examination is based on Reading Selection A, "The Central Puzzles
of Learning" and "The Difficulties Posed by School" by
Howard Gardner, which you were given to read and study in advance and
on Reading Selection B, "To Err Is Human" by Lewis Thomas.
The readings are printed below. Read "To Err Is Human" and
review the Gardner readings in light of the writing assignment, which
is printed following Reading Selection B below.
In these two excerpts from his book, The Unschooled Mind,
Howard Gardner first introduces an important
question that he will explore and then begins to find an answer to it.
The Central Puzzles of Learning
Many a person who
has tried to master a foreign language in school has thought back wistfully
to his (or her*) own learning of his native tongue. Without the help
of a grammar book or a trained language instructor, without the sanctions
of a course grade, all normal children readily acquire the language
spoken in their vicinity. More remarkably, children who are too young
to sit at a school desk but who happen to grow up in a polyglot environment
can master a number of languages; they even know under which circumstances
to invoke each tongue. It is humbling to realize that language learning
in early life has operated exquisitely over the millennia, yet linguists
are still unable to describe the grammar of any naturally occurring
language in a completely satisfactory way.
One can, of course,
attempt to dismiss language as a special case. After all, we are linguistic
creatures, and perhaps we have special dispensation to speak, just as
warblers and chaffinches sing as part of their avian birthright. Or
one can stress the immense importance of language in all human intercourse;
perhaps therein lies the solution to the question of why all children
successfully master language within a few years of their birth.
however, language turns out to be unexceptional among human capacities.
It is simply the most dramatic instance of one puzzle in human learning‑the
facility with which young humans learn to carry out certain performances
that scholars themselves have not yet come to understand. During the
first years of life, youngsters all over the world master a breathtaking
array of competences with little formal tutelage. They become proficient
at singing songs, riding bikes, executing dances, keeping scrupulous
track of dozens of objects in their home, on the road, or along the
countryside. In addition, though less visibly, they develop powerful
theories of how the world works and how their own minds work. They are
able to anticipate which manipulations will keep a machine from functioning
properly; they can propel and catch balls hurled under various conditions;
they are able to deceive someone else in a game even as they can recognize
when someone is trying to play a trick on them. They evolve clear senses
of truth and falsity, good and evil, beautiful and ugly‑senses
that may not always be consistent with communal standards but that prove
remarkably serviceable and robust.
Intuitive Learning and Scholastic Learning
We are faced with
another puzzle. The very young children who so readily master symbol
systems like language and art forms like music, the same children who
develop complex theories of the universe or intricate theories of the
mind, often experience the greatest difficulties upon their entry in
school. Speaking and understanding language have proved unproblematic,
but reading and writing may pose severe challenges; counting and numerical
games are fun, but learning mathematical operations can prove vexing,
and the higher reaches of mathematics may remain forbidding. Somehow
the natural, universal, or intuitive learning that takes place in one's
home or immediate surroundings during the first years of life seems
of an entirely different order from the school learning that is now
required throughout the literate world.
So far, this puzzle
is not unfamiliar and has been commented upon often. Indeed, one might
go so far as to claim that schools were instituted precisely to inculcate
those skills and conceptions that, while desirable, are not so readily
and naturally learned as the intuitive capacities cited above. Accordingly,
most of the recent raft of books and reports about the "educational
crisis" perseverate on the difficulties students have in mastering
the overt agenda of school. Such a description of the failings of school
may be accurate as far as it goes, but in my view it does not go nearly
far enough. In this book I contend that even when school appears to
be successful, even when it elicits the performances for which it has
apparently been designed, it typically fails to achieve its most important
Evidence for this
startling claim comes from a by now overwhelming body of educational
research that has been assembled over the last decades. These investigations
document that even students who have been well trained and who exhibit
all the overt signs of success‑ faithful attendance at good schools,
high grades and high test scores, accolades from their teachers‑typically
do not display an adequate understanding of the materials and concepts
with which they have been working.
