Enabling the Highest Degrees of Understanding: Book Summary of ‘The Unschooled Mind’

Traditional Schooling Fails to Teach Kids to Ask the Right Questions

'The Unschooled Mind' by Howard Gardner (ISBN 0465024386) In The Unschooled Mind (1991,) Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner makes a persuasive case for why even the brightest students often lack a deep understanding of what traditional schooling purports to teach them.

According to Gardner, students (in elementary schools to graduate colleges) may take exams and earn degrees, but their supposed knowledge turns out deficient in situations that are at variance from the “text-to-test” framework in which they learnt it. To some extent, this disconnect is an outcome of teachers’ settling for “correct-answer compromises” whereby students take the rote repetition of facts, formulas, concepts, and theories for a real understanding of fundamental concepts.

Robust Forms of Intuitive Knowledge

Overall, Gardner argues that children tend to acquire well-established models for perceptive learning and intuitive thinking by the time they are five years old. They develop wide-ranging beliefs about the physical world and distinctive models of events and people.

Traditional Schooling Fails to Teach Kids to Ask the Right Questions Subsequently, when children begin their schooling, they are launched into pedagogic methods that often sidestep—even interfere with—the children’s entrenched patterns of learning and understanding. That is to say, children have to put up with a disagreeable dichotomy between their intuitive learning patterns and the academic learning:

In its theoretical resourcefulness and intuitions, [a 5-year old’s mind] is powerful; in its artistic endeavors, it can be creative and imaginative; in its adventurousness, it is exemplary. … Education that takes seriously the ideas and intuitions of the young child is far more likely to achieve success than education that ignores these views, either considering them to be unimportant or assuming that they will disappear on their own.

Experiential Learning, Supplanted by Critical Analysis and Synthesis, Can Enhance Students’ Points of View

The Unschooled Mind contends that far-reaching knowledge and appreciation of education can occur only when students are allowed to integrate their “prescholastic” learning modes with the scholastic and the disciplinary ways of traditional school education. “The problem 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.”

Gardner’s solution to this problem is to situate students in educational environments that pique their curiosity about the subject matter and, at the higher levels of education, challenge their preexisting assumptions. Educating children for the utmost degrees of understanding involves designing educational systems that help students synthesize these several patterns of learning.

Real Education Opens the Way to Thinking, Knowing, and Deeper Understanding

Real Education Opens the Way to Thinking, Knowing, and Deeper Understanding For real learning to occur, Gardner argues, students must have an opportunity to realize their own ignorance, and then ask and explore their own questions. Teachers must regularly expose students to “Christopherian encounters”—compelling personal discoveries of the inconsistencies between their various frames of reference—by approaching any subject matter through at least five instructive channels:

Gardner claims that traditional schooling should incorporate more apprenticing—apprenticeship programs build most effectively on the ways children learn—and schools should become more like children’s museums.

Recommendation: Read The Unschooled Mind by Howard Gardner, especially if you have a child in school. The key takeaway: to enable the highest degrees of understanding, any skills instruction must be systematically reinforced by instruction in which the deployment of the skills makes holistic sense.

Beware of Advice from the Superstars


Steve Jobs’s Eschewal of Market Research

'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 1501127624) Apple’s Steve Jobs said in a 1985 interview, “We built [the Mac] for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research.”

Twelve years later, he famously told BusinessWeek: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Throughout his illustrious career, Jobs eschewed market research and relied on his intuition. The aforementioned two quotes have become as legendary as the highly opinionated man himself. Reiterating Steve Jobs’ talent to see the needs of consumers before they themselves could, Apple’s Chief Design Officer and co-creator of Apple’s iconic products Jonathan Ive stated, “We don’t do focus groups—that is the job of the [product] designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.”

Take Away: Alas, many people who venerate Jobs have taken his message as a pretext to downplay the need for consumer research. Jobs may be correct, but his assertion is perhaps confined to the kind of pioneering products and services he introduced at Apple and Pixar. Most people who claim to be inspired by this lesson from Jobs’s career neither work in the narrow consumer electronics domain nor have their hero’s brilliant intuition and an extraordinarily gifted creative team to sidestep market research and customer input.

Stephen King’s Disdain for Outlines in Writing

'On Writing A Memoir of the Craft' by Stephen King (ISBN 1439156816) In the bestseller On Writing, celebrated American author Stephen King famously states that he never uses an outline to organize his thoughts. He describes the routine of outlining as “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. … I don’t take notes; I don’t outline, I don’t do anything like that. I just flail away at the goddamn thing.” King advised other writers to keep from using outlines.

