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Italian Magazine Interviews Howard Gardner

The Italian magazine Teatri delle diversità has published an interview with Howard Gardner in its May 2015 issue!

Answering questions about multiple intelligences theory, Project Zero, his life-long and wide-ranging research, the current state of education, the content of several of his books, and more, this interview with Gardner touches on a variety of subjects and is a must-read for Italian speakers interested in Gardner’s work. 

Click here to access a PDF of the article. The piece is also available online via the magazine’s website.

The English text of the interview has been reprinted below. (Thanks to Marcel Higuera Brunner for translating the interview into Spanish, available by clicking here.)

1. The international scientific community has recognized the importance of your theory of multiple intelligences and the idea that intelligence is not a single factor quantifiable by an I.Q. test. In the 30 years since your work on The Mind’s New Science, do you believe educators have sufficiently embraced the concept of the centrality of the mind and the role that context and culture play in the formation of an individual?

A: In the United States alone, there are close to five million K-12 educators, and there are certainly ten times as many in the rest of the world. I think it is amazing that many of these educators have heard of MI theory, in one form or another, though most would not have read my works or know my name. I feel that I’ve been successful in challenging the notion of a single intelligence that is adequately assessed by an IQ test or its equivalent.

But once one gets to more specific questions, like an understanding of the role of context and culture, I don’t feel that I can give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. So much depends on how the questions are phrased and the answers are interpreted.

Let me give an example. In the United States, if you ask teachers, “Are there children whom we should call ‘gifted?’”, many if not most will say ‘No.’ That’s the politically correct answer. But if you then ask the teacher to rank order students in terms of how well they paint or write or dance, they’ll have little difficulty in doing so. 

By the way that I phrase the question, I can make teachers (or for that matter parents) seem either sensitive or insensitive to culture or context. But I will say this: Individuals who have taught for several years, and who are reflective about their practice, are quite likely to be sensitive to culture and context.

2. Considering your experience, how—and to what degree—can an educational scholar or practitioner positively influence the promotion of innovative and research based learning theories within the educational system?

A: Recently, an American scholar, Jack Schneider, has published a book called From the Ivory to the Schoolhouse. In that book, he analyzes pairs of ideas—which superficially seem quite similar, but which differ widely in the degree to which they have been picked up by educators. He compared my well known theory of intelligence, with the theory of intelligence developed by my colleague Robert Sternberg, and proposes reasons why my ideas have caught on and influenced both educational theory and practice, and why Sternberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence has not had discernible impact.

Schneider emphasizes that the theories and research that have impacted practice are simple to state and also vivid to conceptualize; have immediate educational implications; do not cost a great deal to implement; and have found ‘translators’ and ‘advocates,’ who help teachers to understand and make use of the theory.

Of course, sometimes theories like mine are misunderstood and misapplied. Often the misuses are insignificant, but sometimes the misuses are damaging and need to be stopped. On a few occasions, I have had to be the ‘traffic cop’—explicitly denouncing practices that I feel are destructive or deceptive. I now have a website called multipleintelligencesoasis.org, where I identify good practices and malpractices.

3. You have visited and observed early education centers around the world and were one of the first to recognize the significant contribution of Loris Malaguzzi and his Reggio Emilia team. Did your expereince in Italy help further your research on the learning potential of the young mind as you observed children in this classroom setting?

A: Of all my educational experiences over a fifty year period, my encounters with the schools in Reggio have had the greatest impact. That’s because the efforts of Loris Malaguzzi and his numerous colleagues have expanded our understanding of the potentials of young children to make use of ‘the one hundred languages of childhood’; and they have amplified our knowledge of how best to work with children from six months until they begin to school. The Reggio team has built on the fundamental understandings of Piaget and Montessori. They have fashioned educational interventions that are appropriate for our time and for cultures around the world.

At Harvard Project Zero, a research group of which I was a founding member in 1967, we have carried on research inspired by our collaborations with the Reggio Schools. In the book Making Learning Visible we described the importance of collaborative learning and documentation; and in the book Visible Learning we expand the Reggio approach for use with children at different ages. (Principal researchers: Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardell, Melissa Rivard, Daniel Wilson)

4. You are the senior director of Project Zero, founded in 1967 by the philosopher and language scholar Nelson Goodman at Harvard University. This program has examined the learning process, from early childhood to adulthood, within institutions. Can you briefly summarize the latest findings of this research and the way it examines ideas around intelligence, creativity, understanding and ethics?

A: The easiest answer and most honest answer to this question is ‘No.’ Currently we have ten principal investigators at Project Zero, and each of them has instituted a separate and important line of investigation. These are best surveyed at our website pz.harvard.edu. 

But to respond to the spirit of your question, I’ll briefly mention three lines of work of which I have direct knowledge. Others are described below in response to other questions. 