Perhaps most stunning
is the case of physics. Researchers at Johns Hopkins, M.I.T., and other
well‑regarded universities have documented that students who receive
honor grades in college‑level physics courses are frequently unable
to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly
different from that on which they have been formally instructed and
tested. In a typical example, college students were asked to indicate
the forces acting on a coin that has been tossed straight up in the
air and has reached the midway point of its upward trajectory. The correct
answer is that once the coin is airborne, only gravitational pull toward
the earth is present. Yet 70 percent of college students who had completed
a course in mechanics gave the same naive answer as untrained students:
they cited two forces, a downward one representing gravity and an upward
one from "the original upward force of the hand." This response
reflects the intuitive or common‑sense but erroneous view that
an object cannot move unless an active force has somehow been transmitted
to it from an original impelling source (in this instance, the hand
or arm of the coin tosser) and that such a force must gradually be spent.
Students with science
training do not display a blind spot for coin tossing alone. When questioned
about the phases of the moon, the reasons for the seasons, the trajectories
of objects hurtling through space, or the motions of their own bodies,
students fail to evince the understandings that science teaching is
supposed to produce. Indeed, in dozens of studies of this sort, young
adults trained in science continue to exhibit the very same misconceptions
and misunderstandings that one encounters in primary school children‑
the same children whose intuitive facility in language or music or navigating
a bicycle produces such awe.
The evidence in the
venerable subject of physics is perhaps the "smoking gun"
but, as I document in later chapters, essentially the same situation
has been encountered in every scholastic domain in which inquiries have
been conducted. In mathematics, college students fail even simple algebra
problems when these are expressed in wording that differs slightly from
the expected form. In biology, the most basic assumptions of evolutionary
theory elude otherwise able students who insist that the process of
evolution is guided by a striving toward perfection. College students
who have studied economics offer explanations of market forces that
are essentially identical to those preferred by college students who
have never taken an economics course.
Equally severe biases
and stereotypes pervade the humanistic segment of the curriculum, from
history to art. Students who can discuss in detail the complex causes
of the First World War turn right around and explain equally complex
current events in terms of the simplest "good guy‑bad guy"
scenario. (This habit of mind is not absent from political leaders,
who are fond of portraying the most complicated international situations
along the lines of a Hollywood script.) Those who have studied the intricacies
of modem poetry, learning to esteem T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, show
little capacity to distinguish masterworks from amateurish drivel once
the identity of the author has been hidden from view.
Perhaps, one might
respond, these distressing results are simply a further indictment of
the American educational system, which has certainly experienced (and
perhaps merited) its share of drubbing in recent years. And in fact
the majority of the research studies have been carried out with the
proverbial American college sophomore. Yet the same kinds of misconceptualizations
and lack of understanding that emerge in an American setting appear
to recur in scholastic settings all over the world.
What is going on here?
Why are students not mastering what they ought to be learning? It is
my belief that, until recently, those of us involved in education have
not appreciated the strength of the initial conceptions, stereotypes,
and "scripts" that students bring to their school learning
nor the difficulty of refashioning or eradicating them. We have failed
to appreciate that in nearly every student there is a five‑year‑old
"unschooled" mind struggling to get out and express itse6r
Nor have we realized how challenging it is to convey novel materials
so that their implications will be appreciated by children who have
long conceptualized materials of this sort in a fundamentally different
and deeply entrenched way. Early in the century, the work of Freud and
other psychoanalysts documented that the emotional life of the young
child strongly affects the feeling and behavior of most adults. Now
the research of cognitive scientists demonstrates the surprising power
and persistence of the young child’s conceptions of the world.
from two quite different domains. The changing seasons of the year come
about as a function of the angle of the earth on its axis in relation
to the plane of its orbit around the sun. But such an explanation makes
little sense to someone who cannot shake the deeply entrenched belief
that temperature is strictly a function of distance from a heating source.
In the domain of literature, the appeal of modem poetry resides in its
powerful images, its often unsettling themes, and the way in which the
poet plays with traditional formal features. Yet this appeal will remain
obscure to someone who continues to feel, deep down, that all poetry
worthy of the name must rhyme, have a regular meter, and portray lovely
scenes and exemplary characters. We are dealing here not with deliberate
failures of education but rather with unwitting ones.
but not necessarily unnoticed. That some of us may be at least dimly
aware of the fragility of our knowledge was brought home to me powerfully
in a conversation with my daughter, then a sophomore in college. One
day Kerith phoned me, quite distressed. She voiced her concern: "Dad,
I don't understand my physics course." Ever eager to assume the
role of the patient and sympathetic father, I replied in my most progressive
tone, "Honey, I really respect you for studying physics in college.
