The Unschooled Mind

By Daniel Gursky — November 01, 1991 18 min read

Ask a 5-year-old why it’s hot in the summer, and he’ll probably say it’s because the Earth is closer to the sun. Ask a high school senior the same question, and the chances are you’ll get the same answer. Both are wrong; seasons result from the angle of the Earth on its axis as it orbits the sun. The high school senior, like the 5-year-old, is responding on the basis of powerful, instinctive ideas about the world that everyone develops early in life. Through experience, the child learns that the closer one gets to a source of heat, the hotter it is; using a child’s logic, the same must be true of the Earth and the sun.

Such intuitive thinking is fine for a preschooler, but not for a high school senior. Hasn’t more than a decade of formal instruction made any difference in the student’s thinking? Not as much as most people believe, nor as much as it should have, says Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner. In his new book, The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (Basic Books), Gardner argues that inside every student--indeed, inside every person--there’s a 5-year-old “unschooled mind’’ struggling to express itself.

“Just as Freud stressed the degree to which the adult personality harbors within it the complexes and strivings of the Oedipal child,’' Gardner writes, “I maintain that students (and non-students) continue to be strongly affected by the practices, beliefs, and understandings of the 5-year-old mind.’'

Children, Gardner explains, come to school with robust, but often flawed, theories about themselves, about other people, and about the world. Instead of challenging and building on these theories, schools ignore them and proceed to teach a new set. Even though these theories may be contradictory, they can coexist in the child’s mind. In school, the student may be able to feed back infor- mation to the teacher on request, using the theories taught in the classroom, but the flawed ideas haven’t been abandoned. As a consequence, Gardner argues, once outside the school, the student reverts to the theories of the 5-year-old mind when confronting new situations.

This startling theory is the latest work in Gardner’s prolific and diverse career. He’s best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, but his dozen books run the gamut from a psychology textbook to works on topics as varied as children’s scribbling, brain damage, and China’s educational system. Whatever the subject, his work attracts attention. And The Unschooled Mind promises to add more variety and complexity to the growing national debate about teaching and learning.

“I think Howard’s one of the freshest, most original minds working in this area,’' says Jerome Bruner, a psychologist at New York University and one of Gardner’s former teachers at Harvard. “His contributions have been major, not only by making us aware of the different forms of intelligence but also in terms of following through and coming up with interesting curricular ideas.’'

William Damon, chairman of Brown University’s education department, expects The Unschooled Mind to have a powerful impact on education. “The book,’' he says, “is very innovative but at the same time very careful and responsible. It really sets out a new direction for how to approach education.’'

Gardner’s Harvard office is a classic academic’s space: crowded, strewn with papers, and dominated by large filing cabinets. The 48-year-old psychologist is dressed in the casual attire befitting a professor: light blue shirt with sleeves rolled up, olivegreen pants, no tie.

Seated in a rocking chair in front of a computer, Gardner argues that the problems with schools are much more extensive than most educators realize. “While everybody knows there are problems with many schools,’' he notes, underscoring the point with broad hand gestures, “I think most people assume that our best schools are fine.’' Not so, he says. Even in schools with the highest test scores, students who master the material adequately enough to perform well in class and on exams don’t really understand what they’re being taught.

In The Unschooled Mind, Gardner writes about a phone conversation with his daughter, Kerith, that brought this point home. When Kerith--who had done well in high school physics--called from college, distressed about her physics class, Gardner offered some fatherly advice: Don’t worry so much about the grade, he told her, just try to understand the material. “You don’t get it, Dad,’' Kerith replied. “I’ve never understood it.’'

Kerith has plenty of company. Many top students at elite universities exhibit fragile understanding, at best. In one study Gardner cites, engineering students were asked, “What forces are acting on a coin tossed straight up that has reached the midpoint of its trajectory?’' Some 70 percent of students who had taken a mechanics course answered, incorrectly, that two forces--gravity and the original force of the hand that tossed the coin--were at work. In fact, only gravity is present.

