Gardner on Education’s Future

Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore has published a featured interview with Howard Gardner about the future of education.

Discussing the effects of digital media and new technology on worldwide education as well as his own work with the city of Reggio Emilia in Italy, Gardner offers some advice for how we can navigate these changes adapt our schools in the years ahead as educators seek to prepare students for the realities of the 21st century.

Click here to read the article in Italian. Below, the English text of the original interview has been reprinted.

1. What is the role of the school in the knowledge economy of the 21st century? Which type of skills should the education system develop?

A: One answer is that the traditional school will be less important. Education will begin shortly after birth and will be lifelong—it will occur on line, at the workplace, in community centers, and with connections being made around the globe, not just with your neighbors.

Another answer is presented in my book Five Minds for the Future. I argue that in the future, individuals who succeed will need to have a disciplined mind (knowing how to become an expert in one or more fields), a synthesizing mind (which can put together disparate information in a useful way), a creating mind (raising new questions and solving difficult challenges), a respectful mind (being able to deal well with individuals near and far), and an ethical mind (handling the challenges that arise in the workplace and in one’s role as citizen, where one needs to behave in a moral way).

2. There is a big difference between the kind of approach to learning of the digital natives (the app generation) and the approach proposed by schools. How could this be managed, and how should the education system change?

A: With respect to the disciplined mind, individuals may be able to acquire disciplines/expertise more efficiently. But they can only do this if they can concentrate and practice regularly, and the digital media can challenge attention and concentration by presenting too much attractive material at the same time.

With respect to the synthesizing mind, there will be apps which can help one keep track of information and organize it. But the synthesis that works for you may not work for me and vice versa. And so one needs to take responsibility for one’s own synthesis.

With respect to the creating mind, web 2.0 presents wonderful opportunities to collaborate. But there may be more ‘interim’ or ‘medium-size’ creativity and less Big C breakthroughs.

As for the respectful mind, individuals need to be able to interact smoothly and appropriately not only with individuals who are near by but with individuals who are remote. This is a new challenge.

And as for the ethical mind, this needs to be rethought completely in a digital age. On the one hand, it is no longer possible for each nation to have its own ethics, because we live in a global society. On the other hand, all sorts of assumptions about privacy, intellectual property, trustworthiness, and what it means to participate in a community are being disrupted by digital technology. Cyberspace is a ‘wild west.’ We need to come up with new ways to ensure ethical and moral behavior.

How does this relate to the educational system? Unless the educational system takes into account the ways in which to nurture the five minds in a digital era, it will become increasingly anachronistic—no longer relevant. Individuals will develop their own approaches to life—which might be quite dysfunctional—or new institutions may be developed by corporate interests or by the wider society.

3. How could digital technology contribute to changes in the education system?

A: Clearly, many skills can be developed more efficiently and more effectively by digital technology—for example, apps can help one to learn the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) and many scientific and mathematical and computational skills can be presented via MOOCs (massive open online courses).

BUT I believe that person to person interaction, unmediated by technology, is as important as ever.

Young children need to be able to see peers and teachers face-to-face, to notice their reactions, and to develop trust. And older learners benefit from direct contact with mentors, who can guide them in the more complex parts of work and especially can provide ethical and moral guidelines.

To put this differently, an important part of life are human values—like honesty, trust, and decency—and these cannot and should not be presented online. There is a real danger that human beings will try to emulate computers and digital systems, and these are fundamentally different kinds of entities.

Also, I don’t believe that one can effectively teach humanistic, artistic, and social scientific disciplines except in the presence of other persons with whom one can discuss, debate, and collaborate face-to-face.

All technology is amoral. One can use a pencil to write beautiful poetry or to poke out someone’s eyes. By the same token, you can use apps or MOOCS to develop skills which can be used to harm or to heal. The difference comes from contacts between human beings in a human space who can look at one another eye-to-eye and see directly the consequences of behavior and misbehavior.

4. There is a big debate over whether—and how—digital technology could be useful to the education of the new “app generation,” and many people emphasize the risk connected to digital and the web. What is your opinion on the issue?

A: From our book The App Generation, I would add this point in addition to what I have already said: apps are procedures for getting tasks done efficiently. We all benefit from the existence of apps. But we should never decide to do something just because an app happens to exist, and we should never decide NOT to do something just because an app does not exist.

My collaborator Katie Davis and I make an important distinction. Human beings should avoid becoming app-dependent: always relying on apps to decide what to do and how to do it. We should become app-enabled: using apps to help us accomplish things that we want to do anyway, but using the extra time and facility to free us to accomplish things that are important to us, whether or not there is an app available.  

And we should all become app-transcendent as well, throwing away devices when they are divisive (causing harm) or when they keep us from being original. Steve Jobs had much to do with the ascendancy of apps, but he would never decide on something just because there is an app. He was able to TRANSCEND apps, and so should we.

5. How are you involved in the projects of the city of Reggio Emilia, and what do you think is the main feature of the Reggio Emilia experience relevant to school and education?

A: Like many other people, including my beloved teacher Jerome Bruner, I have learned a great deal from my visits to Reggio and from my research there, which now encompasses over thirty years! Observing the schools and the pace of life in Reggio has taught me much about the potentials of young children and also about the role of adults and the surrounding community in helping to develop thoughtful and engaged citizens. In Reggio, there are not artificial boundaries between child and adult, teacher and learner, public officials and ordinary citizens—people work together, unselfishly, for the health of the broader community.

Of course, there are tremendous challenges. And one has to be honest and say that with huge waves of immigrants coming to northern Italy, from dozens of different cultures, the tasks facing the schools and the broader community are greater than was the case thirty years ago. But Reggio does not run away from these challenges. It welcomes them and hopes to serve as a model for Italy and, indeed, much of the developed world.

On the subject of technology, Reggio has never spurned new inventions, digital or otherwise. Indeed, it has embraced the modern. (I remember the excitement thirty years ago when the first fax machines were introduced into the Diana School, and the children there exchanged messages with their counterparts at the Model Early Learning Center in Washington, D.C.!). But the city recognizes as well the importance of the human dimension.

The world over, Reggio is known from two elements: its delicious food (most notably cheese) and its excellent early childhood education. I hope that the world continues to benefit from both forms of nourishment.

6. There is a school reform movement underway in Italy. What suggestions would you give to the Italian or to any government wanting to modernize the education system and bring it in line with these new realities?

A: My major advice is perhaps an unorthodox one. Do NOT copy what is happening in the United States and the United Kingdom. An excessive focus on testing and evaluation of teachers and students can be damaging and counterproductive; so can an excessive dependence on technology. There is much to be learned from countries and systems that operate very differently, as, for example, from the Finnish educational system, as described by Pasi Sahlberg in his important book Finnish Lessons

Build on what is already strong in Italy—examples like the Montessori system and the approaches developed in Reggio by Loris Malaguzzi, Carlina Rinaldi and their colleagues. Take pride in Italy’s magnificent history, dating back to classical times and stretching forward to the Renaissance and to the remarkable artistic and technological advances in the post World War II period. Honor the rich diversity of your own village and city cultures. Make use of technology, but don’t let the technocrats dictate what should be taught and how it should be taught. Respect the Italy of Dante, Leonardo, Galileo, and Verdi, the beauties of Tuscany and Rome, and the civility of the hill towns that for a thousand years have been democratic. And don’t be seduced by Hollywood, Silicon Valley, or Wall Street!