“The Heart of Teaching”

Howard Gardner addresses the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner | Photograph by Jay Gardner

Howard Gardner ’65, Ph.D. ’71, first walked through Radcliffe Yard, where he today addressed the Graduate School of Education’s class of 2024, as a College freshman in 1961. Since then, the Hobbs research professor of cognition and education reflected, much about the world has changed. But some things have stayed the same: “Ever since 1967, this is the site—the cluster of neo-Georgian buildings—that I call my working home.”

Throughout Gardner’s six-decade career, he has researched child development, leadership, creativity, intelligence, higher education, and fulfilling work. While pursuing this research, he said, he’s thought often about “two well-known adages” that reflect truths about continuity and change: “There is nothing new under the sun,” and “you can never step in the same river twice.” (Because of the nearly 90-degree heat, Gardner delivered his speech through a pre-recorded video, with brief in-person remarks at the beginning and end.)

For today’s educators, perhaps change is easiest to see, as technologies such as video conferencing and generative artificial intelligence transform how students learn. Closer to home, HGSE, too, is in the midst of a transition, as Dean Bridget Terry Long steps down at the end of this academic year, to be succeeded for now by interim Dean Nosie Leseaux. “Thanks to Bridget,” Gardner said, “for many years a valued colleague, scholar, academic dean, and then dean. … You are still young, especially in comparison to some of us—indeed still a kid—with many more years of productive scholarship and service to go.”

But it’s also important to look out for continuities, Gardner said—from “the stability of the solar system” to “the familiar individuals and familiar conflicts” that characterize literature from different eras and around the world. Across the diverse work HGSE graduates pursue, the ability to identify continuity while responding to change will be important: “All of us in education—whether teaching preschoolers or mentoring post docs,” he said, “need to be aware of, monitor, and deal with the continuities in education, even as we need as well to monitor the changes.”

To demonstrate his point, Gardner expanded on three areas of research he’s pursued with Project Zero, an educational think tank housed at HGSE that seeks to “understand and nurture human potentials, such as learning, thinking, ethics, intelligence, and creativity.” This research has pursued truths that “could have been investigated in earlier times—that is continuity,” he said. “But they can and should be revisited frequently in terms of what we know today and what we will learn tomorrow—that is change.”

One of those research areas concerns the arts, which “used to be thought of as entertainment, just pleasure,” he said. But his research, he continued, helped show that arts are “highly cognitive, as well, involving thinking, problem-solving, problem-finding, and especially creating something new.” Another major area of inquiry has involved intelligence: “Sixty years ago, there was a widespread belief that intelligence is a fixed, single capacity,” he said, able to be captured by an IQ score. Gardner’s groundbreaking work on multiple intelligences showed that humans possess different forms of intelligence “that can be discovered, built up, put together in new ways,” he said. Where general intelligence was thought to be fixed, multiple intelligences are not: intelligences can be strengthened and supplemented, not just with other forms of intelligence but also with technology. “Perhaps, working together with ‘smart machines,’” Gardner said, “we can accomplish what not even the writers of science fiction in my childhood could have imagined.”

The final research area Gardner addressed—Project Zero’s “most sustained work”—concerns “ethics and morality,” he said: “What does it mean to be a good worker, and to do good work in our time?” To understand what constitutes good work, Project Zero studied more than 1,000 adult professionals, finding that good work consists of three elements: excellence (the worker is technically skilled), engagement (the worker looks forward to work), and ethics (the work avoids unnecessary harms to others and tries to achieve the profession’s core values). More recently, Gardner said, he and colleagues have begun to expand their work on ethics to include children. “We realize that ethics and morality begin much younger, when as human beings we just think of ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘we’ or ‘us’—or whether we take into account the needs or desires of others, the larger collectivity,” he said.

Continuity and change have also characterized Gardner’s teaching. When he was hired to teach developmental psychology at HGSE 40 years ago, he taught classes by himself. Then, he said, he began to collaborate with fellow cognitive scientist Kurt Fischer. The co-teachers, at first, spent most of their class time lecturing, then posed and answered questions at the end. “But then, around 1990—before most of you were born—there was a new technology,” Gardner said: video recording. “We both recorded all of our lectures in advance…this freed class time for discussion and debate.”

With the addition of another new colleague, educational entrepreneur David Rose, Gardner found his teaching practice transformed yet again. With Rose and Fischer, Gardner began to center his pedagogy around discussion: “The three of us taught together. No more lectures—we discussed themes with one another, then with the class, then discussion continued with teaching fellows,” he said. “This struck me as a great way to teach, and not one easily replicated online: walking up and down the aisles of Askwith Hall, and spilling over after class to the Gutman cafeteria or the sunken garden behind you.”

The fundamental principles underlying effective teaching stayed the same, even as the methods Gardner used to achieve those principles shifted. “The heart of teaching is thoughtful teachers interacting with one another and with students,” he said, “as old as Plato’s Republic and as contemporary as computer-based flipped classes.”

Concluding his speech, Gardner quoted the American historian Henry Adams, A.B. 1858, to remind the graduates that their work will have impacts beyond what they can imagine: “A teacher affects eternity; he never knows when his influence ends.” In the spirit of change and continuity, Gardner reworded the quote with a contemporary twist: “Educators affect eternity—they never know where their influence ends.”

Read more articles by Nina Pasquini

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