©2001 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of David Perkins

Analyst: Lorraine Mueller


edited 8/18/11

I. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

HP: The goals of education are to teach for understanding; to help students learn to use knowledge to solve unexpected problems rather than simply recite back facts; and to develop a culture of thinking in the classroom so that students think critically and creatively thereby gaining intellectual empowerment. The primary skill worth learning is deep thinking which involves the flexible and active use of knowledge (8-16).

P: Developing a range of understanding performances in which students go beyond the information given and develop insight into many important concepts. Another knowledge and skill worth learning is thoughtful learning which is defined as learning rich with connection making, across subject-matter learning that is necessary for insight and deep thinking (SS:4-8).

SS: Generative knowledge: developing a knowledge base that encourages the learner to generate or learn/create new knowledge. Generative knowledge is the summary term that Perkins states encompasses the three general goals of any educational system. These three goals are:

1. retention of knowledge (in long term memory, beyond test taking)

2. understanding of knowledge

3. active use of knowledge beyond the classroom walls and academia (5).

II. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge? How is it different from a belief? What is a mistake? A lie?

SS: Broadly used knowledge includes factual knowledge, know how, reflectiveness, familiarity with problems as well as solutions, good questions to ask as well as good answers to give, and so on (5).

F&W: Belief; the acceptance of the truth without certain proof.

SS: Perkins uses the term Fragile Knowledge which includes but is not limited to naive knowledge and ritual knowledge.

Indirectly these two concepts address the question: how does knowledge differ from a belief? Naive knowledge is based on one s personal belief system (including religious, racial, and ethnic stereotypes), that are encultured in us and that remain even after considerable instruction to provide better theories and combat these stereotypes. Ritual knowledge, closely aligned with naive knowledge, is one s intuitive understanding of the world that remains despite instruction to the contrary. For academic purposes students learn the factually correct answer but do not incorporate this new knowledge into their knowledge base, rather they hang onto previously learned concepts about how the world works (23-27). Watson and Konicek s article Teaching for Conceptual Change...... in which grade school children are convinced that warm clothing makes them warm (has the property of emitting heat) offers a lively and illuminating example of fragile knowledge (WK).

SS: The Trivial Pursuit Theory- Learning is a matter of accumulating a large repertoire of facts and routines (31). Teachers mistakenly acquaint their students with as much knowledge or content as possible, sacrificing depth for breadth. Texts grow larger containing more and more superficial and disconnected information. Providing information in this format compromises the likelihood of the student s ability to understand and retain the information presented, two of the general goals of educated presented in Theory I.

SS: Success in learning depends more on ability than effort. (35).

Perkins argues that the American education model is more ability centered than effort centered and cites examples of Japanese and other cultures as well as research findings that support his theory that one s innate ability to catch on should not take precedence in educational models. Rather students, whether gifted or slow learners, should be given the opportunity and motivation to learn, keeping in mind (and allowing) that it just takes some longer to learn than others. Consequently, Perkins does not support tracking citing that slow learners will buy into preprescribed notions of the limitations of their abilities (35-37).

III. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species?

G&P: Human beings possess relational knowledge or understanding using symbol systems which they build into relational webs. In contrast, an unintelligent, mobile organism living in a complex environment survives by displaying a variety of behaviors designed by natural selection and genetic programming that help it to survive (evade danger), stay healthy (feed), and reproduce. The unintelligent organism does not understand its environment, rather it reacts to the environment. Those not so well programmed are selected out and become extinct. Humans, referred to as sapient organisms by the authors, symbolize to themselves and/or to others and can come to know and anticipate potential courses of likely consequences, using problem solving skills or what generalizes what to forecast likely outcomes in unfamiliar circumstances (116-117).

What are the limits of human potential?

G&P: There are no limits of human potential- human potential is seen as open-ended.

The organism can always build deeper and wider models of the way its world works; there is no intrinsic limit.(117).

IV. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are knowledge and skills acquired?

SS: The core concept underlying Perkins educational theory is that learning is a consequence of thinking, deep thinking (8). And, as stated in section II:people learn much of what they have a reasonable opportunity and motivation (both intrinsic and extrinsic) to learn. (45). Knowledge and skills are acquired through clear information input, reflective and abundant practice and informative feedback which includes authentic assessment Authentic assessment requires the learner to pull together concepts learned in the subject matter, open ended rather than one right answer questions, complex projects and the like, taking into account that individuals possess many different styles of learning (177).

