The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach

Howard Gardner
New York: Basic Books, 1991
255 pp., $21.95 hc

Bruce Gobel
Montana State University

In The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (1991) Howard Gardner singles out deficiencies in school curriculum and limitations of the traditional school setting as the primary causes of the so-called decline in American education. As evidence that schools are failing, he notes that even well trained and successful students do not display an adequate understanding of the materials and concepts with which they have been working. They may possess factual knowledge regarding a discipline, but when asked to apply that knowledge in a different context, for example, applying knowledge of Newtonian mechanics in the prediction of movement of actual objects, they perform poorly.

Gardner claims that the traditional curriculum which focuses on the transfer of information denies the existence of multiple ways of knowing a discipline, including through language, logical and mathematical analysis, spatial representation, and musical thinking. In this way, he takes issue with the notions of "basic skills" and "cultural literacy" which are insufficient in helping students see the world in new ways.

Because Gardner's notion of understanding rests on the ability to successfully apply disciplinary knowledge in novel situations, he suggests that learning would best take place in children's interactive museums or in apprenticeships for older students. For example, young children might watch and help competent adults practice their disciplines or crafts, such as zookeeping, computer programming, bicycle assembly, or acting. Adolescents would select an interest area, such as architecture, gardening, or business and work under the guidance of an expert engaged in productive work. Student progress would be assessed by the completion of projects which demonstrate an understanding of the chosen field. In his call for museum schools and apprenticeships, Gardner acknowledges his debt to John Dewey's progressive lab school approach at the turn of the century and suggests that with recent technological advances, schools are now capable of succeeding where Dewey failed.

The notion of grounding school curriculum in the activities and vocations of the real world is as important today (and as ignored) as it was in Dewey's progressive era. However, Gardner's optimism about the prospects for student achievement under such a curriculum is inconsistent with recent research regarding the many causes of poor student performance in American schools. No simple correlation exists between school curriculum and the achievement of students. Rather, academic success is directly linked to a multitude of factors, including: a student's biogenetics, his family's stability, religion, economic class, his personal attitudes and learning styles, his school's institutional deficiencies, his access to educational resources, as well as his understanding of local folk theories regarding the very notion of success.

In order to address the problems of a diverse student population, educational theorists must devise an equally complex and flexible plan for reform. As John Ogbu, an ethnographer of schools, points out, researchers such as Gardner, James Comer, Henry Levin, and others continue to view school performance as linked to single factors and, consequently, offer solutions that are too narrow in focus to bring about widespread, significant improvement. For example, how will museum schools counter the effects of early childhood poverty and malnutrition? Will apprenticeships inherently reverse the distrust and hostility that many children of color have toward schools? Given that, for some involuntary immigrant groups, school learning is equated with "being white," can we assume that a curricular change will bring about academic success for all? These are questions that The Unschooled Mind neither recognizes nor answers. Nevertheless, Gardner offers educational reformers an important piece to a complex puzzle. In particular, his vindication of John Dewey's lab school approach and his insistence on grounding learning in the actual work of the world is a welcome challenge to the shallow knowledge acquisition championed by the "cultural literacy" movement.

Contents | Home