Howard Gardner on Learning for Understanding – educator – Interview
Elizabeth Donohoe Steinberger
Howard Gardner has challenged not only the ways in which we see ourselves and our children, but also the ways in which we teach and learn. His book Frames of Mind, published in 1983, forwarded his theory of multiple intelligences, which shook the bedrock of traditional cognitive psychology by advocating that each individual is smart in many more ways than can be measured by conventional IQ tests.
In 1991, Gardner attracted national attention in The Unschooled Mind by arguing that even the best students in the best schools leave the classroom with flawed theories about how the world works and why people do what they do. Gardner, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, believes that schools have substituted various proxies, such as Carnegie units and other credentials, for genuine knowledge, understanding, and achievement.
An author of a dozen books, Gardner has worked with victims of brain disease at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Boston as well as with highly artistic children at Harvard. Most recently he has directed his efforts toward ATLAS (Authentic Teaching, Learning, and Assessment for all Students), a collaborative project supported by the New American Schools Development Project.
How are teaching and learning being reshaped in ATLAS’ communities? Gardner describes the reforms he believes are needed for genuine student understanding and achievement in an interview with The School Administrator.
You have suggested that one of the most striking aspects of educational reform has been the silence about educational purpose. What do you see as being the purpose of schooling in today’s world?
Gardner: We managed to go through several years of reform by focusing on things where there probably wasn’t going to be a huge amount of disagreement. One point of agreement was that we need to have kids who have basic skills and who work hard–that was not very controversial.
A second was that if we want teachers to be professional, they have to have more control over their lives and what happens in schools. That was not terribly controversial either.
My analysis suggests, however, that ultimately we have to bite the bullet and say what schooling is for and ask how we know whether we are achieving that. So a couple of years ago, I bit the bullet and said the purpose of education is to enhance students’ understanding.
This, in itself, is not controversial, either. But when you ask what is understanding and how do you know whether you have achieved it, these questions become very controversial.
What do you mean by “understanding”?
Gardner: Let’s say, for example, you have 16 Carnegie units or that you get a certain score on a standardized test. Can I assume then that you understand something? You might say, “Sure, because those tests test for understanding.” But here’s where things get really interesting.
Research indicates that most students in most schools, including our best students in our best schools, do not really understand. And you say, “What? The students who get A’s, who get good scores on the College Boards, and who go to Ivy League schools don’t understand?”
Let me give an example from the sciences. When you ask students who get very high grades and go to very good colleges to explain a physical phenomenon, not only can they not explain it but they actually give the same sort of explanations that four-and five-year-olds give.
In mathematics, kids learn how to plug numbers into a formula, but when you give them a problem they have not seen before, most students do not know how to use the formula to solve the problem. In the social sciences, arts, and humanities, a student mat well be able to express a complex phenomenon they have encountered in school or a text, but when something complex happens in the real world, they give very simplistic explanations.
This is where my definition of understanding comes in. I consider an individual to have understood when he or she can take knowledge, concepts, skills, and facts and apply them in new situations where they are appropriate. If students simply parrot back what they have been told or what they have read in a textbook, then we do not really know whether they understand.
We can only really determine whether a student understands when we give the student something new and they can draw upon what they have learned to help answer a question, illuminate a problem, or explain a phenomenon to someone else.
Where do students get these simplistic notions about their world?
Gardner: They get them pretty much on their own by being human beings, by having brains, and by trying, during their early years, to make sense of the world. Kids develop very powerful theories about the world when they are young–theories about matter, mind, and life. A theory about matter, for example, is that sweaters keep you warm so they must have warmth in them. But when you leave a sweater outside, it stays cold.
Many of a child’s theories are totally intuitive and totally wrong. They are developed without a lot of help, without a lot of teaching. And that is what I call the “unschooled mind,” the mind that is developed without any formal education. It is a wonderful mind. However, if all of these ideas were correct, we would never have had to develop disciplines or teach children new things because they would come to school entirely equipped.
How do teachers and administrators take the unschooled mind and help the child understand the world and the way people are?
Gardner: According to the work I have done, these early theories are deeply engraved into our mind. Because many of them are wrong, the purpose of school ought to be to change the engraving so that it is more accurate. Instead what happens is that the engraving gets covered with a very tine powder–the stuff that school is trying to teach.
If you peek into the mind in school, it looks pretty good because you just see the powder. But beneath the powder, the engraving is unaffected. And when you leave school and slam the door for the last time, the powder blows away and the initial engraving is still there. In other words, the unschooled mind is relatively unaffected by school once the individual gets out of the school context.
