Campus & Community

Howard Gardner’s ‘quintet of minds’

5 min read

Psychologist’s latest work is more than just descriptive

It’s been more than 20 years since Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner offered up a radical idea: that humans possess multiple forms of intelligence rather than just a single type that is easily tested by linguistic and logical-mathematical parameters.

His groundbreaking “Frames of Mind” (1983) changed traditional psychological views of intelligence, and helped educators question conventional teaching and testing.

In a new book this year, Gardner — the John H. and Elisabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) — goes beyond describing cognition. He ventures into prescription.

In HGSE’s traditional Burton and Inglis Lecture on Thursday (May 3) at Longfellow Hall, Gardner reached into his “Five Minds for the Future” (Harvard Business School Press, 2007) to describe a “quintet of minds” most needed in a changing and challenging future world.

Taken together, and working synergistically, he said, these five ways of ordering experience and informing action will shape resilient and effective students, citizens, and workers. We all face a world, said Gardner, that is — and will increasingly be — dominated by science, distracted by technology, overwhelmed by information, and marked by the interaction of diverse cultures.

The disciplined mind masters one or more ways of thinking used in a craft, discipline, or profession. “Be prepared to be an expert in something,” said Gardner, and to sustain that learning for life.

The synthesizing mind takes in a welter of information and transforms it into something brisk, clear, and repeatable. “We’re all inundated with information, but it’s largely undigested and unevaluated,” he said. “People who can’t (synthesize) are going to be at an enormous disadvantage.”

The creating mind challenges old ideas, uncovers fresh ways of thinking, and requires a “robust, iconoclastic temperament,” Gardener said. But the creating mind must first master one or more disciplines, and synthesize what is already known. “If you’re going to go beyond the box,” he said, “you have to have the right kind of box.”

The respectful mind learns tolerance for those who are different, and devises ways to understand and get along with others. “The respectful mind respects diversity as a fact of life,” said Gardner, and goes beyond “mere tolerance.”

The ethical mind takes a step back from the self, and considers the needs of society. Using this mind, a person acts appropriately as both a worker and a citizen.

In part to study how the ethical mind is formed, Gardner directs HGSE’s GoodWork Project, a large-scale study of the beliefs and practices of 1,200 young adults in the workplace.

So far, some of the GoodWork results are “disturbing,” he said. Nearly everyone knows what the right thing to do is — but only some do it. The rest defer truly ethical behavior to a future date, after ambitions are satisfied.

“Oh Lord, make me chaste,” said Gardner, quoting fourth and fifth century theologian St. Augustine. “But not yet.”

In students and professionals, there is often a “fault line” between cognitive knowledge (which is well defined) and ethical actions (which are not), said Gardner. In the spectrum of ethical action, there is “compromised work” (cutting corners, for instance), and there is “bad work,” he said. (Enron accounting practices, Gardner used as an example, or Jayson Blair’s dishonest journalism.)

All five minds — three of the brain and two of the heart — have to be cultivated both formally (in school) and informally (at home and in the workplace), he said.

Cultivating respect, an education of the heart, starts in infancy, with respectful parental attitudes toward others.

Discipline, creativity, and synthesis — the three cognitive “minds” — develop alongside literacy and computational skills. “Get there early” to cultivate a discipline, said Gardner, who believes in the plasticity of the young mind. “The train moves quickly.”

The ethical mind, he said, can develop after age 8 or so, when a person understands the rudiments of right and wrong.

To forestall any confusion, Gardner explained that the five “minds” are not the same as the seven multiple “intelligences” he described in 1983. (Now there are “eight or nine,” he said, including linguistic, musical, bodily, and special intelligences.)

These cognitive abilities, present in all of us to varying degrees, are innate turns of mind a psychologist could describe. The “five minds” are what a policymaker might wish for in citizens. “Nobody is born with any of these minds,” said Gardner of his five choices. “They all have to be developed and nurtured.”

For each of the five minds, Gardner gave an example of the real thing. (The creative mind is embodied in Albert Einstein; the ethical mind in Gandhi.)

He also warned that the five minds all have “false and inadequate” manifestations. In the creative realm, for instance, dead-end paths include “most best-sellers,” said Gardner.

The five minds are also interdependent, like gears in a clock. Respect is a precursor to ethical behavior, for instance. “And absent discipline,” said Gardner, “you’re not going to have synthesis or creativity.”

Why limit the prescriptive list to just five minds? (In the book, other early candidates get mention, including the technical mind, the strategic mind, and the spiritual mind.) In the end, Gardner — donning the guise of a policymaker — decided that it was “this pentad of mental dispositions” that the future world most urgently requires.

The audience at the lecture nearly filled the capacious Longfellow Hall. Most were teachers and scholars.

“As educators,” Gardner told them, “we need to keep all these minds in mind.”