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (HP,SS) credited to Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, is presented by and incorporated in Perkins concept of SMART SCHOOLS. This theory states that individuals perceive the world in at least eight different and equally important ways and that these dimensions are associated with distinctive symbol systems and modes of representation. They are logical/mathematical, linguistic, musical, spatial (E.G. graphic arts), bodily-kinesthetic (sports, dance), interpersonal intelligence (management, politics), intrapersonal (self-reflection) intelligence and naturalist, the latest addition (SS: 66). Symbols, including but not limited to, include words and diagrams, and are found in abundance in mathematical equations, music and the visual arts and other cognitive areas and are the medium of exchange and information sharing between people in these areas. Utilization of these symbol systems are the means by which skills and knowledge are acquired. An effective educational system would support all of these kinds of intelligences (HP/SS: 142).

The slogan less is more encapsulates Perkins belief re: effective learning and teaching strategies. Less subject matter (content) and deep probing of selected subject matter result in better learning (SS: 34).

V. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach?

SS: The teacher is to pass along the executive function to learners as soon as it is feasible and reasonable; i.e. depending on the students maturity and the teacher s assessment of the students ability and readiness. The teacher s role is perceived by Perkins as that of guide and mentor (151).

HP: (Teaching the arts); bring artists into the classroom to act as performers, mentors or teacher trainers.

By what methods?

SS: The three basic tools cited to elicit thoughtful learning are:

1. Socratic method-discussion, debates, asking probing questions.

2. Didactic instruction- lecture, utilizing teachers and texts.

3. Coaching for understanding performances through practice, self-assessment and informative feedback(53).

SS: Peer collaboration, peer tutoring, and cooperative learning are also cited as valuable teaching methods ( 186).

Resources such as writing material and computers should be available. Project Zero (HP) recognizes that the mastery of new technology, especially computers is paramount to advance learning and to provide access to new realms of knowledge.

Teaching for transfer using the methods of bridging and hugging is another essential teaching method suggested by Perkins. In bridging, teachers help students connect and apply the knowledge and skills learned in one context to other situations, perhaps another subject (across subject-matter learning) or with elements outside of the classroom (real life situations). In hugging, instruction is kept close to the target or desired performance. Problem-based learning is identified as a special type of hugging in which knowledge is not presented in advance but is looked up or researched by the learner in order to solve the problem . Knowledge acquired by this method is thought to be more flexible and better organized in the student s mind and more likely to generate application of the knowledge in future situations (PS: 22-29, SS: 126, 150).

More playfully, Project Zero (HP) supports devising games, interactive exhibits, and other activities that apply to a variety of learning skills. Teaching methods are the chief strength of Perkins educational theory. He states that more research as to why students are not learning as well as they could be is unnecessary. Instead he proposes that we (educators) need to use the information we have already gathered more effectively (SS: 2,3). Smart Schools literally explodes with with both suggested and innovative state of the art teaching methods that are currently being utilized in some educational centers.

What will the curriculum be?

SS: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences asserts that to date conventional educational practices (in the United States) have focused primarily on linguistics and mathematics. A more complete curriculum would honor people s varied abilities and would allow the visual arts, dance and sports, interpersonal and intrapersonal skills a more substantial and salient presence in the classroom (66,67).

No one particular curriculum is proposed by Perkins, instead he cautions that in planning a curriculum that the focus should be on the three general goals of education outlined in the Theory of Value and that those involved in the planning should beware of the pitfall of trying to include everything (4). Beyond reading and writing, Perkins states that the natural sciences, social studies, mathematics and literature are particularly rich sources of generative topics. Computer programming and the Arts are recognized as essential components of the modern, comprehensive educational institution (93-98).

What Perkins does propose is the Metacurriculum. In the Metacurriculum instruction is geared towards levels of knowledge (content, problem solving, epistemic, and inquiry); languages of thinking (thinking in terms of the English language, graphic organizers, thinking strategies and the like); intellectual passions (strong sense critical thinking, dispositions; integrative mental models; incremental rather than entity learning, learning to learn; and teaching for transfer (126).

VI. Theory of Society: What is society?

Though Perkins does not define the term society in Smart Schools it is stressed that he is addressing public education schools for everyone, schools as part of a massive committed mission to bring to all of a population with its multifarious ambitions, misgivings, talents, and quirks basic knowledge, skills, and insights (1). Schools are presented as providing an indivisible benefit which is consistent with the consensus model of society. Subsequently, seeking to expand on the core concept of SMART SCHOOLS (learning is a consequence of thinking, deep thinking) Perkins quotes from his colleague Vito Perrone s Letter to Teachers: There is, it seems, more concern about the mechanics of reading and writing rather than whether children learn to love reading and writing, learning about democratic practice rather than have practice in democracy; hear about knowledge ... rather than gain experience in personally constructing knowledge; see the world narrowly, simple and ordered, rather than broad, complex, and uncertain (31-32). This quote offers overtones of the individualistic model of society.

