Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Howard Gardner is a developmental psychologist who is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences -- the idea that there are at least seven or eight different metrics for intellect, and that a person who is strong in one area (such as logical reasoning) may be weak in others (such as musical aptitude or interpersonal awareness). Gardner has long been a critic of education systems that treat "IQ" (logical/mathematical intelligence) as the be-all and end-all of human thinking, and has called for educators to look for opportunities to engage students' other types of intelligence in order to keep them interested, active, and (most importantly) learning.

In The Disciplined Mind, though, Gardner only touches lightly on his multiple-intelligence theory; this time he has other fish to fry. His target is the mainstream education system and its obsession with coverage -- the idea that students have to accumulate a certain number of facts, about everything from the Mayflower to mitochondria, and be able to regurgitate them on command in a standardized test. This, according to mainstream thought, is what it means to be "educated" -- and Gardner calls B.S. on the whole notion.

The problem with education in this country isn't that we don't have enough facts. 21st-century humanity is inundated with facts; thanks to the Internet, we are essentially drowning in a sea of data. The problem is that, as my own history professor once said, "Facts without theory are trivia." If students cram their heads full of information but never learn how to process it properly -- how to think critically and sort good data from bad -- they'll never be able to use that information in any practical way. And when humans are faced with a bunch of facts they can't interpret, they'll usually throw up their hands and "go with their gut" -- falling back on the same flawed premises and mistaken notions that they formed in their early childhood. This is why an examination of MIT physics grads found that, just one year after graduation, they were no better at solving basic physics problems than a group of younger students who had never even taken a physics course.

Gardner proposes a better way: instead of focusing on "covering" topics, teachers should focus on un-covering the modes of thought that are necessary to interpret data correctly. By focusing on a small number of topics and going into them deeply, teachers can help their students to understand how to think like a scientist, or a mathematician, or a historian, or an art critic. Going deeply into a topic is the only way to expose the flawed thinking that lies deep in the student's mind -- at which point it can be replaced with something better.

"Better", in Gardner's way of thinking, means helping students to discern between accurate information and false information, to recognize and appreciate beauty, and to build a moral compass that will distinguish between ethical and unethical behavior. Gardner summarizes these objectives as the pursuit of "the true, the beautiful and the good." A student who learns how to recognize truth (and falsehood), beauty (and ugliness), and goodness (and evil) will have the necessary mental tools to deal with any data set that he or she may encounter. Once you've learned what it means to think like a scientist, for example, you can apply the same tools whether you're studying biology, chemistry, physics, etc. The same goes for appreciating art or interpreting historical events: the details change, but the disciplines themselves are consistent.

This is an extraordinary book. While Gardner's writing style is dense to the point of being baroque, the principles that he puts forward are ones that I think every educator (and every lawmaker) needs to grasp. He has put his finger on exactly the problem that made me so discontented with aspects of my own undergraduate education. The course that I found least satisfying (Genetics) was a barrage of facts and trivia with little to interconnect them; the professor covered many topics in only enough detail to let us answer questions on the GRE standardized test, without bothering to explain their deeper significance. I did well in the class, but only because of my own talent for storing large amounts of trivial data; I didn't actually understand much more after leaving the class than I did when I first entered it. By contrast, my organic chemistry professor focused on teaching mechanisms and processes; while there was a lot of memorization, it all fit together into a larger conceptual framework, and even years later I can still recognize the different types of reactions that he taught us to look for, even if the precise reactants in question are new to me.

Gardner is less than enthusiastic about the idea of charter schools -- he would prefer to see a nationwide education system that used his technique, or a small number of competing national programs that put their emphasis on different styles of teaching. (Given his own fascination with evolution, perhaps he is hoping that his "discipline-focused" schools will eventually achieve dominance through natural selection, while the coverage-obsessed schools go"extinct.") Still, he does acknowledge that charter schools have the opportunity to experiment with new techniques and methodologies. Hopefully ARISE High School can serve as a model for how a "disciplined" education can be successful.. The strategies and ideals Gardner espouses are right in line with the sort of education that I hope to give my students; I look forward to the opportunity to teach them the path of "the true, the beautiful and the good."

1 comment:

Victoria said...

I am very glad you enjoyed this book so much. I think that reading it before you started the Understanding by Design work was probably great background reading. Many of the points you bring up (too many facts, not enough deep thought about how to help students think about what they are learning so they can reapply the skills or knowledge later) are addressed in Understanding by Design and then a framework for getting to all this good stuff is presented.