The Uses Of Education

By Ronald A. Wolk — January 01, 1993 3 min read

In his book The Unschooled Mind, Howard Gardner, eminent Harvard educator and researcher, recalls a despairing call from his daughter Kerith to say that she didn’t understand her physics course. To reassure her, Gardner praised her courage in taking college physics, told her not to worry about her grade, and urged her to seek help from her professor. “What’s important,” he said, “is that you understand the material.”

Kerith, who had done well in high school physics, replied: “You don’t get it, Dad. I’ve never understood it.”

Kerith, like most children, had discovered early that there are two kinds of learning—the kind one needs to succeed in school and the kind one needs in daily life. And all too often, the two are unrelated.

Schools traditionally have required students to accumulate and retain information long enough to pass a test. The primary objective has been to impart knowledge rather than to encourage thinking. And neither teachers nor tests have been inclined in most cases to determine whether the student really understands the ideas, the concepts, the meanings of lessons.

Consequently, there are probably millions of high school graduates in this country who passed geometry and trigonometry in high school but don’t know the difference between a cosine and a stop sign. There are legions of successful citizens who can quote poetry that they don’t understand, know the date of the Battle of Hastings without knowing what it was about, and believe that it’s warmer in the summer because the earth is closer to the sun.

The three feature stories in this issue are about efforts by teachers and schools to make the world of school relevant. Their objective is to engage students in problems and questions that have application to their daily lives—and, in so doing, to encourage students to think for themselves, to analyze, evaluate, and reach rational conclusions. Knowledge and skills learned in this way tend to be useful for a lifetime. As psychologist William James said more than a century ago, “The art of remembering is the art of thinking.”

In “A Course Of Action,” we visit the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, where students are confronted with complex “real-world” problems that may require weeks to solve. Working together, they analyze the problem, scour libraries, and interview experts to gather pertinent information; they sort and evaluate facts, debate theories, weigh evidence, and eventually reach conclusions.

In addition to the factual knowledge they acquire, the students learn valuable lessons about life and reality. Teacher Bill Stepien notes how difficult it is to get students to accept ambiguity: “A lot of kids have the conception that when you come up with a solution you make the problem go away, and that’s untrue. We talk about making something unacceptable more acceptable. Improvement through solution, not rectification, is what we’re looking for.”

Teachers like Stepien also realize that technology is an invaluable tool for bringing the real world into the classroom. As the story demonstrates, a growing number of teachers and schools are tapping into a vast global network of computer networks that offers an extraordinary array of informational resources. Students can engage in real-time “computer conversations” with orbiting astronauts, track hurricanes as they approach the mainland, and communicate with their counterparts in war-torn Yugoslavia.

Robert DeSena, the subject of our cover story, which is another installment in our Pew Charitable Trusts series about teacher leaders, has really blurred the distinction between school and the outside world. For nearly 20 years, he has worked to promote positive relations among racially and ethnically diverse students in New York City. The Council For Unity, which he founded in 1975, has created understanding and tolerance in places where hate and violence are commonplace. It functions as “a kind of applied citizenship,” DeSena says, where kids learn the concepts of government and the theories of democracy by applying them.

“If education is not useful, what is it?” philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once asked rhetorically. “Of course, education should be useful, whatever your aim in life. It was useful to Saint Augustine and it was useful to Napoleon. It is useful because understanding is useful.” The teachers we write about in this issue obviously believe that.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as The Uses of Education