Howard Gardner: teach students how to ‘synthesise’, not memorise

Father of multiple intelligences theory says pursuit of deep inquiry is ‘a foolish investment’ in today’s AI-driven world

November 22, 2020
woman looking at painting in gallery
Source: iStock

Universities should train students to understand “the bigger picture”, according to a leading US psychologist who claimed that higher education institutions should reorient their teaching to combine professional training and the liberal arts.

Howard Gardner, Hobbs research professor of cognition and education at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, said that the US liberal arts model was being “increasingly squeezed out and there is more and more push towards professionalism” in education, even as early as the secondary school level.

However, rather than simply attempting to revert to a broad liberal arts education, Professor Gardner said that US institutions could strike a happy medium, not least because “the pressures are too enormous to focus in on some professional track”.

“The best schools are the ones that are somehow going to be able to intertwine a pre-professional education with a broad education…In a sense I see that as the happiest future, both abroad and in the US,” he said, citing Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts as an example.

Professor Gardner is best known for his theory on multiple intelligences, which debunked the primacy of the IQ test by identifying eight different types of intelligence. In his memoir, A Synthesizing Mind, which was published in September, he argues that the ability to survey experiences and data across a wide range of disciplines and perspectives is a particularly valuable, but underappreciated, attribute in today’s world.

“There is tremendous pressure now in all of the developed world to be able to do things with great precision on one topic. That’s a foolish investment, because that’s exactly what’s going to get replaced by machinery, whereas the interesting bigger, broader issues – what to pay attention to, how to make sense of it – we’re not going to want to download those on to computational devices,” he said in an interview with Times Higher Education.

“The synthesising mind has been way underappreciated and under-scrutinised. Implicitly when you’re looking for a [leader] you’re looking for somebody with that capacity, but you assume it rather than realising that it’s a rare kind of capacity and one that is worth understanding and trying to cultivate.”

As a result, he added, academics needed to pay more attention not only to what they teach but how they teach it and to what extent they offer a broader context to students.

“Even if you’re teaching something that’s quite circumscribed, if you’re the kind of person and the kind of educator that wants to give the bigger picture and relate the subject to larger themes, then that becomes a very powerful educational tool,” he said.

However, he said that the tendency among scholars, especially experimental, empirical scientists, was to focus on being “terrific analysts” and exploring a narrow topic in greater and greater depth.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (2)

"Professor Gardner is best known for his theory on multiple intelligences, which debunked the primacy of the IQ test by identifying eight different types of intelligence." That claim doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, Gardner raised questions worth debating, but his definitions of intelligence have been criticised as tautological, and the empirical evidence for multiple intelligences is both scarce and weak.
If the analysis we use is based on sound scientific principles, then it should be applicable to other branches of enquiry. The fact that many academics know little beyond their home territory may have more to do with lack of interest than ability.