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School Reform: The Unschooled Mind
  
Shaun Kerry, M.D.
Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology


One group of classes that I did
not regret taking in high school was English. (Another was civics.)  In fact, I get very nostalgic about my experiences in those classes.  Though it didn't occur to me at the time, because I was an avid scientist, those classes were fun. They were relaxed, interactive, and unforced.  Sometimes we gave oral book reports in front of the class,
which was a good experience.  Speaking in front of a group was definitely educational.  The following is the first in a series of book reports on topics related to school reform.

The Unschooled Mind was written by Howard Gardner, Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  Mr. Gardner states that without the help of a grammar book or a trained language instructor, all normal children readily acquire the language spoken in their vicinity.  In fact if many languages are spoken, children can learn them all.  Furthermore, during the first years of life, youngsters all over the world master a breathtaking array of competencies with little formal training.  They become proficient in singing songs, riding bikes, and dancing.  They can throw and catch balls.  They are able to deceive someone else in a game, even as they can recognize when someone is trying to play a trick on them.  They develop clear senses of truth and falsity, right and wrong, and beautiful and ugly.

Nonetheless, these same children frequently encounter difficulties when they enter school. Tasks assigned in an academic setting and attached to a grade are often burdensome and met with resistance.  Somehow the natural, universal, or intuitive learning that takes place in one's home or immediate surroundings, seems of an entirely different order from classroom learning that is now required throughout the literate world.
    

      
Mr. Gardner contends that even when schools seem to be successful, they usually fails to achieve their most important missions.  Evidence for this comes from an overwhelming body of educational research that has been assembled over the last decade, much of which claims that even when students score well on tests and receive good grades,
they typically do not display an adequate understanding of the materials and concepts with which they have been working.  He goes on to give a number of examples. This section is the book's greatest strength.

I found this part of the book very helpful and consistent with my own experiences.  But at this point, the author describes a complex theory which he calls the unschooled mind, which he offers to explain this phenomenon.  He explains this theory in terms that are so intellectual and complex that it would be difficult if not impossible to apply it in a classroom.  There are numerous side journeys into the history of western thought that reminded me of my college days.  Adding these relics of the past simply overcomplicated the issue.

I think that if you cannot explain an idea simply and plainly, then you probably don't understand it yourself.  There is a word that is used in psychiatry called "circumstantial," that is used to describe a person's thought processes.  The humorous, plain-English definition, is that you ask someone what time it is, they tell you how to build a watch.  Furthermore, they still haven't told you what time it is.  Yet the author does begin with a partial definition and description of the problem.  It is useful confirmatory evidence.

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