Project Zero (HP) goes on to state that it endeavors to form students who are ready to face the world as

responsible members of a diverse society. The society that Perkins is addressing is democratic and heterogeneous

(American society). In conclusion, while recognizing society as diverse (and thus paying tribute to the individual), the phrases face the world and responsible members of are consistent with the consensus model of society (CG:3,4).

Consensus Model Individualistic Model



What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Project Zero (HP) includes schools, various cultural institutions, museums and the business world as part of the educational process. In Smart Schools Perkins states that ideally the thoughtful learning culture nurtured in the classroom should extend beyond the classroom walls and impregnate the students daily lives. In other words, the institutions involved in education are only limited by the students life experiences which can either inhibit or enhance contact with potential institutions that can serve to educate (202).

VII: Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Upon examining the vast number of educational research projects in which Project Zero (HP) is engaged leads one to conclude everyone in answer to the above questions. The current list of research projects includes, but is not limited to: adult learners, children and adolescent learning (The Good Work Project), The Evidence Project (K-8 classrooms), children as individual and group learners, and parents (Parent Partners). Smart Schools further reinforces this conclusion when Perkins states Schools for everyone...... (SS: 1). This mission was previously and more fully addressed in the opening statement of the Theory of Society (VI).

As previously stated Perkins primary focus is on the public school, particularly grade school and secondary education. Early childhood education was not found to be featured in his writings. Though the teaching methods of the metacurriculum could easily be applied to post-secondary education, this is not the audience he addresses. Slow learners and at risk learners, i.e. students coming from home environments that forecast poor academic achievement were addressed by him (SS:14).

VIII: Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved?

As presented in Perkins Fragile Knowledge Syndrome people disagree because of learned racial, religious, and ethnic stereotypes which persist despite often intensive educational efforts to expel these stereotypes (ritual knowledge). Americans live in a pluralistic society representing diverse cultural and family backgrounds


Consensus is achieved through cooperative learning techniques. Perkins states that initially students may experience difficulty working in this environment since they may have only had solo learning experiences (which Smart Schools recognizes as the classical type of learning experience in American schools) and they are used to doing what they or the teacher, text wants them to do (which potentially can preclude the active use of knowledge per Perkins). But with properly mediated guidance (from the teacher) students can become familiar with consensus patterns such as pair problem solving, tie-breaking techniques and so forth, which would enhance collaborative learning. Perkins contends that we learn from each other, in many instances better and more deeply than from the text , hence the emphasis on cooperative learning (SS:149).

At the outset, for students inexperienced with cooperative learning, Perkins suggests step-by-step direction to allow students to become familiar with and learn to effectively employ this technique. As students become better versed in this technique they should be able to work more independently and the role of the teacher fades(SS:149). Further description of cooperative learning and its benefits was previously addressed in Theory V By what methods?

Theory VIII:Whose opinion takes precedence or WHO S BOSS WHEN (SS:148)?

Traditionally, Perkins contends that teachers and textbooks have maintained the executive function in the classroom. While not suggesting that students have initial near-total freedom , in which they would lack the essential knowledge base about the subject needed to explore the given topic, he does suggest that the teacher, acting as mediator and guide retain the executive function only temporarily and that eventually it should be returned to individual students or groups (SS:150). This question ties in with the question asked in Theory V: Who is to teach? After examining Perkins theory using different sources, this author contends that, in the final analysis, the teacher, acting as the interpretive authority, and his/her opinion would take precedence.


CG- Clabaugh, G. K. (1999). Understanding Schools SCHOOL & SOCIETY A Systemic View. Oreland,PA:

New Foundations Press.

F&W-(1968). Funk & Wagnalls STANDARD COLLEGE DICTIONARY. A Division of Reader s Digest Books,

Inc. New York.

G&P-Gardner, H., & Perkins, D. N. (Eds.). (1999). Art, Mind, and Education. (pp. vii-x, 111-130).

Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

HP- Harvard Project Zero; Research Projects (2000). (On-line).

Available http://pzweb.harvard.edu/Research/Research.htm

P- Perkins, D.N. (October, 1991). Integrating the Curriculum; Educating for Insight Educational

Leadership, 4-8.

PS- Perkins, D. N. & Salomon, G. (September, 1988). Teaching for Transfer. Educational Leadership, 22-31.

SS- Perkins, D. N. (1992) . SMART SCHOOLS. New York: The Free Press.

WK-Watson,B & Konicek, R. (May,1990). Teaching for Conceptual Change: Confronting Children s Experience. Phi Delta Kappan. 680-684.