A. Collaboration with Paul Salopek, a prize winning journalist who is taking a walk around the globe, simulating what homo sapiens did tens of thousands of years ago. Colleagues are developing materials that schoolchildren all over the world can employ to follow Salopek’s remarkable trek and to interact with peers who are trying to encompass their own neighborhood. (Principal researcher: Liz Duraisingh)

B. The ethics of the new digital media. Many assumptions about ethical behavior, having to do with truthfulness, privacy, intellectual property, and participation in a community, have been disrupted by the internet, the web, social media, search engines and the like. How do we re-negotiate moral and ethical behavior on this rapidly changing landscape? We’ve been studying both young people and adults as they attempt to choreograph and orchestrate their behaviors in ways that take advantage of the power of the media, but not at the expense of other persons. (Principal researcher: Carrie James)

C. Liberal arts and sciences in the 21st century. Four year residential education in the liberal arts and sciences is a genuine American invention. It is admired and imitated all over the world. But it is also in jeopardy in the United States due both to external factors (high costs, widespread demands for vocational education) and internal fractures (cheating, excessive drinking of alcohol, sexual misconduct, high-profile athletics). With researcher Wendy Fischman, I am carrying out a national study of how different ‘stakeholders’ think about this admired but increasingly fragile form of education. From our research on 5-10 campuses, we will make specific recommendations about how best to preserve and strengthen education in the liberal arts for our time.

5. In the volume Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed: Educating for the virtues in the 21th century, you claim that researching truth, beauty, and and goodness are profound human needs and, therefore, a fundamental basis for individual learning and growth. Could you briefly outline how public schools could incorporate this awareness into educational systems?

A: I think that every educator, indeed every human being, is concerned with what is true and what is not; what experiences to cherish and which ones to avoid; and how best to relate to other human beings. We differ in how conscious we are of these questions; how reflective we are about our own stances; whether we are aware of how these human virtues are threatened by critiques (philosophical, cultural) and by technologies (chiefly the digital media). A good educator should help us all to navigate our way in this tangled web of virtues.

In work that I’m currently undertaking, I speak about the naive or ‘unschooled’ view of the three virtues; how we should be schooled with respect to the virtues in formal schooling; and how we should continue to wrestle with what is true, beautiful, and good (and what is not) once we have left formal schooling. This is by no means an easy task. And yet, a continuing conversation with other persons, with cultural products, and with oneself, is a large part of what it means to be a human being, in our time and perhaps in all time.

6. The title of your current course at Harvard, which is taught to a very motivated and qualified group of international students, is called Good Work in Education: When Excellence, Engagement, and Ethics Meet. It picks up on the research of the Good Work Project founded by you in 1995 together with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and William Damon, later folded into the broader Good Project. Today, what does it mean, at all levels and all roles, to do “good work” in the field of education? Additionally, given your more than 20 years of  research and collaboration, can you articulate a sort of  “Code of Responsibility” for those working in the field of education in various contexts (teaching, administration, academia)?

A: Our general scheme of good work entails three characteristics, which, in English, all begin with the letter E. A good educator is technically EXCELLENT—he or she knows his subject matter, good pedagogy, and his or her students; a good educator is ENGAGED—he or she finds it meaningful to teach, and looks forward to the classroom encounters; a good educator is ETHICAL—he or she tries to figure out what is the proper course of action to follow in difficult situations; reflects on the choices made; and, in the future, tries to adjust his language and actions accordingly.

Note that the three Es are separate; one can be technically excellent but not engaged; one can be ethical but not excellent;, etc. It is a constant challenge to maintain all three Es. We have created a Good Work Toolkit to help educators attain and retain the capacity to carry out good work under challenging circumstances (see thegoodproject.org).

We devoted a whole book to the question of what does it mean to be “responsible at work” (see Responsibility at Work). A good educator has a variety of responsibilities: to her students; to the subject matter or discipline; to the institution in which she teaches; to parents and colleagues; and to the broader society in which she lives. Of course, even to monitor these responsibilities can be overwhelming; and no one can possibly be equally responsible to all constituents at all times.  That said, if one develops good habits and routines, it is possible to be a responsible educator most of the time; and to marshal the special energies and reflection for those times, when the correct course of action is not clear, or when one is weighing one wrong against another wrong.

7. We live in a society dominated by the idea of science and technology and increasing globalization. In your text Five Minds for the Future, you outline five mind capabilities: discipline, synthesis, creativity, respect and ethics. How is it possible to “educate for the future,” integrating these principles?

A: In writing about “five minds,” I was certainly keeping in mind the reality of globalization. Only individuals who have cultivated these kinds of minds are likely to thrive in a complex, interconnected and rapidly changing global world.

In directing the book toward educators, and also toward leaders in corporate and political institutions, I was trying to call attention to capacities that we take for granted (e.g. respect) as well as ones that we may not think much about (synthesizing, ethical choices). As with the Three Es of Good Work, it’s difficult to address all five minds; and yet the best educators and the best leaders never lose track of this quintet. And all of us, as workers and citizens, should attempt to keep these five minds in mind.

