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.

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.

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.