In a book published more than ten years ago,
David Perkins 1
makes the claim that,
People learn much of which they have a reasonable opportunity and
motivation to learn.
As far as I can see, this statement is true. In addition, he
specifies some very basic goals for education:
- Retention of knowledge
- Understanding of knowledge
- Active use of knowledge
These goals seem perfectly reasonable to me.
Perkins goes on to suggest a minimal notion of what a teacher and
school should provide:
- Clear information
Descriptions and examples of the goals, knowledge needed, and the
For example, when I learned to fly, I knew I had to learn to pilot
the airplane slowly, at 1.2 times the speed at which the
airflow over the wings starts to burble and the airplane loses
lift, and while doing this to maintain altitude within 100 feet
(30 meters) and turn to a specified heading within plus or
minus 10 degrees.
- Thoughtful practice
Opportunity for learners to engage actively and reflectively whatever
is to be learned adding numbers, solving word problems, writing
My flight instructor and I practiced for hours. I made a habit of
saying out loud what I was doing, so he could understand my reflections.
- Informative feedback
Clear, thorough counsel to learners about their performance, helping
them to proceed more effectively.
My flight instructor always told me both what I did right and what I
did wrong. He tried to provide a `sandwich', telling first what I did
right, then what I did wrong, then what I did right. (Sometimes he
had a hard time finding `bread' to surround the `meat'.)
- Strong intrinsic or extrinsic motivation
Activities that are amply rewarded, either because they are very
interesting and engaging in themselves or because they feed into other
achievements that concern the learner.
I enjoyed flying more than I expected, even though much of the time I
When you teach this way, students learn.
These conditions also give you a chance to evaluate whether a teacher
or school is doing a good job.
In the early 1990s, Perkins found two kinds of problem:
- The first has to do with the kinds of knowledge that do not help you
or anyone else; indeed, which may hurt you:
- Missing knowledge: knowledge that
students should know that is not remembered, like whether
Jim Crow laws helped blacks. Present knowledge of this
sort helps when you decide for whom to vote.
- Inert knowledge: knowledge that
simply does not do anything for the student, even when
present, like failing to understand when to use a loop in
a computer programming class although loops have already
been studied. Active knowledge of this sort helps you
become a programmer.
- Naive knowledge: false beliefs that
students still hold even after study, like the idea that
winter is colder because the earth is farther from the
sun. Truth helps you situate yourself.
- Ritual knowledge: the learning of facts
without knowing the underlying reasons of why, like not
knowing when to convert a practical question, such as how
long a car trip is going to take, into an arithmetic
problem. Knowing why helps you decide when.
- The second problem is poor thinking.
Perkins suggests two deep causes: one is the `trivial pursuit'
theory and the `ability-counts-most' theory.
- When students think in terms of gathering as many
facts as possible, they tend not to think about what they
- When students figure that ability is most important,
they do not strive very hard. So they do not learn.
Indeed, Perkins says that although some students will take longer to
learn certain things, they will learn them if given the time and help
Moreover, Perkins says that
... a new and better method is a red herring. ....
This is because, as he says,
- We have plenty of sophisticated instructional methods but do not
use them, or not very well.
- Most instruction does not even meet minimal criteria for sound
methods, never mind sophisticated ones. Our first urgency is
putting into practice reasonably sound method.
- Given reasonably sound method, the most powerful choice we can
make concerns not method but curriculum not how we
teach but what we choose to try to teach.
All these concepts come from the beginning of Perkins' book; they
prefigure the concepts of
misleading metaphors that I have discussed, and more generally,
explain why societies sometimes make the
disastrous decisions that Jared
Diamond considers. The failures mean that given the constraints under
which we live, people will make bad
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