On Teaching for Understanding: A Conversation with Howard Gardner - ASCD
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April 1, 1993

On Teaching for Understanding: A Conversation with Howard Gardner

How do we preserve the imagination and the questioning of the 5-year-old mind, but replace the child's notions with well-founded theories and accurate conceptions? Howard Gardner has some ideas.

Instructional Strategies
Instructional Strategies

How do we preserve the imagination and the questioning of the 5-year-old mind, but replace the child's notions with well-founded theories and accurate conceptions? Howard Gardner has some ideas.

Would you say that most students don't really understand most of what they've been taught?

I'm afraid they don't. All the evidence I can find suggests that's the case. Most schools have fallen into a pattern of giving kids exercises and drills that result in their getting answers on tests that look like understanding. It's what I call the “correct answer compromise”: students read a text, they take a test, and everybody agrees that if they say a certain thing it'll be counted as understanding.

But the findings of cognitive research over the past 20–30 years are really quite compelling: students do not understand, in the most basic sense of that term. That is, they lack the capacity to take knowledge learned in one setting and apply it appropriately in a different setting. Study after study has found that, by and large, even the best students in the best schools can't do that.

Could you give a couple of examples?

Okay. The most dramatic examples come from the physical sciences. Consider kids who get A's in physics courses in good high schools and colleges, who answer all the questions correctly on tests. If they're put in a situation outside of class and asked to explain what's going to happen—to draw a diagram, to make a prediction—they can't give the right answer; in fact, the answers they give tend to be the same kinds of answers you'd get from 5-year-olds, the kinds of explanations that were given in Aristotle's time.

For example, you toss a coin in the air and ask these A students what's happening. They say, “Well, there's a certain force in my hand that I'm giving to the coin and the coin has it for a while and then the coin gets exhausted and just flops to the ground.” In fact, as soon as the coin leaves your hand, the only force working on it is gravity, which ultimately pulls it down. But that's a nonintuitive, Newtonian explanation. Kids will give you that kind of explanation if they're asked for it on a test—but if they're asked about it on the street, they'll answer the way 5-year-olds do.

There's a famous example of Harvard graduates being asked, as they received their diploma, why the earth is warmer in the summer than in the winter. Out of 25 students, nearly all gave exactly the same answer that a 5-year-old would: the earth is closer to the sun in summer than in the winter. The fact is, it has nothing to do with that; it has to do with the tilt of the earth on its axis, which is either away or toward the sun, depending on what time of the year it is in a particular location.

The research literature on “misconceptions” is pretty much restricted to science, isn't it?

I thought so, but in fact it turns up wherever you look—although the way it plays out is different. In mathematics, the problem is that kids learn formulas by rote, and they learn to plug numbers into those formulas. As long as the problem is presented with the items in the right order, so to speak, everything is all right. But as soon as the problem is given another way requiring the students to understand what the formula refers to, to be able to use it flexibly, then the students fail.

In the social sciences, the problems are stereotypes and what I call “scripts”; that is, we learn a certain way of thinking about things when we're very young. These are very powerful stories, and they're very long-lived. They influence the way we understand and explain things. For example, there's the Star Wars script: the good guys look like you, the bad guys look different, the two gangs struggle, and, in the end, the good guys win.

In literature, there's a wonderful example from I.A. Richards, the great literary critic. In Practical Criticism, he reported asking Cambridge University undergraduates, who ought to be pretty well qualified, to read some poems and tell what they meant and whether they were any good. But he didn't give them the names of the poets—and without that information, the students had no idea which poems were good and which were bad. They rejected John Donne and accepted poets who couldn't get published in the local newspapers. These students, too, forgot what they supposedly had learned in poetry class and fell back to the aesthetics of a 5-year-old.

Speaking of 5-year-olds, in your book The Unschooled Mind (1991), you give a lot of attention to the research on the learning of very young children. Why?

I think that humans have evolved to the point that 5-year-olds can figure out most things they need to know to survive. When I was writing my book, I happened to have a 5-year-old (my son Benjamin), so I didn't have a problem finding a subject for my research. And by and large when I asked him questions, he gave answers as good as anybody who wasn't an expert. He was able to understand a point, able to think about things, even to evaluate alternatives. He could come up with metaphors, examples, and so on.