Although we need teachers and textbooks, they often are not enough. Unless you really confront students’ notions about the world and figure out why they believe these theories and what could convince them they are wrong, they will continue to hold onto those ideas.
And so you can simulate things. You really have to help kids challenge the ideas they have. If you leave a sweater outside every day of the year and have kids take the temperature of the sweater everyday, that is going to affirm the notion that the sweater is not inherently warm. You take their stereotypical ways of thinking very seriously, recognize their misconceptions, and deal with them directly.
Are there other ways?
Gardner: There are. These include two institutions I am very interested in. One is an old institution–the apprenticeship. The other is a new institution–the children’s museum.
Now I’m not talking about the surface features of apprenticeships and children’s museums–with apprenticeships, seven years of indenture and sweeping the floor, or with children’s museums, a place you go to on weekends to see big fountains and eat ice cream. I’m talking about the educational wisdom that is embedded in each of these institutions.
In an apprenticeship, you hang around somebody who is an expert, a mentor. You see that person use his or her knowledge in action everyday. Here is where we can get into the marrow of schools.
And what about the educational wisdom embedded in children’s museums?
Gardner: What’s amazing about children’s museums is that you can take kids who seem like total dolts in school and put them in children’s museums and suddenly they become very intelligent. They inquire, explore, experiment. They learn things, approach things in their own way, and do their own kind of reflection about what is going on.
I’ve seen 50 to 60 kids totally engaged and working in a children’s museum without any adult around. You don’t often see that sort of thing in schools.
Both apprenticeships and children’s museums suggest that students go outside the traditional school setting. How can we bring more of this type of learning into the classroom?
Gardner: It’s really bringing the habit of mind and the practices associated with those institutions closer to classrooms. If teachers think of themselves as role models–actually using the literacies of their discipline, thinking historically, and carrying out experiments–kids will see that what they are learning really does have a use.
The single most important thing that a superintendent, principal, or teacher can do is to show that learning and knowledge and understanding are important to them. If they can do that, they have crossed the most important river. And if they do not have the time to do that, they are destined to fail in the area of genuine understanding, no matter how clever they are and how good they are with budgets. If they do not communicate that learning and understanding are central, they cannot possibly be effective.
So administrators and teachers can serve as experts in learning for the apprentice student?
Gardner: Yes, but it’s not that important that the teacher be the total expert. Teachers shouldn’t feel badly if they don’t know all the answers. They should feel badly if they cut off the questions.
Children learn a lot when teachers say they don’t know–as long as teachers also ask questions, such as how can we figure this out, who can we go to, where could we look it up? What is important is that the teacher, at his or her level of understanding, demonstrate how to learn and use what he or she has learned.
Let’s turn the tables a bit. You have talked about how children develop flawed theories about how the real world works. What are some of the flawed theories about schools, about how children develop and how they learn?
Gardner: Everybody–you, I, administrators, and teachers–has flawed notions about school. Perhaps the most profound one is that school has to be the way we adults remember it. Most people feel that if they sat still with worksheets in front of them and handed work in on time, then that’s the way school should be.
I’m not saying schools like that are necessarily disastrous, but I can say with great confidence that this type of learning doesn’t work any more.
Another flawed notion is that the teacher is the person who is smart and has all the knowledge and the child is an empty vessel in whom that knowledge is poured. Still another is that kids are bright or dumb. They are born that way and there isn’t much you can do about it. The purpose of school, then, is to figure out who the bright ones are and push them through as quickly as possible and to sort out the dumb ones because you really can’t do much about them.
And then there’s the notion that you have to control things at all times, and that kids have to be kept down because as soon as you turn your back, they’ll throw something at you.
You said that some of these flawed notions play out in the ways children are labeled as being smart or dumb. How does your theory of multiple intelligences counter such labels?
Gardner: The notion of intelligence as being a single thing is actually less than 100 years old, but it has exerted enormous influence in this country and others as well.
My research led me to a different perspective. I observed that with both children and brain-damaged patients, strength in one area simply did not predict strength in another area. If I tell you, for example, that somebody is good in music, you can’t tell me whether or not he or she will be good with language or science or understanding other people.
My argument is that in evolution we have developed a brain and a mind that can analyze lots of different information. And while every brain and mind can do that, probably no two brains and minds have exactly the same configurations of intelligences.
What does this mean for school?
Gardner: What we have been doing is to teach and assess everybody as though each has the same kind of mind. In school, we appeal to people who have what I call a blend of superficial language and logic–people who are quick and glib and who can talk fast and reason pretty well.
