howard_gardner's picture
Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Author, A Synthesizing Mind
(1) African Civil Wars; (2) Evolutionary Theory Is Not Intuitive; Creationism Is

Two stories, one of global importance, the other of importance in the areas in which I work:

Global: At any one time in recent years, there have been civil wars raging in several countries in Africa. Thousands of individuals die each year. Last year, according to one authority, 1/3 of the African countries were at war. Yet because the political aspects of these conflicts are no longer of interest to Americans (because the Cold War is over), the economic stakes have no global importance, and African populations do not capture the attention of well-off Westerners, one needs to be a specialist to find out the details of these conflicts. The contrast with the attention paid to the death of an American youth, particularly one from a middle-class family, is shocking and hard to justify sub species aeternitas. Of course, mere knowledge of these conflicts does not in itself solve anything; but it is a necessary step if we are to consider what might be done to halt this carnage.

Local: In my own areas of psychology and education, there is plenty of interest nowadays in student achievement in schools. Yet the coverage of these matters in the press almost entirely leaves out knowledge which enjoys wide consensus among researchers. In the area of human development, it is recognized that youngsters pass through stages or phases, and it makes no sense to treat a four year old as if he or she were simply a "slower" or less informed middle school student or adult. In the area of cognitive studies, it is recognized that youngsters "construct" their own theories by which they attempt to make sense of the world; and that these intuitive theories often fly directly in the face of the theories and disciplines which we hope that they will ultimately master.

Because these points are not well understood by journalists, policymakers, and the general public, we keep implementing policies that are doomed to fail. Efforts to teach certain materials in certain ways to youngsters who aren't ready to assimilate them will not only be ineffective but they are likely to cause children to come to dislike formal education. And efforts to instruct that fail to take into account — and challenge — the often erroneous theories that youngsters have already developed will delude us into thinking that the students are actually understanding materials that remain opaque to them.

I think that this happens because as humans we are predisposed to come up with this theory of learning: Our minds are initially empty and the job of education is to fill those vessels with information. It is very difficult for humans to appreciate that the actual situation is quite different: in our early years, we construct all kinds of explanations for things. Our scholarly disciplines can only be mastered if we get rid of these faulty explanations and construct, often slowly and painfully, better kinds of explanations. Put sharply, evolutionary theory is not intuitive; creationism is. And that is why eight year olds are invariable creationists, whether their parents are fundamentalists or atheists.