So a 5-year-old mind is a terrific invention! It has theories: theories of mind, theories of matter, theories of life, theories of self.

That's the good news. On the other hand, the 5-year-old also develops many notions that are just wrong. For example, you have a heavy object in your hand and a light object in your hand. You drop them both at the same time, and the heavy one falls quicker. It's a very appealing idea—but it's dead wrong.

There's the Star Wars script I talked about: people who look like you are good; people who look different from you are bad. You can see why, over the course of evolution, that was a pretty smart story to align yourself with. But it leads to all kinds of prejudices and biases.

So you might say that the challenge of education is, on the one hand, to preserve the imagination and the questioning and the theoretical stance of a 5-year-old, but on the other hand—gradually but decisively—to replace those ideas that are not well-founded with theories, ideas, conceptions, stories, which are more accurate.

But that doesn't always happen.

Unfortunately, it seldom happens. As I argue in The Unschooled Mind, there are these engravings in the mind that are established early in life, and most of us never get rid of them. What school does is kind of pour powder over them so you can't see them. It makes kids look as if they have sophisticated understanding. But when the kids leave school, the understanding disappears, and the initial engravings are still there.

What can be done about it?

The best thing schools can do is come up with long-term regular procedures that gradually wear down those early engravings and that slowly construct better ones: more comprehensive theories, better explanations, less prejudiced views of the world.

In your book you suggest two models that could help schools make learning more authentic: children's museum-type programs and apprenticeships. Why those?

I was searching for learning situations that minimize the kind of mindless, context-less learning that takes place in schools and maximize people's understanding of why they're doing things—by giving them opportunities to try things out in new ways. And I came up with these institutions, one that's very old and one that's very new.

Now, people sometimes misinterpret my idea of apprenticeships to mean that I'm recommending seven-year signed contracts calling for kids to start out by sweeping the floor. With children's museums, they think I mean to close the schools and build a center with a reflecting pool in the middle. That's not what I mean at all.

What I do mean is that there are powerful lessons to be learned from observing a good apprenticeship or a good children's museum. In an apprenticeship, you see a young person hanging around a very knowledgeable adult—an expert, someone who really knows what he or she is doing—watching that person, day after day, as he uses his knowledge. The master challenges his apprentice at the level the apprentice can handle. He doesn't give her something she could do six months ago; he doesn't give her tasks that are way too difficult. He's always calibrating the challenge for about where the student is. And I think that if you hang around an expert, not only will you develop requisite skills, you'll know when to use them and when not to use them.

But the point is for teachers and parents to think of themselves as masters and to challenge their apprentices. If the parent watches TV instead of reading, or the teacher reads one book a year—I'm told that's what the average teacher reads—that's the message the kids will get. But if the adults read and write and talk about current events, the kids will do it, too.

And children's museums?

Well, they're a very new invention. Ann Lewin, the head of the Capitol Children's Museum in Washington, D.C., calls them a new art form. They've grown dramatically in the last 25 years; there were just a handful in 1950–60, and now there are hundreds of them. They are places where kids can find things that interest them and explore these things at their own pace and in their own way. Frank Oppenheimer, who founded the Exploratorium in San Francisco, said, “Nobody flunks museums.”

A good museum is a child-friendly place to learn. And many people, including me, have been fascinated as we've escorted kids whom we thought we knew to children's museums and discovered unexpected strengths or unexpected areas of confusion. Or discover that kids we thought of as being unable to learn were terrific learners, but in a very different type of environment. It broadens your notion of what kids are like, what they can do.

Of course, most teachers and principals don't have the resources, perhaps even the authority, to set up children's museum-like situations or establish apprenticeships.

Don't fall into that trap. The apprentice-master relationship is primarily a way of thinking. The master teacher thinks, “I'm not just passing on the contents of a textbook; I'm modeling a certain kind of knowledge and standards for making use of that knowledge in daily life.” If you think of yourself like that, that's a revolutionary difference—and it doesn't cost a dime.

As for children's museums, many communities now have one. And I can't believe there's any regulation that precludes some commerce back and forth between the children's museum—its materials and its personnel—and the schools. The problem is that it's considered a frill rather than an important means of education.