As long as these people stay in school, they do well. But once they walk out into the street, they discover that the skills they have are really not any more essential than other skills for surviving in the world.
If you take the notion of individual differences and multiple intelligences seriously, you have to ask several questions: What curricula do we offer kids? To what extent do we try to cofigure curricula to children’s ways of learning? What kind of assessments should we use to find out whether kids really understand?
There’s no reason why everyone has to learn history or math in the same way. And there is no reason why we have to be assessed in the same way. We have different kinds of minds. IfI understand a mathematical principle and I can show you it one way, it’s really not important that I show it to you in another way.
How can schools test for and appeal to so many different intelligences?
Gardner: A lot of intelligences really can’t be tested for, in the sense we usually use the word “test.” What we need to do is to create school environments where you can observe a lot about what kids are good at, what interests them, and where they show substantial growth–environments that, in many respects, resemble children’s museums.
Where might school administrators and teachers start?
Gardner: Within the educational context, I believe we need to start with the child’s strengths. If a child is afraid of a particular area or not very good in an area, the best way to work with that child is to use an area of strength as an entry point.
This not only increases the chances that the child will find some way to the concept–after all, there are many windows in the same room–but, at the same time, it gives the child a sense of what it means to be an expert because an expert is able to think about things in more than one way.
We also might begin to observe children when they are young and share our observations with the children, their parents, and subsequent teachers. In the end, however, we have to be responsible for our own education, and this means knowing what sorts of things we are good at and how we learn best.
Are there model schools that are successfully implementing these practices?
Gardner: There is the Key School in Indianapolis, which is organized around the idea of multiple intelligences. One thing that excites people about the Key School is that the children there are very metacognitive. The children say, “Well, I learn about stuff in this way.” They get very angry when the teacher insists on doing things only his or her way.
Another example is a high school in East Harlem in New York City. The kids, who have had many strikes against them, are learning a progressive curriculum and working hard. Graduation is by exhibition, not by test scores. Eighty percent of the kids graduate and go on to colleges.
We also have a new project, currently funded by the New American Schools Development Corporation, called ATLAS, (Authentic Teaching, Learning, and Assessment for all Students). It is a consortium among Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools at Brown University, Jim Coiner’s School Development Program at Yale University, the Education Developmental Center in Newton, Mass., which is run by Janet Whitla, and my own group at Harvard, Project Zero.
How does ATLAS propose to restructure schooling?
Gardner: At the very center of ATLAS is the child. Education is personalized and makes sense to the child. Students graduate not because of Carnegie units but because they can exhibit knowledge and understanding of what is important.
The curriculum grows out of essential questions human beings have asked since the beginning of time. The focus is on uncoverage–not coverage. Less is more, so kids can go into things deeply.
Also at the center are authentic learning experiences. These are practices that aren’t done just to satisfy a state requirement or because it was done to you, but rather practices that you can justify because kids are going to learn from them. It’s very important in ATLAS schools that you have flexible policies so that experimentation is allowed.
In the very early stage of developing an ATLAS school, we emphasize the creation of organizational management structures where everybody in the community who has a stake in the school gets together and talks and argues and reaches a consensus, without blame, about what the important things in the school are, about how to achieve them, and about how to make sure everybody is on board.
What can superintendents, principals, teachers, and parents do to cultivate authentic learning and genuine understanding in their own schools?
Gardner: It’s easy to sit at Harvard and tell everybody else what to do. I’m mindful of the enormous problems faced by so many teachers and administrators. They are problems that I frankly would not know how to handle.
That being said, I don’t think there is any way for people in American schools today to be successful unless they are focused on the education of kids. Schools have to decide what to leave out, what’s not important, what’s the bonus you can do later, and then really focus on what I call the meat and potatoes. This means tackling important questions and reaching deep understanding.
If people don’t want understanding, they have no reason to defend what they are doing except to say they are keeping kids off the streets. And since shootings go on in schools, too, keeping kids off the streets is not such a huge deal.
Once you decide that understanding is your focus, then how you think about everything changes, including the notions of curriculum and coverage. Understanding takes time, and the greatest enemy of understanding is coverage. If you are determined to cover everything, you guarantee that most kids will not understand.
I find it incredible that we have so many educational leaders-from chief state school officers to governors to presidents to secretaries of education–and none of them talks about what seems to be the most elementary thing: If kids don’t understand, then what are we doing?
Elizabeth Steinberger is a free-lance writer and educational researcher based in Leesburg, Va. The complete interview with Howard Gardner is available on audiocassette for purchase.
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