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Profiles In Education:
Interview with Howard Gardner, Harvard University
By Pola Rosen, Ed.D.

Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Education and Cognition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education is a seminal thinker with a great influence on what’s happening in education today. Sitting in his office in historic Cambridge, just steps from Harvard Yard, I couldn’t help but feel the aura of the man, the educator, the writer, the philosopher and the mentor to scores of students and teachers around the country. 

Perhaps best known for his theory on multiple intelligences (MI), Gardner believes that families should choose from any of 6-12 pathways of knowledge that fit into their cultural and intellectual style. Every pathway should have a few key ideas and “we should organize the curriculum around that.” Gardner underscores “organization” as being key and that he would opt to send his children to a “well-organized school that offers a traditional education as opposed to a multiple intelligences school that was chaotic.”

He continues that one of the most important things in the 21st century is synthesizing knowledge and that integrating knowledge across the grades in all curriculum areas is extremely effective. The Ross School in East Hampton, a school with which Gardner has worked for a decade, is a prime example. (See Education Update’s article on the Ross School, Sept. 2003 at www.EducationUpdate.com.)

The school with which Gardner has worked most closely over the years is the Key School in Indianapolis, the first multiple intelligences school in the country. Approaching its 20th year, the school reports that the students are excelling. On a recent visit, Gardner noted that all of them were learning the violin and were listening intently to an accomplished visiting violinist whom they later bombarded with questions. A general philosophy of MI prevalent in the Key school is that teachers are working together.

Gardner’s background as a young pianist, and a continuing interest in the arts, launched us into a discussion on the arts and their role in education. The forthcoming Rand Report, he stated, will emphasize that the arts are intrinsically important. Gardner shares Rand’s skepticism regarding correlations between raised test scores and studying the arts. The studies are colored. Students who major in the arts get higher test scores because they happen to come from schools that have more resources. “The truth is that the arts are one of the most wonderful things humans are capable of.”

Gardner does a great deal of work with cultural institutions and is involved with their education committees. He and his team provide soft evaluation rather than hard evaluation. That is, getting a sense of what an institution wants to do and giving it appropriate feedback. He has worked with Lincoln Center Institute and its leaders, Professor Maxine Green and Executive Director Scott Noppe-Brandon who, according to Gardner, “have ably fashioned the outstanding programs there.”

Commenting on the most effective approaches to teaching the arts, Gardner emphatically stated that a once a year visit does not impact on students’ lives. “Ninety percent of Americans have the one fifth grade visit to the museum of fine arts. But for an arts and music program to truly be effective, visits must occur on an ongoing basis, in addition to the need for preparing students prior to visiting with a debriefing afterward. It is crucial to introduce concepts and materials to the students before they view a program so that their final exposure to the arts is climactic. Of equal importance is following up with numerous experiences in the weeks after the program.”

I asked Gardner about his opinion of the tests recently implemented in New York City to decide whether fifth graders should be promoted or held back. He responded, “We know from the experiences in Chicago that children do not benefit from being held back. In fact, they may opt out of the public school system by dropping out. The way to raise test scores would be to eliminate the dropouts and test only the ones that remain. The mayor and the chancellor of NYC schools are ignoring the experiences in the Chicago public schools. The direction we should be going in is to provide individualized programs for all of our students.”

Gardner’s major work for the past several years has focused on examining successful professionals and their decision-making: whether they do what’s right rather than what’s expedient. His co-authored book, Making Good (2004) describes young professionals who would like to carry out work that is both excellent and ethical. Yet, determined to succeed, many feel they can’t afford to behave in an ethical manner, instead deferring such conduct to a time after success has been achieved. Gardner and his student Jessica Sara Benjamin found that one of the reasons might be the decline of community leaders which they called “trustees.” During the summer of 2004, they carried out a pilot project to investigate how contemporary citizens view trusteeship. [Trustees are defined as individuals who have earned the right to advise on consequential decisions for the rest of the society.] The pilot study revealed fascinating choices of trustees including Tom Brokaw, Thomas Friedman, Jimmy Carter, Ralph Nader, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Pope John Paul II, among others.

Gardner’s own personal choices of trustees include Jimmy Carter, Bill Gates, George Soros, Paul Farmer, and John Gardner (no relation), who headed the Carnegie Corporation and was a true public servant. When I asked Professor Gardner who his mentors were, Jerome Bruner headed the list. “I worked for him in 1965 on the fifth grade curriculum. He was not only a mentor, but also a role model. He is now teaching the role of narrative at NYU law school.”

At the close of the interview, I couldn’t help but think of the students fortunate enough to study with Professor Gardner and count him as mentor. We may indeed count him as our choice of trustee of the 21st century.#



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