How does one synthesize or integrate these minds? In the book, I come to the conclusion that such synthesis is an individual project: no one can synthesize your five minds for you. Also there is inevitable tension across the minds:  respect can be in contention with ethics; discipline can pull in a different direction from creativity. And so, while synthesizing is usually thought of with respect to knowledge, this form of synthesis is an individual one, turned inward, and constantly being re-calibrated in light of our goals, values, and rapidly changing  national and international conditions.

8. In your recent book The App Generation, co-written with Katie Davis, you examine ideas of identity, intimacy and imagination in the adolescent population. To what degree do you feel today’s adolescent is dependent on digital life? What are the potentials and limits of digital technology as it regards adolescent development?

A: In every part of the world with which I am familiar, young people are completely immersed in the digital world—so much so, that it is inconceivable to them that they can, for long, be separated from their devices. Indeed, many of us who are not young, who are ‘digital immigrants’ rather than ‘digital natives,’ are also wedded to, if not dependent on, our digital devices.

The principal distinction in the book, written in collaboration with my wonderful former student Katie Davis, is between app-dependence and app-enablement. A person who is app-dependent is always searching for the best app; and as soon as its routine has been executed, the person searches for the next app. A person who is app-enabled also uses apps frequently. But he or she is never limited by the current array of apps; apps will free the person to do what he or she wants to do, or needs to do, irrespective of the next application of the app. An app-enabled person can also put devices away, without feeling bereft.

And best of all, persons can sometimes be app-transcendent: making dramatic progress or discoveries, without any dependence on any app. In this context, I like to mention Steve Jobs. While he had as much to do as anyone with the invention and development of apps, he NEVER was limited by the current technology—indeed, he typically transcended it and relied on his own considerable wits.

9. To celebrate your 70th birthday in 2013, Mindy Kornhaber and Ellen Winner invited 117 scholars and students to write something in your honor and you replied to each, resulting in the volume Mind, Work, and Life: A Festschrift on the Occasion of Howard Gardner’s 70th Birthday. Reflecting on your own career, what recommendations and warnings do you have for young researchers just entering the field?

A: The Festschrift is among the highlights of my life—what a privilege to have such wonderful colleagues and friends, to eavesdrop on what they are thinking about my work and me, and to have the opportunity to respond to them. And, for extra credit, to be able to post the entire 1500 page document on my website.

I have been an incredibly fortunate person in every respect. From an early age, I wanted to search and to do research, and I’ve had the privilege of doing so. And so my primary piece of advice is this: “Go for it, but with your eyes wide open.”

To unpack this slogan: If you enjoy reading, writing, learning, and sharing what you have learned, don’t hesitate to look for a life where you can continue to do those things. It could be as a scientist, an educator, an editor, a journalist, the founder of an organization. You only live once, and it is a tragedy if you deny yourself these options without trying to pursue them.

But don’t assume that the way that one searches and researches is the same from one era to another—it isn’t. In the 19th century, most research was done by amateurs: either individuals who were rich or individuals who had a day job. In the 20th century, most researchers worked at universities or think tanks and received money from the government or from foundations to pursue their work. In our time, the sources of support and the locations for research may be quite different.

Also, distinguish between the work and the job title. When I was leaving school in the early 1970s, many people wanted to be journalists, carrying out investigative reporting for print newspapers. Print newspapers may not exist in twenty years. But good thinking and good writing about issues that need to be reported and investigated will always be needed; but where this happens, what it is called, and who pays for it may be quite different than could have been envisioned by the great journalists of the past.

10. This interview cannot end without a question about that regards our periodical, Teatri delle diversità (Theatre of diversities). From your unique vantage point, how has the concept or definition of “diversity” changed over the last 50 years? What types of diversity has the research traditionally focused on and what are the new horizions for educational research today? What role could theatre play in regard?

A: In the United States these days, ‘diversity’ is a big word and a buzzword. Sometimes, it refers primarily to racial diversity (primarily, black and white); often it refers to any kind of ethical or cultural diversity; but it can also refer to political diversity (left/right) or to sexual diversity (gay/straight).

There is no question that diversity is much more on the radar screen than it was when I went to school over fifty years ago. When I went to Harvard College, nearly everyone looked alike (white male); there were few individuals who were openly gay; and most of us had middle-of-the-road politics. Today, our campus could not be different in every respect.

Being aware of diversity is important, and we as a society (both national and global) have made important progressive strides in the last half century. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement have been amazingly successful in many places, though there is still much more that needs to be done.

At the risk of sounding a bit off-key, I think that we need to pay as much attention to ways in which, despite these differences, we share our humanity. This is not only because our genes are virtually identical; but because, as a planet, we are at risk of destruction (for example, gradually by the warming of the planet; or rapidly, by nuclear war or a pathogen that gets out of control). And these threats require us to work together, and not just to announce our diversity.

The wonderful thing about the theater is that it can emphasize BOTH our diversity AND our common humanity. In many ways, the world of Shakespeare (or Aeschylus or Racine) is totally different from our world; and yet any human being can look through the differences in dress and mores and discover our common problems, passions, and potentials.

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