Such misconceptions about physics provide the most striking evidence of Gardner’s thesis, but he spends a good deal of his new book detailing common--but incorrect--thoughts and stereotypes that show up in other academic disciplines, as well. In math classes, for example, most calculus students can competently plug numbers into equations, but even the best students flounder when problems are phrased a little differently or applied to real-life situations. In the humanities and social sciences, people tend to respond to issues on the basis of dominant images and stereotypes, even when faced with contradictory evidence. During the Persian Gulf war, Gardner points out, huge numbers of Americans saw the conflict solely in terms of good guys vs. bad guys, demonstrating the same level of sophistication as that of a young child watching a cartoon. In reality, the complex history, culture, and economics of the Middle East make such Hollywood-like analyses inadequate.

Why does this happen? Because the 5-year-old mind reasserts itself when a person confronts difficult questions outside school. “You should talk to 5-year-olds,’' Gardner says. “They’re very smart. They’ve got very powerful theories about how the world works, and they’ve got very powerful theories about how people work. They’re very serviceable theories.’' Unfortunately, however, they are often flawed.

The problem, Gardner says, is that schools ignore the strongly held notions of their young charges; teachers treat students as if their minds are empty and need to be filled with new information. “If you don’t confront students’ ideas and show where they’re adequate and where they’re inadequate, those ideas are going to remain there,’' he argues. “They’re going to be ready to pounce like a Trojan horse as soon as the children escape from the schoolroom.’'

Every parent can cite examples of child logic. Gardner offers one from his 6-year-old son, Benjamin: “I can tell Benjamin that the Earth is round and he’ll repeat that. But then, if I say, ‘Where are you?’ he’ll say, ‘I’m on the flat part.’ Basically, he repeats the information, but he converts it to something that makes sense to him. The Earth doesn’t look round to him.’'

Students of all ages do the same thing. They may be able to provide the expected response on homework or a test, but that rote answer offers no guarantee that they understand the material. This disparity between teaching and understanding distresses Gardner because he sees “genuine understanding’'--understanding that goes beyond repetitive learning and short answers--as the fundamental goal of education. “No one ever asks the further question, ‘But do you really understand?’'' Gardner writes. “The gap between what passes for understanding and genuine understanding remains great.’'

Gardner doesn’t hesitate to propose his own solutions for promoting genuine understanding. The Unschooled Mind goes beyond description and analysis; it outlines his most explicit prescription yet about how to reform schools. He proposes an education system suffused with individual and group projects, particularly apprenticeships and the hands-on experiences offered in children’s museums, because he believes projects can restore the context sorely missing from students’ school experience. As often as possible, Gardner asserts, students should work with and learn from adult experts in their fields.

Outside of education, people’s lives basically revolve around projects. But that’s still a “blind spot’’ in schools, Gardner explains. “I often hypothesize that people probably learn more from the few projects they do in school than from hundreds and hundreds of hours of lectures and homework assignments,’' he says. “I imagine that many people end up finding their vocation or avocation because they stumbled into a project and discovered they were really interested in it.’' By the same token, once they’re immersed in a project, students might realize they’re not really interested in a subject.

Schools, Gardner believes, should pay more attention to helping students discover subject areas that interest them. By focusing on basic skills, schools risk suppressing the positive aspects of children’s minds-- adventurousness, flexibility, creativity-- as well as their natural enthusiasm for learning.

“To declare oneself against the institution of the three Rs in the school is like being against motherhood or the flag,’' he writes. “Beyond question, students ought to be literate and ought to revel in their literacy. Yet the essential emptiness of this goal is dramatized by the fact that young children in the United States are becoming literate in a literal sense; that is, they are mastering the rules of reading and writing, even as they are learning their addition and multiplication tables. What is missing are not the decoding skills, but two other facets: the capacity to read for understanding and the desire to read at all.’'

In The Unschooled Mind, Gardner suggests ways teachers can help students confront their misconceptions and flawed theories in order to develop deeper understanding. One way is through what he calls “Christopherian encounters,’' named for Christopher Columbus because Columbus challenged the conventional wisdom of his day that the Earth was flat.

In such encounters, students’ intuitive ideas are validated or proved false by comparing them with more sophisticated theories about how the world works. For example, a computer simulation that allows physics students to manipulate such forces as velocity and acceleration on an image on the screen might challenge the students’ assumptions about the influence of gravity. Or history students might reconsider their beliefs about the causes of World War I by examining conflicting accounts of the same event. The key, Gardner explains, is for students to contemplate and analyze material from as many different angles as possible.

