Review of The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and Schools Should Teach, by Howard Gardner. (New York: Basic Books, 1991). Prepared by Ray Dalton for the 21st Century Initiative.


Howard Gardner is Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and affiliated with the Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Veterans’ Administration Medical Centre. He is also associated with the long-standing research projects, both based at Harvard: Project Zero, which seeks to assess the state of scientific knowledge concerning human potential and its realisation, and project Spectrum, an action-research programme on early childhood education.

Gardner’s research background has been in cognitive psychology and neuro-psychology. His accumulated works have drawn together insights from the whole range of cognitive sciences (philosophy, psychology, artificial intelligence, linguistics, neuro-science and anthropology) to address central problems concerning the nature of knowledge and its representation in the human mind. Most recently he has sought to follow and apply his provisional conclusions into the field of educational practice. His work has won world-wide renown and numerous awards, including a MacArthur Prize Fellowship, the National Psychology Award for Excellence in the Media and the Grawemeyer Award in Education.

His early works included:

  • The Quest for Mind (1973)
  • The Arts and Human Development (1973)
  • The Shattered Mind (1975)
  • Developmental Psychology (1978)
  • Art, Mind and Brain (1982)

These have been followed by three further books of great significance to Education:

  • Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences
  • The Mind’s New Science: A History of the Cognitive Revolution
  • The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach

Basic Thesis

The basic thesis rests upon what occurs in the mind of the child in the early years of life, before it enters the world of school and education.

Pre-school children develop models, beliefs and incipient theories front their earliest encounters with the physical and social worlds in which they live. They learn a vast array of knowledge, skills and capabilities quite naturally. They seem endlessly to pursue new learning and to develop intuitive understandings of how to interact with their experience.

All healthy young children growing up in a reasonably secure environment use two means of learning and of representing knowledge: the sensory-motor, acquired through the sense organs and by actions upon the world; a symbolic form of knowing in which they use the various symbol systems which have evolved over Millennia within the human cultures in which they live. Their achievements in these two forms of knowing may be exemplified in their riding, and steering, a bicycle and in their acquisition of their native language. The conceptions which evolve in children’s minds at this stage are often flawed, inadequate or plainly wrong. But they are perfectly adequate to make sense of the everyday world. If they believe, for example, that, self-evidently, the sun and the moon revolve about the earth, nothing changes.

So that, “Children by the age of five or six have evolved a quite robust and serviceable set of theories, about mind, about matter, about life, about self.”

The problem which provides the substance of all the consequent analysis and argument is this:

Conceptions about the world, its rules, stereotypes and values which become embedded in the “Unschooled Mind” of the five-year old child are remarkably robust and resistant to change. There is an overwhelming body of research evidence, accumulated in recent decades, that schooling (and later education) has little impact upon these intuitive and common-sense understandings.
“In this book I contend that even when school appears to be successful, even when it elicits the performance for which it has apparently been designed, it typically fails to achieve its most important purpose.” Which is to establish in every student some ‘genuine understanding’ of what the curriculum offers in its various domains. “We have failed to appreciate that in nearly every student there is a five-year–old ‘unschooled’ mind struggling to get out and express itself.” And that this remains the case after all the scholastic endeavour is done.

(For detailed discussion of the following examples see Chapters 8 and 9).

“Students with science training, when questioned about the phases of the moon, the reasons for the seasons, the trajectories of objects through space or the motions of their own bodies fail to evince the understandings that science teaching is supposed to produce. Indeed in dozens of studies of this sort, young adults trained in science continue to exhibit the very same misconceptions and misunderstandings that one encounters in primary school children.

“The same situation has been encountered in every scholastic domain……. In mathematics, college students fail simple algebra problems when they are expressed in wording that differs slightly from the usual from. In biology, the most basic assumptions of evolutionary theory elude otherwise able students who insist that the process of evolution is guided by a striving towards perfection. College students who have studied economics offer explanations of market forces that are essentially identical to those proffered by students who have never taken an economics course.

“Equally severe misunderstandings pervade the humanistic segment of the curriculum from history to art. Students who can discuss in detail the complex causes of the First World War explain equally complex current events in terms of the simplest ‘good guy – bad guy’ scenario. Those who have studied — poetry — show little capacity to distinguish masterworks from amateurish drivel, once the identity of the author is hidden from view.”