The Understanding Pathway: A Conversation with Howard Gardner - ASCD
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November 1, 1999

The Understanding Pathway: A Conversation with Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner reflects on how students who learn in many different ways might grapple with their deepest questions about life.

Instructional Strategies

"When I first heard him describe his theory of multiple intelligences . . . I felt as if I had stumbled into a room in my own home that I had never noticed before." So writes Jane Healy about the impact that Howard Gardner's insights had on her thinking back in 1983 when he wrote Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. 1

Feeling that same shock of recognition toward an idea that squares with their own teaching and learning experiences, many educators this past decade have implemented a version of MI theory in their own classrooms.

In Gardner's's new book, The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand, 2 he elaborates on applications of MI theory and on the importance of the disciplines, and he advocates schools where students delve into deep epistemological questions. He calls that approach to education "the understanding pathway." Here he talks with ELreaders about what that classroom would be like.

What is the difference between a classroom that focuses on understanding—a constructivist classroom, if you agree with that use of the term—and a behaviorist classroom?

In a classroom that focuses on understanding, teachers are clear about the understandings that they value and the understandings that they want students to exhibit. In general, these understandings focus on important topics and reveal disciplinary ways of thinking.

In a class on American history, for example, a student who understands the Bill of Rights is able to show how specific amendments do, or do not, apply to controversial issues of the day or to those drawn from the past. In a class on biology, a student who understands the theory of evolution is able to discuss what might happen to an island if all wildlife were removed and if animals from a few species were then transported there. In carrying out such "performances of understanding," students show whether they can think historically or scientifically about concrete events or topics.

I am happy to use the term constructivist to apply to such a classroom. The crucial tension between "constructivism" and "behaviorism" has to do with the view of learning that is embraced. In a behaviorist class, one focuses on the answers desired and tries to shape responses until they resemble a prototype. What goes on inside the head, if anything, is irrelevant. In a constructivist classroom, students continually try out ideas and practices for themselves and see where they work and where they prove inadequate. The models that an individual constructs in his or her mind are crucial to understanding or nonunderstanding.

Some people use the word behaviorist to describe a regimen based on rewards and punishment. I'm not one of those individuals who avoids rewards or punishments in all cases; but grounding one's teaching in such "schedules of reinforcement" can't work in the long run. Students (and ex-students) must come to learn because they have a desire to learn, not because someone is giving them an A or an M&M.

In your new book, you introduce the idea of teaching the "essential concerns of human beings." In an age of standards and standardized testing, how would you suggest that teachers balance teaching about truth, beauty, and morality (unmeasurable concepts) with the increasing pressures to help students perform well on tests? Are the two movements incompatible?

I don't actually advocate teaching directly about truth, beauty, and morality; that sounds like a graduate philosophy course. I advocate teaching those disciplines—history, science, the arts, and literature—that will present to students their culture's image of what is true (and not true), beautiful (and not beautiful), ethical (and immoral). Education should prize students who act morally and give students a chance to produce as well as to appreciate natural and man-made beauty.

Certainly, when it comes to this agenda, one can make use of standardized tests—especially if by standardized one means tests that embrace a common standard. I am not a fan of short-answer tests because they can't really assess understanding. The world does not come with four choices, the last one being "none of the above."

However, I agree with the thrust of your question. The more time that we spend trying to isolate and transmit bits of information that lend themselves to assessment in a short-answer instrument, the less time that we have to present materials that are rich in content and that can engender understandings. So there is a certain incompatibility.

I heard you mention on a radio interview that some fine curriculums—like Facing History and Ourselves—are threatened by new tests that require students to have broad but not deep knowledge. What can educators do to communicate with the public about how valuable a deep approach is?

What's the point of knowing lots of disconnected facts—of having what Alfred North Whitehead called "inert knowledge"? Other than winning the jackpot on Jeopardy, I don't see the point. Moreover, with encyclopedias and Palm Pilots, all factual information can be readily at our fingertips.

The power of a curriculum like Facing History and Ourselves is that it delves deeply into consequential events, like the Holocaust or the Civil Rights movement. Students can begin to comprehend the reasons for these events, the processes that were involved, and the lessons that can be learned and applied in other periods. For me, it's a no-brainer that this is more valuable approach. But I'm afraid that many people who should know better mindlessly embrace coverage rather than uncovering.

You call yourself "a defender of the disciplines." But students often do not have the big picture and don't always value learning the basics of a discipline before they learn about what interests them. They don't see that a "disciplined mind" is worth working toward. They would rather skip ahead, perhaps blending insights from various disciplines. Does learning have to take place systematically to be most valuable?