Take Away: Legions of King’s fans assumed that since this technique works so well for him, it must work for them too. Alas, they were mistaken: they aren’t as talented as him and cannot work without generating a detailed outline for a road map of creative writing. What works for writers—amateurs and professionals—is the advice of Terry Brooks, another famous American author, who wrote in his Sometimes the Magic Works, “Perhaps the best reason of all for outlining is that it frees you up immeasurably during the writing process to concentrate on matters other than plot.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Privileged Work-Life Balance

'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg (ISBN 0385349947) Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wrote a prominent career advice book and feminist manifesto called Lean In. Sandberg urges women to fight for gender equality and be assertive to achieve career success.

Sandberg’s writing has been criticized for being out of touch with the reality that most women face. She establishes much of her “you-can-do-it-too” counsel on her own experience as a successful woman who’s balanced her career and family through high profile jobs at Google and Facebook.

Take Away: Few people come from as privileged a socio-economic background as Sandberg to obtain two Harvard degrees, get an illustrious mentor at college, work on prestigious research projects at the World Bank, and acquire hundreds of millions of personal wealth by their mid-careers. Few women can aspire to be as fairy-tale affluent, talented, and privileged as Sandberg. Few can afford to hire assistants and domestic help to help balance the demands of personal and professional life. Few people have the benefit of working in the upper echelons of progressive corporate environments such as those at Google and Facebook that make it as conducive to “lean in” like her.

What Worked for Them Won’t Work for You

If you read about how successful people get successful, remember that the career advice that works for the superstars is not necessarily what will work for most ordinary folks. So, don’t be misled by their “it worked for me” advice.

If a specific technique worked for Steve Jobs, Stephen King, Sheryl Sandberg, or anybody else who gives you advice, don’t assume it will work for you too. Alas, you are likely not as naturally brilliant, gifted, endowed, or disposed as they are. Neither are you as privileged to have access to the resources they can tap into.

Beware of Advice from the Superstars In addition, in giving advice, superstars tend to understate—perhaps intentionally—the role that circumstances played in their success. On balance, much of success in life is a product of luck—being at the right time, at the right place, with the right people. Alas, what worked in their circumstances may not work in yours.

The Buddha taught prudence in such matters. He asked disciples to do what he taught only if it worked in the context of their own lives. He encouraged disciples to listen to his ideas, mull them over, try out what made sense, subsequently adapting what worked, and discarding what did not work.

The best way to educate yourself is by exposing yourself to a variety of success principles. Observe the top performers in your field. Then, identify, emulate, and adapt their effectiveness techniques to your circumstances. (See my previous article.)

Idea for Impact: Expose yourself to many success principles and consider what qualities, attributes, mental models, or approaches to life you may want to assimilate into who you are, even in part. Don’t expect to blatantly imitate a hero and expect the same outcomes: BE YOURSELF.

Lessons from Sam Walton: Learning from Failure

Sam Walton (1918–1992) experienced failures and setbacks. And, like all successful people, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club prided himself on learning from those experiences.

Lessons from Sam Walton's Autobiography: Learning from Failure

Walton’s Initial Success … and Then, in a Heartbeat, Failure

By 1950, a 32-year-old Sam Walton had established himself as a successful retailer in Newport, Arkansas. In 1945, Walton had purchased a Ben Franklin variety store and set up a five-year personal goal to make it the most profitable variety store in the region. By 1950, Walton had a record $250,000 in sales and $30,000 to $40,000 in profit (some $2.5 million in sales and $300,000 to $400,000 in profits in today’s dollars.) His success had attracted a lot of attention.

Not only that, the young Walton family—Sam, his wife Helen, and four young children—had firmly established itself in Newport. Sam and Helen were very active in the community and had taken up prominent civic and church duties.

An innocuous legal oversight cost him this success. When he had signed the lease on the property rental for his Ben Franklin variety store in 1945, thanks to inexperience and excitement at becoming a merchant, Walton had agreed to give back the landlord 5% of sales. He later discovered this was the highest any retailer had paid for rental.

More significantly, Walton had also neglected to add a clause in his lease that would give him the option to renew the lease after five years. Therefore, in 1950, when the lease on Walton’s Ben Franklin store expired, his sneaky landlord knew there was nowhere else in town for Walton to relocate his store. The landlord refused to renew Walton’s lease at any price! The landlord bought Walton’s well-established store along with its fixtures and inventory and transferred the store to his son. Walton was devastated; he had no choice but to give up his successful store. In his best-selling autobiography Made in America, Walton recalled this as the lowest point of his business life:

I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It really was like a nightmare. I had built the best variety store in the whole region and worked hard in the community, done everything right, and now I was being kicked out of town. It didn’t seem fair. I blamed myself for ever getting suckered into such an awful lease, and I was furious at the landlord. Helen, just settling in with a brand-new family of four, was heartsick at the prospect of leaving Newport. But that’s what we were going to do.

Walton family: Sam Walton, his wife Helen Walton, and four young children

Sam Walton Was Not One to Dwell on Disasters

All the hard work he had put in to build a successful store and the earning power he had established over five years had become worthless because of an innocuous mistake. Nevertheless, Walton didn’t let this disaster get him down.