I would never have had the nerve to do that. I don't care what grade
you get‑it is not important. What’s important is that you understand
the material. So why don’t you go to see your teacher and see if he
can help?" "You don’t get it, Dad," responded Kerith
decisively. "I've never understood it."
Without wishing to
burden these words with cosmic importance, I have come to feel that
Kerith's comment crystallizes the phenomenon I seek to elucidate in
these pages. In schools‑including "good" schools‑all
over the world, we have come to accept certain performances as signals
of knowledge or understanding. If you answer questions on a multiple‑choice
test in a certain way, or carry out a problem set in a specified manner,
you will be credited with understanding. No one ever asks the further
question "But do you really understand?" because that would
violate an unwritten agreement: A certain kind of performance shall
be accepted as adequate for this particular instructional context. The
gap between what passes for understanding and genuine understanding
remains great; it is noticed only sometimes (as in Kerith's case), and
even then, what to do about it remains far from clear.
In speaking of "genuine
understanding" here, I intend no metaphysical point. What Kerith
was saying, and what an extensive research literature now documents,
is that even an ordinary degree of understanding is routinely missing
in many, perhaps most students. It is reasonable to expect a college
student to be able to apply in a new context a law of physics, or a
proof in geometry, or the concept in history of which she has just exhibited
"acceptable mastery" in her class. If, when the circumstances
of testing are slightly altered, the sought‑after competence can
no longer be documented, then understanding‑in any reasonable
sense of the term‑ has simply not been achieved. This state of
affairs has seldom been acknowledged publicly, but even successful students
sense that their apparent knowledge is fragile at best. Perhaps this
uneasiness contributes to the feeling that they‑‑or even
the entire educational system‑are in some sense fraudulent.
Difficulties Posed by School
Going beyond simple
literacy, a further mission of the schools is to transmit concepts,
networks of concepts, conceptual frameworks, and disciplinary forms
of reasoning to their students. These topics generally bear some relation
to the areas in which students are ordinarily interested and about which
they have already developed intuitive theories, schemes, and kindred
explanatory constructs; after all, science treats the natural world,
even as history relates the story of one's group and of other relevant
friendly or hostile groups.
To the extent that
these materials are presented simply as lists or definitions to be memorized,
they can usually be mastered by students who apply themselves to the
task at hand. The curriculum of school ought to go beyond a rehearsal
of facts, however, and introduce students to the ways of thinking used
in different disciplines. Such an introduction would involve exposing
students to new ways of conceptualizing familiar or unfamiliar entities,
be they the laws that govern objects in the physical world or the ways
in which events are conceptualized by historians.
The content of the
various disciplines is typically encountered in forms quite remote from
the conceptions the student brings to the class. The student learns
about the laws of physics or the causes of war by reading a textbook
or by hearing the teacher lecture. Hence the challenge for the educator
is threefold: (1) to introduce these often difficult or counterintuitive
notions to the students; (2) to make sure that this new knowledge is
ultimately synthesized with earlier ideas, if they are congruent with
one another, (3) to ensure that the newer disciplinary content supplants
previously held conceptions or stereotypes that would in some way collide,
with or undermine the new forms of knowledge.
At last we can confront
directly the primary reasons why school is difficult. It is difficult,
first, because much of the material presented in school strikes many
students as alien, if not pointless, and the kinds of supporting context
provided for pupils in earlier generations has become weakened. It is
difficult, second, because some of these notational systems, concepts,
frameworks, and epistemic forms are not readily mastered, particularly
by students whose intellectual strengths may lie in other areas or approaches.
Thus, for example, students with strengths in the spatial, musical,
or personal spheres may find school far more demanding than students
who happen to possess the "text‑friendly" blend of linguistic
and logical intelligences. And it is difficult, in a more profound sense,
because these scholastic forms of knowing may actually collide with
the earlier, extremely robust forms of sensorimotor and symbolic knowing,
which have already evolved to a high degree even before a child enters
Education for understanding
can come about only if students some how become able to integrate the
prescholastic with the scholastic and disciplinary ways of knowing and,
when such integration does not prove possible, to suspend or replace
the prescholastic ways of knowing in favor of the scholastic forms of
knowing. Finally, students need to be able to appreciate when a prescholastic
form of knowing may harbor a different or even a deeper form of understanding
than the discipline‑related form of knowing learned in school.