And even in communities that don't have a children's museum, educators can visit one in another city and watch what's going on, see how kids interact with stuff, observe the learning. I recommend that teachers visiting the San Jose Discovery Museum pretend to be 5-year-olds; regress to that age and see what it's like to learn about the world in those ways.

Why is that so important? What about the way things are done in children's museums makes for authentic learning?

Well, take the Exploratorium in San Francisco. First of all, it's put together by people who know a lot about science. It's designed to reflect scientific knowledge that has been developed in the past couple of centuries—but there's nothing didactic or intimidating there at all.

Instead, there are the actual experiments that lead people to draw conclusions about science. So the kids themselves have the chance to be little scientists, to try experiments and see what happens. And the important thing is it doesn't matter the first or the second time they do something whether they have any idea as to what the “right” physical principle is; they're getting familiar with the phenomena in a way that fits their own tempo, learning style, profile of intelligences. They're getting a chance to test some of their own intuitive notions and see what about them is tenable and what is inadequate.

And if they spend more time there, they can read some of the material the museum provides or they can talk with one of the explainers who come around, or hang around with a teacher or parent who knows some things. So in that realistic environment they can enter into a discussion about the meaning of the things people have discovered in the sciences or the arts.

When you've encountered an idea in your own way and brought your own thinking to bear, the idea becomes much more a part of you. It isn't something that you read about from 3 o'clock to 3:15 and then forget; it's a part of your own experience. And if you're encouraged to take the lessons you learned in the Exploratorium and bring them home to your basement or your own room, or bring them to school—to what's going on in science class or art class—you then have what I call “resonance.” The notion of resonance is that people are more likely to master concepts and understand potential implications of phenomena when they encounter them in different places. Children who have made bubbles or played with pendulums in children's museums will understand them more fully when they encounter them at school.

Let me ask, then, how these principles apply to what teachers do day-by-day with the kids in their classrooms?

The first question the teacher should ask is, “Why am I doing this? Do I believe it's important? Can I convey that to kids?” Not just because it's the next lesson, or because it comes from the textbook.

Then, the teachers need to figure out what's the very best way to introduce kids to this phenomenon: what's the generative idea, the puzzle, the thing that's really going to compel, maybe because it's surprising or intriguing.

Then it's important to provide what I call “multiple entry points.” Kids don't all learn in the same way; they don't all find the same things interesting. In fact, based on my theory of multiple intelligences introduced in Frames of Mind, 1 I'd say that you can approach almost any rich topic in a whole variety of ways.

We need to give kids a chance in school to enter the room by different windows, so to speak—but to be able to see the relationships among the different types of windows.

Another obvious implication, one that only a few people have begun to take seriously, is that we've got to do a lot fewer things in school. The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage. As long as you are determined to cover everything, you actually ensure that most kids are not going to understand. You've got to take enough time to get kids deeply involved in something so they can think about it in lots of different ways and apply it—not just at school but at home and on the street and so on.

Now, this is the most revolutionary idea in American education—because most people can't abide the notion that we might leave out one decade of American history or one formula in math or one biological system. But that's crazy, because we now know that kids don't understand those things anyway. They forget them as soon as the test is over—because it hasn't been built into their brain, engraved in it. So since we know unambiguously that the way we do it now isn't working, we have to try something else.

You're really convinced of that?

Let me give you an example. Having written The Unschooled Mind and thinking that the ideas had a certain power, I tried out the theories on my graduate students studying cognitive development. At the beginning of the year, the middle of the year, the end of the year, I gave all the students two tests. One was a conventional test of content knowledge: who was Piaget, what his theories were about; things like that. But the other was a test of understanding. I would give the students new situations that they hadn't seen before—articles out of the newspaper or phenomena that I just made up—and I would ask them to explain those phenomena.

Well, the results were very striking. Over the course of the term, the students' mastery of content zoomed up. Their understandings, on the other hand, were exactly the same; they didn't change at all. How humiliating! I could just see the headlines, “Harvard Professor of Well-Regarded Courses Documents That His Own Students Don't Understand.”

Fortunately, it's a two-year program, so we're rewriting the course now; we're going to teach it very differently. So the message, I guess, is “Physician, heal thyself.”

End Notes

1 H. Gardner, (1983), Frames of Mind, 10th Anniversary Edition, 1993, (New York: Basic Books).

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