These early learning patterns and primitive theories tend to be acquired intuitively, in much the same way as a language is learned. When the child begins school, however, he or she is introduced to scholastic and disciplinary forms of knowing that often bypass, and sometimes even interfere with, earlier frames of reference. The result for many young students is an uneasy dichotomy between intuitive learning and the academic learning that takes place in schools.

Gardner contends that true understanding can come about only if the student is allowed to integrate the prescholastic with the scholastic and disciplinary ways of knowing. "The problem," he writes, "is less a difficulty in school learning per se and more a problem in integrating the notational and conceptual knowledge featured in school with the robust forms of intuitive knowledge that have evolved spontaneously during the opening years of life." Educating children for genuine understanding therefore involves designing educational environments and methods that help students synthesize their several forms of knowing.

To this end, Gardner sets forth a number of proposals for school reform, including child "museums" and apprenticeship programs. He also recommends what he calls "Christopherian encounters," an experiential form of learning where students are confronted with the inconsistencies between their various frames of reference. In addition, teachers must devise ways to approach subjects in at least five ways: through narrative; through logical-quantitative approaches; through philosophical, or foundational, inquiries; from an aesthetic point of view; and in ways that create and draw upon student experiences. Finally, he insists that schools need to cultivate a "folio culture," and policy-makers must embrace more robust ways of assessing progress. Educators must acknowledge the many forms of intelligence students bring to school and address intellectual strengths far more directly than they have in the past.

Copyright 1993 by Scott London. All rights reserved.