An Education for the Future

[via Yuvaraj] From a paper by Howard Gardner presented in 2001 on the education of children and adolescents:

I will argue that we should depend primarily on two foundations or bases: the science of learning, and our own values as human beings living in communities. Let me comment on both.

First, the Science of Learning: Today I want to dwell on two major findings from the field of cognitive studies, findings with which I have been personally involved.

First finding: As human beings we have many different ways of representing meaning, many kinds of intelligence. Since the beginning of the last century, psychologists have spoken about a Single Intelligence that can be measured by an IQ test; my research has defined 8 or 9 human intelligences (linguistic; logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalist, possibly an existential intelligence). We all possess these several intelligences, but no two of us–not even identical twins–possess the same profile of intelligences at the same moment. In most countries throughout history, school has focussed almost exclusively on language and logic. Formal education has virtually ignored other forms of mental representation–artistic forms (musical), athletic (bodily), personal (knowledge of others and self); knowledge of natural world; knowledge of big questions. All of these “Frames of Mind” are there to be mobilized; if they are not, one could well call education “half-brained.”

Second finding: Facts are easy to memorize, and some of us are good at remembering them–this facility can help us win money, in fact nowadays one can win millions of dollars, on a television quiz show in the U.S. But Disciplinary Understanding is much more elusive, much more difficult to bring about. Over the millenia, human beings have developed several powerful disciplines or ways of knowing the world–chief among them scientific, humanistic, historical, artistic, mathematical forms of thought. How desirable it would be if we could simply explain these to young people (“here are the three steps to think scientifically” or “this is what it takes to think historically”), even better if we could give youngsters a shot or a pill (“here, take this mathematics pill before you go to bed on Wednesday evening”), and the students would then have mastered the discipline. In fact, however, disciplinary learning proves difficult and takes many years of guided practice and apprenticeship.

To begin with, disciplinary understanding is important–perhaps, in fact, it is the best justification for 10-15 years of school! (We could keep youngsters off the street for eight hours a day with much less money). Disciplinary understanding is also hard to achieve. Next, as human beings, we all have available different ways of representing the world, different intelligences, so to speak. The question is: Can educators build on this recently established knowledge about how human beings learn? In a word, I believe that the answer to this question is “yes” and shortly, I will try to justify my answer.

Let me turn now to the second major foundation, complementing the science of learning–That is the sphere of Values:

As a teacher or educational policy maker, you could know all of the scientific facts about learning, and it would still not tell you what to do in class on Monday morning. That is because such decisions about a course of action always involve value judgments. For example, let us say that you accept the claim that there are multiple intelligences. You could decide that you still want to make individuals as similar as possible, and so you would minimize or ignore the pluralism of intellect. Multiple intelligences are then seen as an obstacle. Many in the U.S. and the Netherlands would take that “uniform” position. To honor the finding about multiple intelligences, you could decide to teach every topic in seven or eight ways. You could decide to put together all the children who are strong in a given intelligence, or, for that matter, if you are a pessimist put together all of the children who are weak in a given intelligence. You could try to strengthen those intelligences that are weak, or ignore weaknesses and build instead on areas of strength. You could decide to learn about each child and personalize education as much as possible. That last option is what I personally favor-and in the age of the computer, it is at least feasible to personalize education for every child, and not just for those from wealthy families who can afford the latest hardware and software.

my recommendations can be stated simply. First obtain the literacies; then study in depth key topics in the major disciplines; approach those topics in many ways; and give youngsters many chances to master and many vehicles to exhibit their understandings. Let them use their knowledge of evolution to evaluate the discovery of a new set of dinosaur bones or the spreading of a computer virus, as seems to happen each new week, at least on my machine. Various tasks can be left for the university: a specialization in one or another discipline; work that is explicitly multi- or interdisciplinary; and the mastery of facts that may be useful to know if you want to become an expert in, say, botany or medieval history.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.