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Building the 21st-Century Mind

A professor of cognition and education reveals the five minds you need for success, how to make better decisions, and why ethics are critical.



Courtesy of Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He’s also the author of over 20 books and several hundred scholarly articles. Gardner is probably best known in educational circles for his theory of multiple intelligences, which is a critique of the notion that there exists but a single human intelligence that can be assessed by standard psychometric instruments. His most recent book, Five Minds for the Future, offers some advice for policy-makers on how to do a better job of preparing students for the 21st century. Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer chats with Gardner about his new book, the possibility of teaching ethics and how his concept of multiple intelligences has changed over time.

LEHRER: Your most recent book argues that we need to dramatically re-think the way we think, especially when it comes to learning. What's the problem with our current models?

GARDNER: As many people have pointed out, our educational system basically prepared individuals for the 19th and 20th century. In Five Minds for the Future, I describe the kinds of minds that will be at the highest premium going forward. Although our existing models of learning are reasonably good for developing a disciplined mind, they have almost nothing to say about the synthesizing mind, though it is arguably the most important mind for the 21st century. I don’t think that any of us knows how best to cultivate the creative mind; but our current ways of thinking and teaching are excellent at quashing the creative mind.
 
As for the last two kinds of mind I identify in the book—respectful and ethical—these are generally considered beyond the purview of theories of learning.  Respect should be inculcated from birth, and is best learned by example.  As for the ethical mind, that has been my chief research concern for the past 15 years.  Our current thinking about this vexing topic is best accessed via a visit to goodworkproject.org

LEHRER: Why are these five types of mind so important right now?
 
GARDNER: In writing this book, I was taking on the mantle of “czar.”  If I were the czar of education and of the work place, these are the five minds that, I believe, would most be at a premium, the ones that I would train, if possible, or select for, if necessary.

To summarize, they push the mind in three ways: disciplined (depth), synthesizing (breadth) and creative (stretch). There may be some division of labor across individuals, but everyone should have at least some experience with each kind of mind, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to work productively with others.
 
Despite the financial meltdown, the world is getting smaller every day. Unless we are able to respect those who appear to be different from ourselves, we are not going to be able to work with them. And unless we behave ethically and responsibly, we will not be able to enter into trusting relationships with others and it will become a dog-eat-dog world. Although the current financial meltdown is due to many factors, the lack of an ethical compass in major corporations and financial institutions is a major cause.
 
I make no claim that these are the only five minds, nor that they were unimportant in the past. What I do claim is that these are the five minds that we need to keep front and center going forward, and I suggest how they work and how they cultivate them—but those details are in the book!

LEHRER: In your book, you note that some people fake these essential skills. For instance, although they might appear creative or ethical, they're actually not.  How can we tell the difference between real achievers and the fake achievers?

GARDNER: A friend of mine once quipped: when hiring someone or deciding whether to work with them, you need at least 10 lunches." This is only a figure of speech, of course, but there are no short cuts toward making these assessments. People in business love tests for the minds, and they are disappointed when I talk about the limits of standardized tests. I think that two tacks are much more likely to be effective:
 
First, rely on the testimony of individuals who know the persons well, and don’t be afraid to probe or confront problems and inconsistencies. You can soon tell whether you are getting baloney or well sliced prime information.
 
Second, pose questions and challenges that reveal the ways in which the candidate approaches issues. For example, I do not find it credible when a person tells me that he or she has never faced an ethical dilemma. I probe for such dilemmas and if they are not forthcoming, I pose some dilemmas of my own and see how the candidate responds.
 
In general, however, I place greater weight on testimony from knowledgeable sources—as your question implies, one can often be fooled by a single interview.
 
LEHRER: Do you think the current economic downturn is attributable, in some way, to our failure to cultivate the right kind of minds?
 
GARDNER: Without question, the answer is yes. What came to govern decisions everywhere, including my own university was a reckless disregard for experience, due diligence, caution and contemplating the down side of decisions. If anything, “deciders” were selected and rewarded on the basis of whether they could cut corners and whether they could make it appear as if they were gaining ever greater profits.
 
I don’t want to claim that we were seers. But my colleagues and I began our GoodWork Project in 1994-’95, when we were skeptical of the claim that 'markets are self-adjusting and always lead to the best outcomes." In order for markets to work, one needs wise policies, wise policymakers, tough regulation and, above all, individuals who behave in an ethical way and demand ethical behavior from others.
 
Now 15 years later, people are approaching us from many sectors saying, "How do we secure good work? How can the young people, the future leaders of America, become good workers and citizens?" We certainly don’t have all the answers, but I'd like to think that we can prevent more damage and help orient individuals toward responsible behaviors—actions that in the long run serve the general welfare, and not primarily the pockets of the so-called “masters of the universe.”

LEHRER: You're probably best known for your extremely influential concept of multiple intelligences, which was first published in 1983. How have your ideas changed since then on the subject?
 
GARDNER: Unlike the work in Five Minds for the Future, which is basically a policy document, my work in Frames of Mind was a scholarly scientific effort. I sought to provide a view of the human mind—its development and its structure—that was more adequate than the view put forth in a “general intelligence” perspective. Since then, of course, many writers, most prominently psychologist and author Dan Goleman, have embraced a similar idea, which is extremely gratifying.
 
When I wrote Frames of Mind, the fields of genetics and neuroscience were much less developed than they are today. Each of the intelligences can now be differentiated further, and we know much more about the plasticity or flexibility of the human mind/brain than we did 20 years ago. In reworking the book, I would be able to provide a much more sophisticated view of the biological underpinnings of the several distinct intelligences.
 
Also, I now realize that many people, including me, confused intelligences with domains of performance. When someone performs in a certain area—say, for instance, chess—we blithely assume that he/she is using a certain intelligence or combination of intelligences. But that is simply an inference. In order to determine with some confidence which intelligences are being used, one needs to have psychological measures, neurological measures, and optimally both. Otherwise it is simply guess work.
 
As you may know, the biggest influence of the theory has been in schools, not in the academy. I don’t regret this fact, because I am as interested in changing how people think about things, as I am in rewriting the scientific canon.

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters editor Jonah Lehrer, the science writer behind the blog The Frontal Cortex and the book Proust Was a Neuroscientist. His latest book is How We Decide.

 

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