Review of Schools for Thought: A science of learning in the classroom , by John Bruer. (Cambridge:MIT Press, 1993). Prepared by Education 2000 (July 1993).


While all children need both a body of knowledge and some basic skills to enable them to be functionally literate, a rapidly changing society demands that young people be able to rise above such rote, factual levels to think critically, and creatively; to be flexible, and spontaneously to be able to solve ill structured, ambiguous problems in areas in which they have little first hand information.

Current curriculum and methods can successfully impart facts and rote skills, but are far less successful in developing higher order reasoning skills, ie., pupils can memorise large bodies of information for limited periods, but do not necessarily understand what they are learning. They don’t internalise it. They don’t ‘work at it’ so as to give it personal meaning. They can recall the information (possibly highly effectively) but unless they really understand it they are unable either to use it in different unfamiliar circumstances, or through its practice to build up skills which are, in a real way ‘transferable’.

‘Transferability’ is at the nub of the issue about flexible skills, creativity and problem solving. ‘Transfer means applying old knowledge in a setting sufficiently novel that it also requires learning new knowledge.’ (Larkin 1989)

Does schooling have a ‘commercial value’ over and above the acquisition of tools of basic functional literacy, ie., can it create ‘higher order skills,’ not just accidentally for the few, but intentionally and specifically for the many? Why is it that some specialists are useless outside their own subject, yet others seem able to move rapidly into unfamiliar territory and quickly begin to make sense of this. What does one such individual ‘have’, that another does not?

The question of transferability has concerned theoreticians for years. In an age of rapid change it has to be a major concern to economic strategists, and politicians. Just how are transferable skills developed? What do we need to teach – or not to teach – that might develop these? Are some subjects of greater value in this than others? What is the most effective way of gaining such skills? We need to understand learning – we need a general theory into which we can relate our experiences.

The world did not need Isaac Newton to know that apples fall off trees, but it did need Newton to prepare a general theory that explained why they fell. With such a theory man was then able to go to the moon, and develop television. We need now a general theory of learning that will enable us to develop new, more appropriate forms of education. Cognitive Science has been developing rapidly over recent decades. The argument goes something like this.

1) The study of formal disciplines

From the days of ancient Greece and Rome the study of arithmetic, logic and geometry has been thought to build mental agility … practice was essential; ‘exercise in such subjects builds minds, as weight lifting builds muscles’. The 18th century, the period of the “enlightenment,” added grammar and the classical languages.

Many students of such subjects found that this did indeed give them mental agility, particularly but not exclusively, when dealing with material of a similar structure. But not all such specialists could exhibit transferable skills; some were specialists imprisoned within their subject. Edward Thorndyke in the early 20th century tried to establish common elements of knowledge which might give a scientific basis for understanding transferability; lacking the understanding of later psychologists and the ability of computers to simulate, and then analyse, the manipulation of symbol systems in the brain, Thorndyke concluded that there was no scientific basis to transferability. He was not able to construct the Theory of learning which he sought.

2) General methods and intelligent behaviour

More than half a century later, in the late 1950s, psychologists began to apply computational insights to issues of expertise, intelligence and transfer. They identified certain methods and strategies which looked to be common to learning in different domains – study skills, thinking skills and structured approaches to problem solving. Such ‘weak’ methods were thought in the late 60s and early 70s to be of universal application, the explicit teaching of which would help the novice learner deal with completely new subject areas. Early success, however, was not borne out by later results; learning needs content to work on, and content shapes particularly kinds of learning. ‘Hard methods’, specific it was thought to the ways in which the brain operates in particular areas of intelligence, had to be the way forward. ‘General programmes contrived to teach general skills are ineffective’ declaimed E D Hirsch in ‘Cultural Literacy’ as recently as 1987, ‘We should direct our attention undeviatingly towards what schools teach’, by that he means the content.

3) Expert domain-specific knowledge

By the early 1970s attention shifted to ‘hard methods’; methods directly related to forms of subject content where expert intelligent behaviour depends crucially on the knowledge people have, how they organise this, and the specific methods they learn or develop to process this. Experts, it was noted, had better memory for items in their area of experience, than elsewhere. Experts ‘chunked’ information – that is they turned large bodies of knowledge into pre-formed chunks, and memorised the whole simultaneously; novices do not have such skills (ie. in chess). Specialists also have the ability to ‘cluster’ related materials of considerable complexity.