“When I talk about Christopherian encounters,’' he says, “the point I’m trying to make is that the only way to transform our conceptions is for these things to become a major agenda of schools from the very first years. It’s got to be something that’s done over and over again.’'

These notions about the mismatch between the way schools teach and the way students learn will undoubtedly challenge people’s assumptions about learning in the same way Gardner’s 1983 book, Frames of Mind, forced people to question their assumptions about intelligence. That book stirred controversy among educators and academics and fueled many cocktail party conversations. In it, Gardner argues that instead of having one all-encompassing mental aptitude that can be measured by an IQ test, people have at least seven separate and distinct intelligences:

  • Linguistic: A sensitivity to the meaning and order of words and the ability to make varied use of language; translators or poets exhibit this intelligence.
  • Logical-mathematical: The ability to handle chains of reasoning and recognize patterns; mathematicians and scientists exhibit this intelligence.
  • Spatial: The ability to perceive the visual world accurately and re-create or transform aspects of it based on those perceptions; sculptors and architects exhibit this intelligence.
  • Musical: A sensitivity to pitch, melody, rhythm, and tone; composers and singers exhibit this intelligence.
  • Bodily-kinesthetic: The ability to use the body and handle objects skillfully; athletes, dancers, and surgeons exhibit this intelligence.
  • Interpersonal: The ability to notice and make distinctions among other people; politicians, salespeople, and religious leaders exhibit this intelligence.
  • Intrapersonal: The ability to understand one’s own feelings and emotional life; therapists and social workers exhibit this intelligence.

Gardner categorized these intelligences by reviewing studies of a range of people: prodigies, gifted people, brain-damaged patients, idiot savants, individuals from diverse cultures, and experts in various lines of work, as well as typical children and adults. Support for his belief in distinct intelligences comes in part from cases of people who lose their ability to speak but can paint beautifully, or from autistic children who can sing dozens of songs perfectly.

People possess every intelligence in varying strengths, giving everyone a unique “profile’’ of intelligences, Gardner says. Unfortunately, most schools and teachers emphasize the linguistic and logical-mathematical perspectives at the expense of other areas.

“It’s important to recognize that there are many people who could make wonderful contributions to the world who don’t happen to have that particular blend,’' Gardner says. “And if we are concerned with those individuals’ lives, we cannot ignore this fact.’'

Not everyone buys into Gardner’s theory. Some leading psychologists, including Yale University’s Robert Sternberg, have argued that Gardner has merely described various talents, not intelligences. Sandra Scarr, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, has called Gardner’s ideas on multiple intelligences a theory “in which everything good in human behavior is called intelligence.’' Other skeptics have said the theory provides a convenient excuse for almost any poor performance by students, who can plead inferior intelligence whenever they encounter difficulties.

Still, many teachers find the notion “immediately liberating,’' Gardner says. But, he adds, that doesn’t automatically translate into better teaching. “To get teachers to think deeply about their strengths, their students’ strengths, and how to achieve curricular goals while taking those strengths and different profiles seriously is a huge job,’' he says. Teachers can’t be expected to become “multiple intelligence mavens,’' as he puts it, but they should know where to send students for help in, say, music or dance.

Furthermore, an awareness of multiple intelligences can suggest to teachers various ways to present the same material. “So long as one takes only a single perspective or tack on a concept or problem,’' Gardner writes, “it is virtually certain that students will understand that concept in only the most limited and rigid fashion.’'

Gardner’s ideas about learning and intelligence aren’t just the theoretical fancies of an Ivy League academic. For more than 20 years, he has put them to the test at Harvard Project Zero, an interdisciplinary research group that conducts various small-scale studies with teachers and students at different Massachusetts schools. Gardner is co-director of the project, which began in the mid-1960s with a focus on arts education. While he retains a special interest in the arts and artistic creativity, the group has expanded its focus to cover a wide range of topics relating to curriculum, teaching, and assessment.

Not surprisingly, the projects usually require teachers and students to rethink some long-held ideas. Gardner says most people, teachers included, endorse the same view of education they had when they were 5 years old: Schools are authoritarian, punitive institutions in which somebody smart stands in front of a room and tries to pass information on to large groups of students.

