Smart Schools:  Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child  

by David Perkins (1992)

All books about education have to address the question of why what we have right now isn't good enough.  Perkins' answer:  fragile knowledge and poor thinking. 

Knowledge is "fragile" if it is:

*missing (students don't know enough),

*inert (students don't use what they know),

*naive (simplistically plausible but wrong ideas such as that summer is hotter because the earth is closer to the sun that linger even after studies should have dispelled them -- such as in graduating seniors at Harvard!), or

*ritual (part of the "school game" -- I don't understand this one:  seems like inert to me)

"Poor thinking": this is lack of facility with "thinking" strategies such as applying mathematical concepts to a "story problem" or organizing, drawing inferences, interpreting, and defending their analyses of events, literature, and facts.

Perkins presents lots of evidence to show that students come out of schools (and good colleges!) with too-fragile knowledge and some "poor thinking" habits.  He identifies a view of education as an accumulation of a large repretoire of facts and routines and a view of students he calls "ability-counts-most" (as opposed to "effort-counts-most") as two causes for fragile knowledge and poor thinking.

Perkins goes on to spend much of the book discussing the types of learning experiences which seem to result in more robust knowledge and better thinking.  The examples and studies he quotes are very interesting, but I would summarize it as:   students who are engaged and struggling with well-chosen tasks, problems, and controversies end up with more robust knowledge and better thinking skills.

Two points he makes that really struck me:

"Person-plus" versus "person-solo" intelligence: My ability to understand and contribute is greater if I have access to tools and repositories of information that I have mastered.  For example, this web site is, in some ways, part of the "person-plus" intelligence of Dave Shearon.   My familiarity with various software programs is part of my intelligence if I have access to those tools.  And, when presented with a challenge at work, the staff, vendors, and consultants I work with, and my ability to communicate and interact with those folks can increase my problem-solving capability.

The Cognitive Economy: Why should students work hard and struggle with problems?  It's easier to just remember the stuff until the test, especially if it is low-level "stuff".  What payoff should we expect them to see for working much harder to get a deeper, fuller understanding?  And, why should teachers ask them to do more.  Parents will complain.  Principals won't be supportive. And policy makers won't understand.  So, just "cover" the material, give "tests" aimed at low-level understanding, assign grades and move on.  But, many teachers want to see students learn, and learn well.  I believe this, coupled with the fact that value-added assessment analysis of standardized test data really does reward good teaching and learning, may be enough to motivate moves toward a "hot", more demanding cognitive economy.

Perkins includes a section on what he believes are the necessary components to successful, wide-scale moves toward better learning.  In my words, these are:

  • No piling on. (Can't be just added on top of all the other responsiblities of teachers.)

  • Let teachers create. (No teacher-proof packages.   Teachers must be engaged in thinking and working together on assessing and improving the learning experiences they offer students.)

  • Success for the average teacher and school. (Cannot be dependent on exceptional skills, effort levels, or "hot-house" support environments.)

  • Have strong support materials.

  • Cost only a little more.

  • At least match the results of the current approach on current assessments.


All in all, this is a very solid book.  Although I sometimes think Dr. Perkins turns three points into five by rephrasing things, the book is basically easy to read.  He illustrates points with examples from the literature and includes frequent, graphically identified summaries.


Copyright 1998, 199, 2000, 2001  by David N. Shearon