Have you recently talked with a three year old, and come away slightly dazed at the degree of sophistication in her conversation - the concepts she understands and applies so appropriately to each situation? It never ceases to amaze us that children can learn so many complex skills and abstract concepts in the first few years of life, seemingly without effort, and with no organised instruction from the environment. These skills include oral language speech and comprehension, pretend play, drawing and building, gesturing, using numbers and music...and I'm sure you can think of more!

But wait a little while, till the child completes a few years of schooling, and the picture is quite different. The same child may find the tasks of a school curriculum difficult and at times almost impossible to master. There is a lot of misery associated with school the world over - and it is clear that not all children can handle the demands of school with ease.

Howard Gardner's book 'The Unschooled Mind' is about this very paradox - why do children, who are obviously capable of tremendous self-directed learning almost right from birth, find the requirements of traditional schooling so difficult? Even those fortunate few who take to academic work like ducks to water, haven't necessarily learned what schooling intended them to learn. They fare well in standard examinations, and can answer a restricted class of questions, but are unable to apply their acquired learning in new adaptive ways.

Gardner describes this as a gap between what passes for understanding, and genuine understanding. In the book, he examines two sides of the paradox. First, he tries to understand why such a gap occurs, linking the reasons with the nature of the unschooled mind. The five year old, he argues, is possessed of remarkably tenacious and deep-rooted theories about the world around, which do not easily give way to theories from textbooks. Secondly, Gardner gives some suggestions as to how this gap might be closed - a radical overhaul of education as we know it now, no less! Indeed the subtitle of his book 'How children think, and how schools should teach' is the perfect summary. He deals comprehensively with both themes, giving the reader a good review of all the relevant research, but doing so in such a way that all is absorbed with minimum fuss.

The book is divided into three sections - the first describes the development of a child from birth to five years, the second describes traditional school environments that five year olds all over the world have to enter. In the 'third part, Gardner proposes some creative ways in which education can change, taking into account how children think and what we would like them to be capable of after twelve years of schooling.

Gardner's account of child development includes summaries of the major theories in the field. He spends most time developing his own theory of child development, based on research he and his colleagues have conducted. Like Jean Piaget before him, Gardner is a stage theorist, believing that development occurs in qualitatively different stages, the child capable of new and different things in each stage. This is in contrast to the information processing view that development occurs more continuously, quantitatively, and that the underlying reasons for what we see as qualitative shifts are increased memory capacity, speed of processing, more general knowledge etc. It is true that stage theories are very creative and account for the data in interesting ways, and information processing accounts are rather dull - yet the latter account for the findings almost as well, and some psychologists feel the burden is upon the former to justify their complex theories. Gardner doesn't touch upon these questions much.

Apart from being a stage theorist, Gardner is also of the belief that development is inherently modular in nature. He suggests that there are seven different symbol systems children develop over the first few years of life -language, number, pretend play, two-dimensional drawing, three-dimensional modelling, bodily expression and music - and that each system progresses independently of the others. There is an inevitability about this progression, and yet there can be, according to Gardner, enough individual differences among children that by the time they are six or seven, each has his own unique 'profile' of strengths. Clearly, behind the theory there is a 'rich store of valuable observation - he and his colleagues observed a cohort of nine children in close detail from their first to their eighth year. But there is something mysterious about Gardner and the magic number seven. As you may be aware, he is well known for proposing the existence of multiple intelligences, exactly seven of them! (He wrote the famous 'Frames of Mind - a Theory of Multiple Intelligences' in 1983, in protest against the widespread use of I.Q. tests, and the assumption that intelligence is a unitary construct.) Although I do see a link between the seven symbol systems and the seven intelligences, the correspondence is not a simple one-to-one.

Perhaps the best part of this section of the book is his description of the intuitive explanations children develop at this age theories of number, of mechanics, of living 76 things, and of mind. If, while you are reading this book, you can spend some time watching preschool children, you will enjoy recognising some of these theories in their words and actions. Gardner's main point here is that these theories are serviceable, and very clear in the child's own mind. For example, they believe that one can 'transfer' a force to an object, making it move for as long as the force you gave it lasts; that everything falls, and heavier things faster; that things that move of their own accord are living, and have 'innards' .

But most schools treat children like little 'blank slates' - all but ignoring the tremendous knowledge and capacities they already possess. Our methods of teaching are often unsuited to the way they think, and generally not capable of unseating their hard won theories of the world about them. In addition, of course, Gardner feels that not enough attention is paid to children's relative strengths in the seven symbol systems, nor is there a balanced emphasis on the development of all seven intelligences. This neglect, he says, is probably a reflection of the things that society values and wants schools to inculcate, i.e., language and logical/numerical reasoning. Thus even after a few years of learning physics, for instance, misconceptions in mechanics persist, and this is well documented in psychological research. So that after all those years of schooling, we have to acknowledge that our education failed, because so few leave school with a genuine understanding of what they have 'learned'. Gardner goes carefully into each subject - physics, biology, social science, literature, etc. - detailing the typical stumbling blocks for students in each. Chapters 8 and 9 make fascinating reading for teachers of all subjects.

In the end, Gardner's essential quest is for an education that combines a spirit of open-ended learning with rigour and structure. Two institutions can give us this winning combination - the museum and the apprenticeship. Science museums and interactive museums have recently become very popular places for children. There is a different quality of learning from exhibits that have been devised in special ways. Much of this is open-ended' discovery learning', long recognised in educational psychology as a good way to acquire information and concepts. And according to Gardner, this kind of learning is the best way to help the child discard those strong theories of the world in favour of the ones we really want them to have. Apprenticeships offer even more scope for genuine understanding and automatically provide the necessary structure and discipline. Novices watch experts working, and almost unconsciously pick up the tricks of the trade. Learning is contextualised, and the question 'Why do I have to learn this?' doesn't arise! Since experts are always concerned that their products are of high quality (because otherwise they won't sell), the student sees the need for producing good work. Learning on the job is widely considered the most effective way; but we never offer that to children in school. In fact I remember a friend of mine once said all children should be potentially good teachers, because that is the one job they have 'apprenticed' for throughout school!

Thinking of how one can put Gardner's ideas into practice excited me, but how can we possibly incorporate these aspects into schools the way they are? Perhaps as he says, we do not need 'to convert each school into a museum, nor each teacher into a master, but rather to think of the ways in which the strengths of a museum atmosphere, of apprenticeship learning, and of engaging projects can pervade all educational environments from home to school to workplace'. That much we can certainly do. This book gives us many valuable ideas that we, as teachers in alternative schools, can explore together.