Students can become amazingly flexible when they have a teacher who cares about a subject and who cares about conveying it to them. If a teacher who has earned the students' trust says, in effect, "Trust me this morning, this will be interesting and useful," he or she will usually be given the benefit of the doubt. I certainly believe that teaching should be systematic, but that does not mean that there is only one systematic way to teach history or biology. The system inheres in the manner of teaching, as well as in the subject matter itself. If students want to skip around or blend disciplines, let them do so; but our job as teachers is to help students be clear, systematic, and rigorous about consequential matters. There's plenty of intellectual and social chaos elsewhere.

Educators have been talking about the benefits of interdisciplinary teaching for years. Does the system of discrete disciplines pose an obstacle to interdisciplinary teaching?

We would not call someone "bilingual" unless she has mastered more than one language. I don't call courses or assignments "interdisciplinary" unless the user has mastered more than one discipline.

Most of what is called interdisciplinary work before high school is really pre-disciplinary work or commonsense work. The work might be fine, but it is inappropriate to call it interdisciplinary.

Comprenez-vous was Ich sage? (Do you understand what I am saying? in French and German.)

Two of the three subjects that you select as ways through which to approach the disciplines and probe essential questions—evolution and the Holocaust—are controversial to some parents. What is the best way to address controversy in the classroom, especially with so much diversity of students and divisiveness among groups of parents?

I've never suggested that everyone should study the Holocaust or evolution or Mozart (though those are the three topics that I would choose to focus on). I say that everyone should study topics as important as these. I hope that there will be plenty of discussion in communities about which topics are important enough to warrant sustained discussion.

It's not necessary that we agree on an ordering—just that we agree that some topics merit focus. I'd personally defend my choices—even to the Kansas Board of Education that recently dropped evolution from the state curriculum. But I realize that one can get derailed in some communities if one pushes too hard for certain topics.

Many teachers who have implemented MI theory in their classrooms are going to welcome your more complete explanation of ways to apply it. For the benefit of those who haven't read your new book, please describe what you mean by "providing powerful points of entry."

Mapping roughly onto the several intelligences, I describe seven different ways in which one can approach rich subject matter. These range from telling stories (linguistic) or developing hands-on activities (bodily-kinesthetic) to putting on plays or dialogues (interpersonal intelligence). When over time, one uses several of these entry points, one reaches more youngsters and one also conveys what it means to be an expert—someone who can represent a topic in several ways.

"Multiple intelligences" do not just provide various entry points to a topic; they offer the opportunity to draw comparisons or analogies from many different domains and to capture the key ideas of a topic in a number of different symbol systems (for example, ordinary language, poetry, static graphs, dynamic flowcharts, and so on).

What are some good ways to help children get rid of early misrepresentations and false notions about the world? For example, in your book you mention that children revert back to the Star Wars myth when trying to interpret history (believing that all struggles are between good and evil) or that they cling to presentism (interpreting everything by how it relates to their own times).

Children's early conceptions and misconceptions are much more powerful than anyone (even Piaget) has realized. Even when students spend years in school, they often retain the same simple ways of thinking about topics that they had already constructed when they entered school.

Alas, there's no single proven way to dissolve misconceptions. In general, they have to be slowly chipped away, to be ultimately replaced by more complex and more accurate representations. And so, to take your example, if one wants to go beyond a black-and-white view of all political struggles, it is necessary time and again to learn about a struggle from many different points of view (for example, the American Revolutionary War as seen in French and British textbooks) and to become convinced that any monocular view is too simple. This is not to deny that there are not examples of evil in the world; but even in the story of the Holocaust, one learns of good people on the German side and villains in many other lands.

Although many countries have a national curriculum, the United States has always believed in locally developed curriculum. The new charter schools movement could potentially increase the number and variety of these local approaches. In your book you mention six pathways that might be offered across the public schools in a given community. 3 Arranging a school along these pathways sounds a lot like doing what charter schools do. How do you differentiate between your pathways and the charter schools?

If there were in fact six different kinds of charter schools, and they were available as choices throughout the country, then there would be no difference between my "pathways" and today's charter schools. I have nothing against individual charter schools, but the charter school movement will not solve our country's educational problems, in my view. CHarters suffer from two flaws: CHaos (we can't have thousands of loosely regulated schools, each doing what it wants); and CHarisma (once the energy and commitment of the school's founders dissipates, it is unlikely that others will maintain that energy even in a school that has been working reasonably well).

There are good reasons that no other societies have tried charter schools on a massive scale and reasons that no other society threatens to get rid of its public schools. Having a strong public school system with one or a few well-tried pathways is the most sensible procedure to follow in precollegiate education.

