Howard Gardner

I first encountered the name Howard Gardner using a university library search system looking for reference material for this paper. Within the online system there were a number of abstracts on his book “The Unschooled Mind”. And, of course, given the topic I wanted to write about, the title caught my attention. The abstracts consistently gave a relatively low opinion of the theories presented in the book. However, one of the abstracts briefly described the background/problem which lead to the theories. The theories had no relevance to the paper (I made no mention of them in the paper) but the problem was relevant. I could not find the book in the university library so I bought a copy online.

I have never actually read all of the book. I’d guess that I’ve read about half of it. The problem I believe that Gardner was trying to solve was the following:

…that in nearly every student there is a five year old ‘unschooled’ mind struggling to get out and express itself.

What I believe he was saying was that however long a person spends in school, there remains within them the learner who learned without curriculum and external control. For example, the learner who learned how to walk; the one that learns to ride a bike, roller blade, skateboard, etc. Gardner used studies to back his argument. One of those studies compared the working (practical) knowledge of basic physics of recent MIT engineering degree graduates with school students. Both groups were asked the questions in a way that was not consistent with test or exam questions. An example of the type of knowledge they were evaluating is if I throw a ball, after it leaves my hand, in addition to friction with the air, what other forces are acting on its motion. The MIT graduates only did marginally better than elementary students. The majority of both groups did not know the correct answer (gravity).

The studies that he quoted would suggest that for most people all the years in school and all the ‘learning’ in school have little impact on their perception of how the world works. In other words, most high school graduates have many of the same misconceptions about how the world works the most 5 year olds do despite the fact that the high school graduates’ ‘education’ corrected many of those misconceptions.

At this point you may be wondering where this train of thought came from. TBH, it’s partly (but only partly) Carlotta‘s fault. I left her the following comment last night on this post:

I have his book ‘The Unschooled Mind’. Whether or not you or I agree with his theories on intelligence(s), the book is a worthwhile read in that it directs you to thinking about what the current education system lacks and seemingly prevents children from learning.

What lead me to thinking about writing this post started with the conversation going on in the comments here (also last night). Last night when I was going to sleep, I was thinking of the difference between process and product. An example that I thought of was those craft times where a group of kids ‘make’ a craft. The teacher/leader prepares for the craft making session by cutting all the pieces, making all the shapes, writing step by step instructions to aid in keeping everyone together, etc. In many cases, the only thing left for the child to do is apply glue a few times. What I realized in thinking about that example was that it was an instance of the product being more important than the process. That the end result be more or less the desired product is more important than the child make something on their own.

And then it hit me. That is the problem Gardner is trying to solve. What school delivers to a child is a product. School is not about the process of learning. It is about absorbing a predetermined range of knowledge which is planned down to the minutest detail. It’s no wonder education is considered a commodity. But the contrasting thing is that until a child enters school, the child’s learning is primarily about process. A child doesn’t learn to walk because it’s coming up later on a test or they need a license to walk or it’s going to help them get a job when they are an adult. They learn to walk because they want to walk. They learn to talk because they want to talk. And Gardner’s unschooled mind is one that learns because it wants to.

Even though I had no intention of offering comment on Gardner’s theories themselves, I’ve changed my mind. You can come up with whatever theories you want about the way our intelligence works. In the long run, if they are attended to at all they will be used in hopes of fine tuning the step by step instructions of mass producing a product. Theories about intelligence(s) can tell you nothing about what an individual child will want to learn.

Author: Ron

Homeschooling dad of 4 (ages 27 - 14), grampy to 3, WordPress core contributor, former farmboy & software developer by profession.

3 thoughts on “Howard Gardner”

  1. Hi Ron,

    Such an interesting post…have been thinking about many similar issues recently, in part prompted by your comments. Clearly I am going to have to get Gardner’s book!

    My thinking went in similar fashion to yours: Schools so desperately need to turn out the product that they screw the natural way we learn. By this I mean that there seems to be an endemic (if unwritten) assumption amongst school educators that knowledge can be poured into the minds of children much in the same way that you would pour water into a bucket…but it is clear that learning only takes place when the mind of the learner is actively engaged.

    In practical terms, this best means that the learner’s question comes first and this again often best seems to happen when a learner encounters something in the real world that arouses his curiousity. You are far more likely to be interested in the forces involved in levers if one has spent loads of time mucking about on a see-saw, for example. The learner is also much more likely to understand the solutions if he has spent so much time involved in the experimental real-world, real-problem stage.

    I remember a similar study to the one you mention where biology graduates were asked to name the principal source of nutrients of plants. Most mentioned the soil rather than photosynthesis. My guess is that if they had spent more time pottering about in their veg patches, they would have a better grasp of this and would anyway be certainly much more interested in the answers!

  2. Thanks for posting this Ron. I’ve had this book on my shelf for a very long time, and I hadn’t picked it up since I feel like I’ve read just about everything I could possibly read on unschooling. But it sounds like he’s got some interesting things to say.

    The product vs. process concept is some particularly crunchy food for thought.

  3. The irony is that I don’t think Gardner is a fan of unschooling and yet his research/writing goes a long way to supporting it.

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