Up to this point I
have spoken of the difficulties of school primarily in terms of the
problems experienced by students as they are asked to think in new kinds
of ways about new kinds of concepts and forms. Even in the happiest
scholastic environment, such a regimen may pose problems. Yet, human
constraints on learning are magnified by the equally burdensome constraints
under which schools themselves must operate. Although it would be desirable
for teachers to work directly with small and well‑motivated groups
of students, most schools are burdened with large classes, onerous rules
and regulations, disruptive demands for accountability, and students
who have many personal problems. It is not surprising that an education
geared toward understanding is a low priority in such schools; by their
nature, bureaucratized institutions have difficulty in dealing with
ends that cannot be readily quantified.
In fact, what seems
to have evolved in most parts of the scholastic world is an uneasy kind
of detente. Teachers require students to answer preset kinds of problems,
to master lists of terms, and to memorize and then feed back definitions
upon request They do not ask students to try to reconcile their earlier,
partial forms of understanding with the notations and concepts of school;
instead they deal only with the latter forms of knowing, hoping that
students can later develop the reconciliations on their own. Nor do
teachers pose challenging problems that will force their students to
stretch in new ways and that will risk failures that might make both
students and teacher look bad.
As I have come to
express it, neither teachers nor students are willing to undertake "risks
for understanding"; instead, they content themselves with safer
"correct‑answer compromises." Under such compromises,
both teachers and students consider the education to be a success if
students are able to provide answers that have been sanctioned as correct.
Of course, in the long run, such a compromise is not a happy one, for
genuine understandings cannot come about so long as one accepts ritualized,
rote, or conventionalized performances.
No doubt educators
have arrived at this compromise for many reasons, not least because
the distance between students' intuitive understandings and the understandings
exhibited by disciplinary experts is so vast. Scholastic responses‑correct‑answer
compromises‑seem a viable midpoint between these disparate forms
of understanding. But just how great is the disjunction between scholastic
and nonscholastic forms of understanding has become apparent only in
recent years. This area has been the major concern of a number of scholars
who call themselves "cognitive scientists interested in education"
or "educators interested in cognitive‑scientific research."
The names of many of these researchers are found in the notes keyed
to the relevant studies, but it is appropriate to pay special tribute
to the work of Michael Cole, Jean Lave, Lauren Resnick, Sylvia Scribner,
and their associates. Their work has much influenced my own thinking
and informs much of the ensuing discussion.
As I have already
suggested, each discipline, and perhaps each subdiscipline, poses its
own peculiar forms of difficulties, its own constraints that must be
tackled. The disjunctions between intuitive understandings of history
and the formal versions encountered in school are not directly comparable
to the disjunctions encountered in physics, mathematics, or the arts.
These distinctions should not be in any way minimized but it will be
useful from here on to group these disjunctions under three principal
headings. In the case of science and science‑related areas, I
will speak of misconceptions that students bring to their studies. In
the case of mathematics, I will speak of rigidly applied algorithms.
‑ Finally, in the case of nonscientific studies, particularly
those in the humanities and arts, I will speak of stereotypes and simplifications.
I must underscore
two points. First, I must stress that there exists no sharp line between
misconceptions and stereotypes. Indeed, difficulties in mathematics
and in certain of the social sciences seem to fall about midway between
the prototypical misconception in physics and the prototypical stereotype
in history or the arts. It is mostly for pragmatic reasons that I have
divided the evidence on these difficulties into two large chunks.
I must also concede
that use of the terms "misconceptions" and "stereotypes"
entails a risk; these terms may imply that the views of young students
are completely inadequate and that the views of older children or disciplinary
experts are entirely superior. In fact, however, the situation proves
far more complex. There are positive rationales underlying the views
held by young children, and often these perspectives harbor important
insights, which may be lost by older children and may seem obscure or
remote to beginning students. By the same token, there is no smooth
road from misconceptions to correct conceptions, from rigidly applied
algorithms to flexible trafficking between formalisms and their referents,
from stereotypes to rounded, multiply nuanced views. All understandings
are partial and subject to change; far more important than arrival at
a "correct view" is an understanding of the processes whereby
misconceptions are reformulated or stereotypes dissolved. Because of
their vividness and suggestiveness, I continue to use the terms "misconceptions"
and "stereotypes" here; however, it would be more accurate
to speak of "earlier understandings" and "more elaborated
forms of understanding."
expositional ease, I vary the gender forms from now on.)