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Education & Harvard Icon: Howard Gardner Reveals

CJW, October 16, 2010 5:45 PM


"If I were trying to select a school system for my children or grandchildren, I'd beware of Ministers bearing misconceptions, I'd look instead for ones who . . . "  -- H.G.

The Ministers' Misconceptions
Howard Gardner
The GoodWork Project
Project Zero, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Copyright © 2010

Of all the findings from cognitive psychology that are relevant for education, one that stands out is the repeated demonstration, across a number of disciplines, of the prevalence of misconceptions and the difficulty of getting rid of them and replacing them with more powerful and more veridical conceptions.

The most famous examples occur in physics.  Students at outstanding universities, who have studied the laws of motion and have done well on standardized measures of achievement in physics, are asked to explain a new phenomenon - one that they have not studied but one governed by the laws of motion. Not only do these star students typically fail on these performances of understanding, but more dramatically, their responses are often indistinguishable from those obtained from students who have never studied physics. Comparable examples can be found in biology, astronomy, psychology, economics - indeed across the disciplinary spectrum.

These difficulties can be blamed in part on inadequate instruction, but they also reflect a disturbing reality. When young, without the need for formal instruction, nearly all human beings develop "folk theories" of how the world works:  the physical world (if an object is broken into tiny, no-longer-visible parts, it ceases to exist);  the biological world (all organisms were created at a single, pre-historical moment) and the social world (people who look different from me are to be feared and shunned).

More effective theories can only be constructed in the mind of the learner through effective teaching and significant involvement with the materials (object, data) for which the disciplinary understandings are appropriate.

Nowadays almost everyone goes to school. And even in the remaining unschooled societies, there is informal tuition. Nonetheless, misconceptions continue to hold sway. Here are the some of the powerful misconceptions about learning and teaching that characterize the folk theories of human beings:

1.    Education involves the transmission of ideas and skills from older and more powerful persons to those who are younger and under the control of their elders.

2.    The young mind is a blank slate on which correct ideas and needed skills need to be implanted.

3.    Learning should occur bit by bit; to the extent possible, errors should be identified, discouraged, corrected.

4.    The best way to teach - indeed, the only effective way - is to reward correct answers and punish wrong ones.

5.    On any dimension worth considering, you can array people from the best to the worst (a so-called "league table").

6.    If someone does not do what you want them to do, just ask them to do it, louder and louder, over and over again.

Now, since misconceptions like this are part of the human condition, it is not surprising that most children and most parents embrace them. But that does not mean they are correct, any more than that the world is flat or that all creatures were created at the same moment. Indeed, considerable social- scientific research over the last century calls each of these so-called truisms into severe question.

It might seem reasonable to expect that those who are in charge of educational policy should have moved beyond these misconceptions. And indeed, if engaged in quiet discussion, at least some policymakers reveal their awareness of the relevant research.

And yet, in observing ministers of education all over the world, I find them remarkably tied to these powerful, though erroneous ideas. Indeed, I sometimes think that for most Ministers of Education, their only goal is to improve the performance of their nation in the international comparisons, independent of the worth or utility of that comparison. In fact, I've recently encountered an ironical twist on this: The absolute standing of Scotland is less important than its relative position vis-a-vis England. Better to be 20th if Britain is 21st, than to be 10th if Britain is 9th.

Going beyond this "league table" mentality, I am constantly surprised at the persistence, in ministerial talk and writing, of allegiance to:

  • the "transmission theory" of education;
  • the focus on rewards (even monetary ones) and punishment;
  • the notion that the best questions have a single correct answer and a resulting suspicion of multiple plausible answers, productive errors, creative leaps, etc; and
  • the preferred solution to poor performance on tests - the administration of more and more tests. It is like the misguided belief that if the patient is sick, the royal road to health involves repeating measurement of temperature.

I don't mean to demean all Ministers of Education. As already suggested, some of them know better, and a few try to do better. It may be that there is something about the air in the ministries of the world, and in their all-too-frequent meetings with one another, which reinforces the worst of these misconceptions and repeats them endlessly to the public at large.

Of course, we do know a great deal about what actually brings about strong achievements in education around the world: 

  • plausible goals, understood and subscribed to by the range of constituents;
  • awareness of the changing nature of knowledge and the need to prepare learners for an uncertain future;
  • respect for teachers who, because of their knowledge of content and pedagogy and sensitivity to individual differences, merit respect;
  • regular parental involvement;
  • instilling in young people a love for learning that endures throughout life, even when no one is looking.

If I were trying to select a school system for my children or grandchildren, I'd beware of Ministers bearing misconceptions, I'd look instead for ones who understand these equally simply, and yet surprisingly elusive powerful ideas.

Previously Published by The Daily Riff.
Bold emphasis added by editors.


Howard Gardner is the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Among numerous honors, he has received honorary degrees from twenty-two colleges and universities, and is author of over twenty books translated into twenty-seven languages, and several hundred articles.  Gardner is best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences.

Gardner's newest book, Five Minds for the Future, outlines the specific cognitive abilities

that will be sought and cultivated by leaders in the years ahead and provides examples from history, politics, business, science and the arts to inspire lifelong learning.  His full biography can be seen here.

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