How would students know whether the multicultural pathway, the technology pathway, or the understanding pathway might be more suitable?

Families, not children, should choose pathways. In general, families should remain with pathways, though I would not be rigid about this. The pathways should reflect the values of the family and not the individual style or preference of the student. There should be plenty of room in each pathway for any child whose family might select it. To put it more strongly: I would be against any school pathway that addresses only certain kinds of children. I find this to be antidemocratic in spirit.

A lot of teachers would like to know more about your thinking about the existentialist intelligence. Could you tell us a little more about the characteristics of a person with a strength in that area? For instance, it seems that the curriculum topics you describe in The Disciplined Mind (Darwin's insights into the evolution of finches, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, the Wannsee Conference) would appeal very much to a student who has a strong existential intelligence.

In my efforts to update MI theory in the light of new research, I am considering the possibility of existential intelligence. This term denotes the human proclivity to ask fundamental questions about life: Who are we? Where do we come from? Why do we die? Certainly kids resonate to these questions, and such queries also form the basis of much of our religion, art, science, and philosophy. One of the entry points that I mentioned above is actually called the existential, or foundational, one.

It takes as its point of departure the posing of such big questions. I see my three topics as my own answer to three existential questions: Where do we come from? (Evolution is the only scientific answer to this question; there are, of course, faith-based answers.) What are some of the wonderful things of which humans are capable? (To my mind, the music of Mozart is as good an answer as any.) What are some of the terrible things of which humans are capable? (Alas, the Holocaust gave new meaning to the word evil.)

Certainly, there are some individuals of all ages who love to think about these questions. I believe that they would resonate particularly to an existential entry point. 4

Do you have grandchildren yet? Looking into the future, how do you hope the public school system changes for them? Compared with your own educational experiences, did your children's schools offer them what they needed?

Four kids, but no grandchildren yet. My children have attended both public and private schools, and I hope that my grandchildren will have the opportunity to attend good schools, be they public, private, charter, pathway, or even home schooling. I used to think that schools were "good" or "bad" in quality, but I now realize that the match between child and school is equally important. And so, at the risk of sounding like Howard Gardner, I hope that my grandchildren attend schools that value deep understanding in the disciplines and that these schools can take into account my grandchildren's needs, interests, and strengths.

Like many others, I believe that the computer revolution is already changing how students acquire and use information; if our schools do not rise to this technological opportunity and challenge, they risk becoming completely anachronistic.

You write passionately about truth, beauty, and morality. Are these the ideals that inspired you when you began your education? Tell us about the early learning experiences that fascinated you.

I believe that the disciplines are among the most important of human inventions. They were invented many hundreds of years ago as a way of helping human beings think better about really important matters: who are we, what is this world made out of, what can we achieve alone and together, how can we control and adjust to our environments, what does it mean to do the right thing, and the like—in short, about the human search to discover what is truth, what is beauty, and what is goodness. Without the disciplines, we have no sophisticated mental furniture; we are, in fact, uncivilized.

As it happens, I believe that the disciplines are best learned in the formal kind of institution that we call schools. Most other things can be learned as well on the Internet or on the street; in the future, schools will show their worth if, and only if, they succeed in inculcating those precious habits of mind called the disciplines.

I went to public elementary school and private secondary school in Pennsylvania. My mind was really opened when I went to Harvard College and had the opportunity to study under individuals—such as psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, sociologist David Riesman, and cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner—who were creating knowledge about human beings. That helped set me on the course of investigating human nature, particularly how human beings think.

There are also clues in my early life about the three topics on which I've focused in The Disciplined Mind. My family had to escape from Nazi Germany and all of our lives were affected by teh Holocaust. As a child, I played the piano quite seriously, and as far back as I can remember, Mozart was always my favorite composer. I have always been fascinated by human biology, and if I were to become a scientist today, I would certainly go into some branch of biology. Darwin's theory of evolution provides the central key for unraveling the nature of life.

End Notes

1 Healy, J.M. (1999, May 23). Learning what to Learn. Boston Globe, D1.

2 Gardner, H. (1999). The disciplined mind: What all students should understand. New York: Simon & Schuster.

3 The six pathways are the Canon, featuring traditional historical and artistic values; the Multicultural, in which students study their own cultures and compare them with other cultures; the Progressive, which grows out of community study and involvement; the Technological, which emphasizes extensive technology use; the Socially Responsible, with a focus on national and global issues; and the Understanding, described here.

4 Gardner discusses the existential intelligence at length in Intelligence Reframed, just published by Basic Books.

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