I’ve never been one to dwell on reverses, and I didn’t do so then. It’s just a corny saying that you can make a positive out of most any negative if you work at it hard enough. I’ve always thought of problems as challenges, and this one wasn’t any different. I don’t know if that experience changed me or not. I know I read my leases a lot more carefully after that, and may be I because a little wary of just how tough the world can be. Also, it may have been about then that I began encouraging our eldest boy—six-year-old Bob—to become a lawyer. But I didn’t dwell on my disappointment. The challenge at hand was simple enough to figure out. I had to pick myself up and get on with it, do it all over again, only even better this time.

This Newport experience turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Walton. His family relocated to the relatively obscure Bentonville, Arkansas, for a brand-new start. Walton started over and established himself as a retailer again—only in even bigger and better ways. In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. His strategy of buying low, selling at a discount, and making up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory, made Walmart the most successful retailer ever. From 1985 until his death in 1992, he was the richest man in the world.

Successful People Learn from Failure and Get On

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) Walton’s was a typical entrepreneurial response to failure—successful people take risks, fail sometimes, but pick themselves up, ask what they can learn from the experience, and try again, even harder the next time.

On a related note, Bill Gates, the most successful entrepreneur of his generation, once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Complement this lesson on failure with J.K. Rowling’s reflections on the benefits of failure in her famous 2008 commencement address at Harvard: “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me…The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”

A Majority of Formal Training Doesn’t Stick

The Majority of Formal Training Doesn't Stick Most formal corporate training programs fail because (1) they’re not extensive enough to indoctrinate a new behavior and (2) they tend to dwell more on “doing” and less on ingraining a prescribed thought process.

Corporate training programs work best if there is an immediate need for employees to use certain techniques and tools. If more than a few days pass between training and the application, employees may not recall what they’ve learned. Therefore, training programs are most effective when they are about need-to-know-now topics and relate to employees’ current problems.

When employees try repeatedly to apply a new skill and fail, they can get dispirited and revert to their old patterns of behavior.

As I mentioned in my previous article, formal training can be very effective with a good deal of follow-through reinforcement under the watchful eyes of a diligent coach, such as a Process Sherpa.

Idea for Impact: Employees will not use a skill consistently until it’s ingrained in their work habits.

Fear of Failure is an Obstacle to Growth

The fear of failure—atychiphobia—is such a significant psychological threat to motivation that it can instinctively cause you to sabotage your likelihood of success. If you fear failure and limit your activities, you are acutely impeding the knowledge and wisdom that comes from opening yourselves up to the new and the unfamiliar.

In “Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society”, John Gardner (1912–2002,) an activist and a member of Lyndon Johnson‘s cabinet, reminds us that openness to new experience is vital to learning and self-renewal:

'Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society' by John W. Gardner (ISBN 039331295X) One of the reasons why mature people are apt to learn less than young people is that they are willing to risk less. Learning is a risky business, and they do not like failure. … By middle age, most of us carry in our heads a tremendous catalogue of things we have no intention of trying again because we tried them once and failed. … We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure—all your life.

Making Training Stick: Your Organization Needs a Process Sherpa

Organizational Process Sherpa

Corporate training in procedures usually doesn’t stick when the techniques learned are not immediately necessary on the job. If more than a few days pass between training and application, it seems employees cannot recall what they’ve learned.

In order for training to be effective and for employees to retain their newfound knowledge, there needs to be an element of on-the-job reinforcement. A guide can observe, correct, or commend on-the-job application of the training. This follow-up approach will solidify new information and give employees the benefits of experience.

If a certain procedure is required infrequently (say, just a few times each year,) employees may never remember it, not to mention master it. This issue may arise frequently as many organizational processes are only used sporadically.

Until a skill is completely ingrained and natural, employees won’t use it effectively.

To ensure employee familiarity with all relevant processes, even those used infrequently, every organization should consider appointing a Process Sherpa, a process guide.

The Process Sherpa would be analogous to the Sherpas, high-altitude mountaineering guides who help explorers carry loads and negotiate dangerous, ice-covered in the Himalayas and elsewhere. [See yesterday’s article for more on the Sherpas and pioneering explorers Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary.]

The Process Sherpa would understand the wide variety of a company’s processes—filing expense reports, hiring contractors, searching a database of technical reports, preparing quarterly budgets, developing the annual operating plan, preparing for financial audits, and the rest. When the demands of these tasks fall beyond an employee’s understanding, the Process Sherpa could step in and help.

The Process Sherpa position could be adjustable and elastic. It could be a full-time, dedicated role, or the Sherpa responsibilities could be divvied up amongst many employees—after considering the needs of the organization and the expertise of the Sherpas in individual processes.

A Sherpa would not only assist employees, but could also improve the business processes themselves. Having personally witnessed the employees’ challenges, the Sherpa could modify processes to make them simpler and more effective.