Project Zero’s undertakings bear little resemblance to this vision of traditional schooling. One of its earlychildhood programs, for example, attempts to provide young children with a more rounded education than most typically experience. Preschoolers and primary students in Project Spectrum, as this study is known, explore a range of different learning areas, such as the naturalist’s corner, the storytelling area, and the building corner, to name just three of the dozen or so areas that are available. Teachers at Project Spectrum form an impression of the children’s strengths and weaknesses by watching them participate in the various games and activities. At the end of the year, they recommend specific activities that parents can do at home or around that community to stimulate the child’s learning.

In The Unschooled Mind, Gardner writes about one 6-year-old boy who was doing so badly in a regular school that he seemed certain to be held back. In Project Spectrum, the boy proved himself best in the class at assembly tasks, such as taking apart and putting together doorknobs, food grinders, and other common objects. Building on his success in this area, he went on to improve his overall school performance. Once the boy saw he could succeed and realized he had abilities valued by other people, he gained the confidence to do better in other areas, Gardner says.

Gardner’s ideas have also provided the framework for the Key School, a public elementary school in Indianapolis that operates on the principle that each child should have his or her many intelligences stimulated every day. “Practically everything we do is put through the filter of multiple intelligences,’' says Patricia Bolaos, the magnet school’s principal.

All Key School students participate in computing, music, and body movement and spend part of each day in one of a dozen apprenticeship-like pods, working with peers, teachers, and other professionals on skills ranging from architecture to gardening to making money. During each 10-week term, the curriculum focuses on a theme; students complete a project dealing with some aspect of the theme, often working with other students or members of the community. They then present their projects to classmates, who ask questions and help the teacher and the presenters assess the work. The presentations are videotaped, so students accumulate a video portfolio over the years.

Although Gardner has no official role at the school-- he’s an informal consultant--Bolaos says the school’s six-year association with him has helped establish its credibility. Word of the school has circulated nationwide; as a result, Bolaos and her staff have received hundreds of requests over the past few years from educators and others wishing to visit.

Teachers at the Key School aren’t the only ones flooded with requests from people who want to know more about multiple-intelligence theory and how it applies to schools. Eight years after the publication of Frames of Mind, Gardner still can’t keep up with all the letters and calls he receives requesting information about his theory. Gardner admits that the book received the sort of publicity most authors--and certainly most psychologists--only dream of. Still, the acclaim wasn’t entirely new: In 1981, Gardner was selected as one of the first MacArthur Foundation Fellows, a distinction that included a five-year “genius’’ award of $196,000 and a lot of attention.

But his prominence spread far beyond academic circles with the publication of his theory of multiple intelligences two years later. Today, the theory has attained pop-culture status; Washington Post political reporter Lou Cannon even examined Ronald Reagan through the multiple-intelligence lens in his recent book Ronald Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime. Last year, Gardner’s work on intelligence earned him another prestigious honor, the Grawemeyer Award in education from the University of Louisville; the award came with a $150,000 stipend.

“I could lead one life just giving workshops and speeches to people who are interested in knowing more about multiple intelligences,’' Gardner says. “There are about a dozen books already out on the topic and half a dozen people making a living giving workshops on it, none of whom I have anything to do with. I could lead another life just answering all the mail I get for requests for information about it.’'

Gardner has resisted offers from publishers who would like him to capitalize on this interest and write more “popular’’ books--something like The Seven Smarts, as he puts it. He wrote Frames of Mind for psychologists and educated lay readers; but, as it turned out, teachers and other educators provided the most enthusiastic response. With The Unschooled Mind, Gardner hopes to reach teachers again, this time with his theories about the 5-year-old mind.

“I think the new book will strike a chord among good teachers,’' Gardner predicts, “because good teachers will say, ‘I’ve been assuming all along that what I teach is getting across. Here’s a guy who seems to know what he’s talking about saying that, in fact, what I teach has very little impact, especially after my students leave the classroom.’''

Gardner doesn’t want teachers to merely read the book and put it down; he would like them to think about their teaching and embrace approaches to education that focus on genuine understanding. Only when teachers acknowledge and build on the assumptions made by the 5-year-old mind, he says, will students internalize the lessons taught in school and be able to apply them outside the classroom.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as The Unschooled Mind