Q & A with Howard Gardner

Make It Better was proud to co-sponsor Dr. Howard Gardner’s visit to the North Shore on Oct. 29 and 30 with the Family Awareness Network (FAN) and New Trier High School. Lonnie Stonitsch, FAN co-chair, managed to catch up with Gardner  post visit and had him answer the following questions.


MIB: Why did you write “Five Minds For The Future,” and how has it been received?  What are the Five Minds?

In background I am primarily a scholar, who has emphasized “description.” But after working in education for decades, I have formed some ideas about how schools/education should be in the future, and so I wanted to move toward “prescription.” I’ve thought a great deal about the trends of globalization, and wanted to put forth a portrait of education that incorporates the major changes that we are seeing worldwide.

None of my books are best sellers, but they tend to have long shelf lives. “Five Minds” has had a good reception both in business and in education, and it is already being translated into at least fifteen languages.  Perhaps most satisfyingly, individuals in education and business are already devoting attention to how best to nurture and assess these minds, a task barely begun in my book.

The five Minds are the Disciplined Mind, Synthesizing Mind, Creative Mind, Respectful Mind and Ethical Mind.

MIB: You’re well known for your theory of Multiple Intelligences. What is the difference between “intelligence” and “mind” as you frame the terms?

Gardner: “Mind” is a very general word, referring to the entire realm of psychology. As a psychologist (rather than biologist or theologian) I like the word and have used it in many book titles. ‘Intelligences” as I define them, are specific human computational capacities—such as musical intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, etc.

MIB: On the North Shore, academic competition is fierce, and can lead to unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. What is your advice for families trying to navigate this successfully?

Children almost never admit to listening to what their parents say but they almost invariably notice what their parents do. If parents are calm about college admission, do not place huge pressure on their kids, and indicate that they are open to many possibilities-—including some time off—this can relieve the pressure on all persons. Also, and I can’t stress this enough, one can get an excellent education at hundreds of schools. Any notion that it is Yale or nothing else, is simply wrong … and destructive.

Developing respect for others can begin shortly after birth. If it is encouraged and modeled and if disrespect is sanctioned, a respectful mind is likely to develop.

Ethics is far more complex. It entails an abstract attitude—not just “Howie,” but “Howard as teacher” or “Howard as citizen.”   Not surprisingly, ethical senses often fail to develop in young persons … and in those of us who are no longer young.  My colleagues and I are devoting a great deal of our efforts to figuring out how best to encourage an ethical stance. Obviously role models, positive and negative examples that are spelled out, and a healthy institutional culture are crucial.  You can read more about our efforts at goodworkproject.org  or  the recently launched goodworktoolkit.org

MIB: What can schools do educationally to cultivate the Five Minds?

Gardner: In general, the best way to inculcate the five minds is this: make sure that the older persons with whom students come into contact exemplify these five minds, and show how to deploy them appropriately. If parents, teachers, and other figures exhibit the key features of discipline, synthesizing, and creating; and if they are respectful and ethical, the message will come through to younger persons.

However, the reasons for these kinds of minds will often not be clear to young persons. Indeed, the models prevalent on the mass media, and the personalities often featured on TV or in magazines, often do not exemplify these models in the slightest. And so, strange as it may seem, one has to spell out for growing young persons why one should be ethical; what are the costs for disrespect; the reasons for achieving discipline, etc.

Examples from history current events, the arts, literature—both positive and negative—can be very helpful.  Barack Obama is an exemplary respectful figure; Charles Darwin and E. O. Wilson are superlative synthesizers. Still there is no substitute for flesh-and-blood exemplifications of each of the minds.

More specific comments:

Disciplined Mind: this is the form most familiar to parents and teachers—working steadily, achieving expertise.  However, people often confuse facts and figures with the deployment of scholarly disciplines.  In fact, disciplines involve characteristic ways of thinking, and unlike facts and figures, they cannot be easily accomplished. They require lots of examples and practice. Understanding historical causality, and how it differs from scientific causality, is a demanding assignment.

Synthesizing Mind:  The ease with which information can be acquired is a helpful first step to synthesis.  However, students need criteria by which to decide what to pay attention to and what to ignore; and how to put information together so that it will be credible and understandable. In the future, we will need to teach synthesis much more explicitly than in the past. I offer some suggestions about how to start in “Five Minds For the Future.”

Creating Mind:  It is easier to thwart—by insisting that everything has only one right answer-—than to nurture. Probably the most important consideration is the willingness to take a risk, try something new, and when it does not work out, see what you can learn from it. Fortunately, for those of us in the United States, there are many models of “thinking outside of the box”—in Hollywood, Silicon Valley and (sometimes inappropriately) on Wall Street. So creativity is not as much of a stretch for us as for those in some other societies.

Respectful and Ethical Minds: See my comments below and, especially, goodworktoolkit.org

MIB: Which Mind are you most excited by? Is there any one of them that you consider to be the most important to cultivate?

Gardner: All of the minds are important. At present, the most vital ones are ethical and respectful—otherwise the world will turn into an armed camp…or worse   But the one most interesting to me is the synthesizing mind.  All of us are deluged with information, and only the skilled synthesizer can decide what to attend to, what to ignore, and how best to present the materials to others … and to oneself.

MIB: Please tell us about the GoodWork Project, which you co-founded in 1995 with William Damon, Ph.D. and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D. What is “good work,” and why is it even more important today to talk about it?

Gardner: As we have come to understand it, after 15 years of research and practice, Good Work is composed of three elements: excellence, engagement and ethics. While it is possible to develop one or two of these factors, the complete good worker always strives to be excellent, engaged, and ethical’; and when he or she fails, as we all sometimes do, tries to learn from the failure and to do better next time.

Our own research indicates that young people today would like to be good workers, but feel that they need to cut corners in order to succeed. Obviously this is very troubling and that is why we have developed the GoodWork Toolkit and are spending a great deal of time trying to convince individuals of the importance of good work … and helping them to achieve it.

MIB:  By your standards, who are some exemplary leaders in the world today?

Gardner: Among the best known figures are Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela, and Angela Merkel.   Yo-Yo Ma is very special!  I also admire greatly Bill Drayton, who started Ashoka, Wendy Kopp, who started Teach for America, and Alan Khazei, who was one of the founders of City Year. Alan is now running for the Senate in

MIB: Several faculty and administrators from New Trier High School have attended summer institutes at Project Zero at Harvard University over the past few years. What is Project Zero, and how does it add value to their work?

Gardner: Project Zero is a research group at Harvard, focusing on education and “high” end thinking.  It’s been in existence for over 40 years and I am thrilled to have been involved with it from the start and to have co-directed it from 1972-2000. We carry out research, develop ideas, and ‘give them a push in the right direction.”  To learn more about HPZ, see pzweb.harvard.edu.

MIB: If parents want youth to conduct themselves ethically, to serve others and act altruistically, how can they be effective in this role, especially in today’s society?

Gardner: If you take your signals primarily from others, or from the media, then of course you will value money very highly. You need to identify your own values, live by them, and encourage your offspring to do the same. And if your values are askew, or your life belies your values, look into the mirror and strive to change them.

Here is the “elevator speech” I’d give to President Obama:

“Our society has been dominated by the 3 Ms– Money, Markets and Me.

“We need to flip them ninety degrees to the three Es of Good Work and Good Citizenship—Excellence, Engagement, and Ethics. Then we need one more flip—to W— for We.

“You can’t look to other persons to be admirable or altruistic– you need to join in with others, in a wider community effort.”