Traditional Schooling Fails to Teach Kids to Ask the Right Questions
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.
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
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:
- through narratives and stories,
- through logical and quantitative lines of attack,
- through “foundational” or philosophical inquiries,
- through aesthetic approaches (exploring the creative and artistic elements) and
- through creating and drawing upon the students’ life-experiences.
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.