Educating for innovative societies

Professor Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, answers questions posed by educationtoday’s editor Cassandra Davis during his visit to OECD to present at the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation conference on Educating for Innovative Societies.

Cassandra Davis: In your book “Five minds for the future”, you call for the development of five types of thinking: the disciplined, synthesizing, creative, respectful and ethical. In your opinion, are schools equally responsible for the development of these minds? How could schools best develop these skills?

Howard Gardner: The traditional role of school is to develop minds that are disciplined—both in the sense of mastering the major disciplinary ways of thinking and in the sense of working steadily towards the development of any intellectual skill.  Synthesizing and creating are also intellectual/cognitive capacities, and thus within the purview of school, and they are more important in the 21st century than ever before. But educators have less experience in training these ‘habits of mind’ and unless teachers themselves have these latter skills, they will not be able to inculcate them effectively in students.

Ideally, the challenges of respectful and ethical minds would be taken up by the larger society—political leaders, media creators, parents, and workers. But in countries like the United States, we cannot count on much help from these individuals and institutions. Respect and ethics cannot be conveyed didactically—they have to be embodied in the behaviors and attitudes of the adults and older children in schools.  The creation of ‘common spaces’, where members of a school community can discuss challenging issues is one  step that can and should be taken.

CD: If you could change one thing in school practices, what would it be? Why?

HG: In psychology, we distinguish between the Figure and the Ground. The Figure is the dominant focus in a graphic presentation—for example, a portrait of a royal figure—and the Ground consists of the background shadows and patterns which support, rather than divert attention from, the Figure.  Throughout the developed and developing world, the Figure in recent years has become scores on standardized tests—and OECD has contributed to this focus. There is nothing wrong with having good test scores, but there is something VERY WRONG when societies prioritize scores over everything else.

And so, if I could change one thing, it would be to put another Figure at the center of our educational landscape: the kinds of human beings we want to nurture and the kind of society we want to create.  Everything in the background—including test scores—should contribute to those overarching goals.  Most of the problems in the world are not created by teachers or students with low test scores. They are created and magnified by individuals with high test scores—and that includes those of us who are reading (and in my case writing)  those words—who push self aggrandizement and power  ahead of the creation of a healthy society populated by ethical individuals. In the United States, we refer ironically to ‘the best and the brightest’—the Harvard and Yale graduates who brought us into the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the financial crises of 2001 and 2008.

If you think I have strong opinions about these matters, you are right!

CD: In your latest book “Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed,” you stress that, with technological advances, factual information has become readily available, and the need to memorize is no longer that important. How can students today develop critical thinking, and understand what is true and why?

HG: Yes,  when the answers to factual questions are available at the movement of a mouse or the click of a button, there is no point in spending time committing the information to memory. Recently, a talented student said to me “Why bother to go to school, when the answers to all questions are contained in my hand held device?”  I responded to him, rather pointedly, ‘”Yes, the answer to all questions, except the important ones.”

The student reflected an increasingly widely held view that either a question can be answered by a computer or it is not worth asking or it cannot be answered decisively and so should not be tackled at all.  But as your question indicates, we cannot and should not accept all information obtained ‘online ‘ or ‘offline’ as true—even if the authority is thought to be reliable.

And so, going forward, our focus in schools (and outside of school) should be on understanding the METHODS whereby assertions are made, the way that a question is posed, how relevant data and arguments are marshaled, what kinds of challenges have been considered, how have they been responded to, etc.  One should never read a single account of the causes of the French revolution or the role of heritability in the distribution of human traits.  Instead, one needs to probe deeply on how various accounts and graphics and data arrays have been created and used as a foundation for a conclusion.

Ironically, we live at a time in the history of the world where it is MORE POSSIBLE than ever before to determine what is true and what is not.  But one has to be willing to take the time to interrogate sources of all sorts and to change one’s mind if the data and arguments point in another direction.   In the future, we will pay increasing attention to those sources of information that are known to be DISinterested—not pushing a particular agenda, being ready to consider alternative points of view, to admit error and to publish corrections. Alas, these are not the first descriptors that come to mind when one considers the average blog!

For more information on Professor Howard Gardner visit his website:
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation

Photo credit: Ammit / © Shutterstock

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